In September 1997, a Federal District Court ruled partially in favor of a class of plaintiffs against the State of Illinois for hiring discrimination, although the ruling did not address back pay or other pay relief. In April 1999, attorney John Gaffney (“Gaffney”) filed a putative class action against the State of Illinois for back pay on behalf of John Mittvick (“Mittvick”) and Edward Urban as plaintiffs and class representatives. The State moved to dismiss without prejudice, asserting the plaintiffs had failed to timely file charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before that motion could be granted, Gaffney filed his own motion to dismiss without prejudice, which was granted. Gaffney notified his clients of this by letter, telling them he could no longer represent them and that they should join another class action on this matter already in progress.
Nearly sixteen years later, Robert Neuman (“Neuman”) filed a petition to intervene in the 1999 case, having supposedly just learned of it. He claimed that he was an absent class member in the 1997 and 1999 cases, and that the 1999 case had not been validly dismissed. The District Court dismissed Neuman’s petition, holding that dismissal of the 1999 case was valid. Neuman appealed, but lost when the Seventh Circuit held that he “was already aware of a possible case in 2001 and that a diligent person would have investigated.” Id. at ¶9. Neuman then sued Gaffney for legal malpractice, alleging Gaffney had breached his fiduciary duty to notify unknown and unnamed absent class members prior to dismissal of the 1999 suit. Gaffney successfully moved to dismiss because the six-year statute of repose for legal malpractice claims in Illinois had already lapsed.
On appeal, Neuman argued that the statute of repose should not have been applied because Gaffney had fraudulently concealed important information like the fact that the 1999 case had been voluntarily dismissed, which caused Mittvick not to pursue it further. This alleged concealment, he argued, would toll the statute of repose. However, the appellate court held that whether or not Gaffney specified to Mittvick that his case had been dismissed voluntarily made no difference. After reviewing Gaffney’s letter to Mittvick, the Court declared, “there is no indication that he attempted to conceal anything relevant from Mittvick. He told Mittvick that the complaint had been dismissed and that Mittvick would have to seek a new attorney going forward.” Id. at ¶22. Despite Neuman’s insistence that Gaffney’s letter contained misrepresentations, the Court held that “such misrepresentations, even fraudulent ones, are not equivalent to acts of fraudulent concealment.” Id.
(This is for informational purposes and is not legal advice.)