Articles Posted in Legal Malpractice

When the millionaire owner of a thriving business dies without a will, leaving only a wife and a child from a previous marriage to sort out his possessions, chances are things are going to get ugly.

That’s exactly what they did in a recent case before the Illinois First District Appellate Court, which held that a law firm hired to represent the deceased’s widow and the estate also allegedly owed a duty to the estate itself and can be liable to the estate for alleged legal malpractice if the allegations in the malpractice lawsuit pan out.

The estate case was hotly contested and was ultimately settled. Alma and her counsel denied all of the claims and the court made no finding of wrongdoing.

The appellate decision outlines the disputed facts at issue as follows. Scott H. died intestate in 2005, leaving millions of dollars in assets including the then successful Chicago Minibus Travel, Inc., which became the chief source of dispute between his only heirs, his widow Alma and son, Kyle, from a previous marriage. Alma was appointed the Administrator of Scott’s estate and hired the defendant law firm to represent her.

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Our Illinois legal malpractice attorneys were interested to see a recent decision allowing corporate litigants to assign their claims to former shareholders after a merger. Learning Curve International, Inc. v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP, No. 1-08-0985 (Ill. 1st June 18, 2009). In the underlying case, PlayWood Toys sued Learning Curve International for misappropriation of trade secrets. During that litigation, Learning Curve merged with RC2 Brands. Learning Curve settled that litigation, but then sued its attorneys in the matter and their law firms for legal malpractice. This claim gave rise to the dispute over assignment of claims.

Attorneys Dean A. Dickie and Roger L. Price represented Learning Curve in the PlayWood litigation, which began in 1995. Both attorneys were at the law firm of D’Ancona & Pflaum at the time, but due to personnel moves and mergers, Dickie was at Dykema Gossett and Price was at Seyfarth Shaw during the instant case. In April of 1998, PlayWood offered to settle its trade secrets claim for $350,000; Learning Curve counteroffered $225,000. There was no deal. A jury verdict reached in 2000 held Learning Curve liable for misappropriating the trade secret, but the judge granted a post-trial motion from Learning Curve for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, saying PlayWood had not proven the information at issue was a trade secret. PlayWood appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

While the appeal was pending, Learning Curve merged with RC2. As part of the merger, it agreed to indemnify RC2 from liability related to the PlayWood litigation. Learning Curve remained a separate corporation for tax purposes, but without separate operations. Five months later, the Seventh Circuit ruled, making Learning Curve liable for $6 million in compensatory damages and requiring a new trial on exemplary damages. Rather than face trial, RC2 settled with PlayWood for nearly $12 million, which came from an escrow account set aside for this purpose. RC2 and Learning Curve then agreed in writing to pursue a legal malpractice claim against the attorneys in the original case. This agreement gave former Learning Curve shareholders 90% of any proceeds, but explicitly said nothing in the agreement should be interpreted as an assignment of the claim or its proceeds.

RC2 and Learning Curve then sued Dickie, Price and all of their current and former law firms for malpractice, claiming they negligently failed to advise Learning Curve to settle for $350,000 and negligently failed to explain that they could be liable for millions, including exemplary damages. They sought the cost of the $12 million settlement and all attorney fees paid after the $350,000 settlement offer. The defendants moved for summary judgment on several grounds, saying the claim was not timely; Illinois law does not allow legal malpractice claims to be assigned; and that Learning Curve had not suffered the alleged damages because RC2 paid the settlement. The trial court granted summary judgment on the assignment of claim grounds and ruled that Learning Curve had no right to sue for any costs incurred after the merger. Learning Curve appealed.

The First District started with the issue of the alleged assignment of the claim. Illinois law generally forbids assigning legal malpractice claims, it wrote, and it looks at intent when judging whether a claim has been assigned. That means the disclaimer in the agreement between RC2 and former Learning Curve shareholders was not relevant. However, Illinois and foreign courts have allowed assignment of a malpractice claim in certain circumstances where many interests have passed from one party to another, including, in other states, as part of the transfer of assets in a merger. Because many assets are being transferred in this case, the court wrote, assigning the malpractice claim does not violate public policy. It reversed the trial court’s judgment on that count.

It also rejected the defendants’ argument that the two-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice in Illinois barred plaintiffs’ claim. The defendants argued that the clock started running after the bills came for the original trial in 200, in which Learning Curve was found liable. However, the court wrote, the judge in that trial granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict, leaving Learning Curve liable only for its attorney fees. It was not obvious then that the defendants’ advice was bad. Instead, the First District wrote, the clock started running on this claim after the Seventh Circuit’s verdict. Because this claim was filed within the two-year period from that date, the court wrote, it is not time-barred.

Learning Curve’s luck ran out when the First District considered whether it had any damages from the alleged malpractice. The trial court found that it did not because RC2 paid all post-merger costs, including the judgment from the Seventh Circuit and attorney fees, and reimbursed itself from the escrow account. The appeals court agreed, saying those payments did not affect Learning Curve’s assets. Furthermore, an indemnity clause in the merger agreement eliminated Learning Curve’s losses from those sources. However, the appeals court did say that Learning Curve’s former shareholders, who actually suffered the alleged loss, should substitute as the real parties in interest on the post-merger parts of the claim, writing that “if the defendants committed malpractice, the merger of the corporate client should not cause the claim to vanish.” Thus, the case was reversed and remanded to trial court.

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In a Chicago legal malpractice lawsuit, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled that the defendant is not barred from certain defenses because the plaintiff improperly joined the malpractice claim with its underlying action. Preferred Personnel Services, Inc. v. Meltzer, Purtill & Stelle, LLP, No. 1-08-0389 (Ill. 1st. Jan 23, 2009).

Preferred is a staffing company with a claim against insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Gallagher told Preferred that it had secured malpractice insurance for the company and accepted payment for those services, but Preferred later discovered that it had no insurance. Preferred hired Illinois law firm Meltzer, Purtill & Stelle to sue Gallagher, but the firm never started its case. More than two years later, Preferred and its new lawyers sued Gallagher for breach of contract, negligence and fraud. In the same suit, it also sued Meltzer and one of its attorneys, Thomas Palmer (collectively “Meltzer”), for malpractice.

Gallagher moved to dismiss because the statute of limitations had passed in 2001, a motion that was granted by the trial court and upheld by the appellate court. While that motion was pending, Meltzer moved to dismiss the claims against it, saying the malpractice claims were premature because the underlying claim was still viable until the appeals court had ruled. This motion was denied. After the appellate decision on the Gallagher dismissal, Preferred moved for partial summary judgment, asking the court to foreclose arguments by Meltzer that the statute had not run on the Gallagher claims. The trial court granted this motion, but also certified three questions for the First District Court of Appeal to answer:

A legal malpractice plaintiff who is also the executor of an estate may issue new creditor notices to avoid having his case dismissed, the First District Court of Appeal decided March 31. In Jaason v. Sullivan, No. 1-08-1254 (Ill. 1st Dist. March 31, 2009), the executor, Erik Jaason, filed a Chicago legal malpractice lawsuit against Barbara J. Sullivan and B.J. Sullivan & Associates for alleged mistakes in a will Sullivan prepared for Alexander Koepp.

In his complaint, Jaason alleges that Koepp instructed Sullivan to prepare a will giving Jaason the right to purchase Koepp’s home for $150,000, at Jaason’s discretion. However, Koepp’s home was already held in joint tenancy with his wife, Karsti Koepp. Thus, upon Alexander Koepp’s death in November of 2006, the property was outside the purview of the will and passed to Karsti Koepp under the joint tenancy, leaving Jaason with no option to purchase it. He sued Sullivan in December of 2007 for legal malpractice, alleging that her failure to recognize and take action on the joint tenancy fell outside the applicable standard of care.

In response, Sullivan filed a motion to dismiss the suit as time-barred. The Illinois Code of Civil Procedure requires that, in cases where probate has been opened, plaintiffs must file their claims for legal malpractice within the time given for claims against the estate or the time given for contesting the validity of a will — whichever is greater. The six-month window for contesting the will had clearly elapsed in the 13 months since Koepp’s death. To make a claim against an estate, creditors in Illinois have three months from the date they receive a notice of the death in the mail, or six months from the date of publication of the death as a legal notice, whichever is later.

Our Illinois legal malpractice lawyers recently noted an appellate decision from the Second District establishing that attorney fees are “actual damages” within the meaning of Illinois law. Nettleton v. Stogsdill, No. 2-07-1215 (Ill. 2nd Dec. 29, 2008). The ruling arose out of a legal malpractice claim by Margaret Nettleton, who was unhappy with the representation provided by attorney William J. Stogsdill, Jr., in her divorce.

Nettleton retained Stogsdill in 2001 for her divorce, whose trial was set for late 2002. On the day before trial, however, an associate from Stogsdill’s office appeared to ask for a continuance because Stogsdill was in another trial and unable to attend or prepare. The motion was denied, but a two-day continuance was granted the next day when Stogsdill himself appeared. On the day of the new trial, Stogsdill asked for a voluntary nonsuit, which was denied because he hadn’t given notice to all of the parties. He then called Nettleson to the stand, where he asked her to state and spell her name. He then rested her case. The divorce was not granted. Stogsdill filed a second petition for dissolution, but Nettleton fired him about two months later. (She was represented by four other firms before her divorce was granted.)

Nettleton eventually sued, alleging that Stogsdill and his firm committed malpractice by being unprepared, by moving for a nonsuit without her consent and by putting her on the witness stand and then resting without her consent. The damages she cited included loss of the attorney fees paid to both Stogsdill and other attorneys. The trial court granted Stogsdill’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Nettleton hadn’t demonstrated actual damages caused by Stogsdill’s actions — she hadn’t shown that she would have received a larger divorce settlement if not for Stogsdill. After various other legal maneuvers, Nettleton appealed.

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.

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