Legal Fees as a Measure of Damages

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Maria Freda (“Freda”) sued her attorney, Michael Canulli (“Canulli”), in connection with his representation of her during her divorce.  Canulli’s professional liability insurer, the Illinois State Bar Association Mutual Insurance Company (“ISBA Mutual”), initially agreed to defend him.  However, Freda amended her complaint to allege that “‘as a direct and proximate result’ of Canulli’s (1) professional negligence and (2) breach of contract, she had been damaged ‘in an amount in excess of $100,000 in that she has incurred attorney’s fees and costs for useless and unnecessary legal proceedings initiated by *** Canulli.’”  Id. at ¶24.  Per Canulli’s policy from ISBA Mutual, a plaintiff must seek damages against the insured in order to trigger a duty to defend, and legal fees are explicitly excluded from the policy’s definition of damages.  Id. at ¶23.  Consequently, ISBA Mutual filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a finding that it was not obligated to defend Canulli.  The circuit court found in ISBA Mutual’s favor.

On appeal, the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, held that Freda’s damages were not fees.  It explained that Freda’s damages were “not a consequence of Canulli’s fees but a consequence of his alleged failure to handle [Freda’s] divorce proceedings expeditiously and appropriately—i.e., his negligence and breach of contract in representing her.”  Id. at ¶30, emphasis in original.  In other words, “Freda’s complaint stem[med] from the allegedly negligent way Canulli represented her in the divorce, and it is that negligent representation that caused her to expend more money than necessary.”  Id.

Illinois State Bar Ass’n Mut. Ins. Co. v. Canulli, 2020 IL App (1st) 190142

(This is for informational purposes and not legal advice.)

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