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Tolling Agreement Supersedes Statute of Limitations in Legal Malpractice Case

The Illinois Appellate Court for the 1st District ruled May 7 that a legal malpractice class action against the law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary could not go on because it was filed well after a tolling agreement ended. In Joyce v. DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary LLP, 1-07-1966 (Ill.App. May 7, 2008), the court upheld the dismissal of a purported class action by stockholders of 21st Century Telecom Group, a Chicago telephone company, pursuant to a tolling agreement between 21st Century and DLA Piper.

The underlying dispute started in 1999, when 21st Century agreed to merge with competitor RCN. DLA Piper attorneys drafted a merger agreement with a mistake that lowered the price of the stock 21st Century shareholders were to receive by $19 million. In response, Edward Joyce, the stockholders’ representative, made a tolling agreement with DLA Piper, in which the statute of limitations was tolled unless a stockholder lawsuit was filed against the firm on or before December 31, 2002. The firm agreed not to avail itself of any statute of limitations defense until after that day. This agreement was amended four times, each time altering only the date. The last agreement set that date at August 21, 2005.

Joyce filed a legal malpractice class action in Cook County against DLA Piper on August 30, 2006. After some procedural disputes, including a finding by the trial court that the filing was timely, the firm won a motion to dismiss based on plaintiff’s lack of standing as a non-client. The plaintiffs appealed and the defendant cross-appealed on the trial court’s decision that the suit was timely.

The appeals court upheld that cross-appeal, finding that the plaintiffs were barred because they filed nearly a year after the last agreement expired. The court rejected the defendants’ contention that it was timely because each amended tolling agreement constituted a new contract that extended the statute of limitations.

Writing for the three-judge majority, Justice Grieman found the tolling agreement unambiguous in setting an end date of August 31, 2005. “Indeed, to accept plaintiff’s argument would require this court to allow plaintiff the benefits of the first four amendments without fulfilling the requirement of filing suit by the specified dates imposed by any of the amendments.”
The majority declined to take up the issue of whether the 21st Century shareholders could be considered clients of DLA Piper.