Proximate Cause

Withdrawal as Counsel on the Eve of Trial

Posted on Updated on

Vanessa Wereko (“Wereko”) retained The Law Office of Tiffany M. Hughes (the “Firm”) to represent her throughout her divorce proceedings.  One month before trial, the Firm withdrew as counsel for Wereko’s alleged failure to pay all of her bills and then sued Wereko for breach of contract.  Wereko filed counterclaims for breach of contract and negligence. The circuit court found in favor of the Firm and dismissed Wereko’s counterclaims.

On appeal, Wereko asserted with respect to the parties’ breach of contract claims that the retainer agreement only permitted the Firm to withdraw under specific circumstances. These circumstances included nonpayment, but Wereko explained that the Firm had billed her more often than was agreed upon thereby improperly triggering her obligation to pay.  The court noted however that “in her email communications with the firm, Wereko did not question the frequency of the invoices, but instead communicated her inability to fully pay the billed amounts.”  Id. at ¶32.  Moreover, “the retainer agreement did not expressly provide that the enumerated bases were the exhaustive bases for withdrawal.”  Id. at ¶30.  To that, the Firm asserted that Wereko refused to comply with certain of the Firm’s advice and had not maintained a valid credit card on file with the Firm as required by the agreement.  Id. at ¶¶34, 35. The court held therefore that “the withdrawal was consistent with the terms of the parties’ agreement and appears compliant with our supreme court rules.”  Id. at ¶33.

As for Wereko’s negligence claim, the court explained that “it would be unreasonable to expect the firm to foresee that its conduct would result in” the damages suggested by Wereko. Id. at ¶46. At their core, they were expenditures resulting from Wereko’s husband’s decision to dismiss his counter-petition and refile in a new county.  Id. at ¶46. The court also noted that “the [lower court] approved the firm’s withdrawal.” Id. Thus, it concluded that “Wereko failed to prove her counterclaims.”  Id. at ¶47.

Law Office of Tiffany M. Hughes v. Wereko, 2020 IL APP (1st) 190428-U

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

Breach of the Standard of Care Must be the Proximate Cause

Posted on Updated on

Richard Sharif (“Sharif”) sued his former attorney, William Stevens (“Stevens”), for legal malpractice in an underlying matter.  He alleged that Stevens failed to comply with discovery and failed to properly raise arguments that would have resulted in a more favorable outcome.  The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in Stevens’ favor on all counts.  With respect to discovery, Sharif accused Stevens of not producing documents that Sharif tendered to him.  Here, the District Court held that Sharif was actually to blame because he “did not give Stevens certain documents that should have been given to him.”  Id. at 3.  As to whether Stevens should have raised a particular argument, the Northern District found that Stevens had violated the standard of care owed to Sharif.  However, the District Court still had to consider whether the court in the underlying matter “would have decided […] differently had the issue been properly raised.”  Id.  at 5.  This is because a successful claim for malpractice requires that a plaintiff establish “but for the negligence of the attorney, the plaintiff would not have suffered actual damages.”  Id. at 2.  On that point, Sharif made “no argument that a reasonable court would have made a different decision.”  Id. at 5.

Stevens v. Sharif, No. 15 C 1405, 2019 WL 4862171 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 30, 2019)

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

 

No Proximate Causation for Alleged Malpractice in an Unwinnable Case

Posted on Updated on

Debra and William Elam (“Plaintiffs”) hired the law firm O’Connor & Nakos, Ltd. and attorney Daniel V. O’Connor (“Defendants”) to represent them in a wrongful death action against several entities following the death of their daughter.  Once the underlying matter settled, Plaintiffs sued Defendants for alleged failure to investigate their claim, conduct discovery, and plead certain theories of liability.  Plaintiffs argued that they would have recovered more from one of the defendant entities, Live Nation Worldwide, Inc.,  but for Defendants’ malpractice.  The Trial Court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Plaintiffs appealed.  The Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, affirmed.  It explained that, “in malpractice cases based upon the attorney’s conduct during litigation, i.e., the prosecution or defense of a prior claim, a plaintiff must generally prove a case-within-a-case to establish proximate cause.”  Id. at ¶ 24.  Here, the Appellate Court found that “as a matter of law, plaintiffs could not have prevailed against Live Nation” in their underlying matter.  Id. at ¶ 37.  Therefore, Plaintiffs could not establish that they suffered an injury “as a proximate result” of Defendants’ alleged malpractice.  Id. at ¶ 24.

Elam v. O’Connor & Nakos, Ltd., 2019 IL App (1st) 181123

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

Legal Malpractice Requires Causation and Damages

Posted on Updated on

McHenry Savings Bank (“MSB”) sued attorney Michael Cortina and his law firm, SmithAmundsen (“Defendants”), for legal malpractice arising from their representation of MSB in an unsuccessful foreclosure action.  The trial court granted Defendants’ motion to strike and dismiss.  The Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District, affirmed.  With respect to alleged pretrial errors, it explained that “a trial was held in the foreclosure case” and so “it cannot be said that, but for Cortina’s alleged negligent pretrial conduct, MSB lost its case and suffered damages.”  Id. at ¶ 36.  As for any errors during the trial, the Appellate Court held that the Foreclosure Court’s basis for granting judgment against MSG was “legally unsound,” meaning “Cortina cannot be held accountable.”  Id. at ¶ 42.  Even if causation could have been shown, the Appellate Court explained that no damage resulted since MSB would be “seeking damages from defendants that it was never entitled to due to mortgagors’ discharge in bankruptcy.”  Id. at ¶ 51.

McHenry Sav. Bank v. Cortina, 2019 IL App (2d) 180901-U

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

Conspiracy Requires Knowing the Co-Conspirators, Malpractice Requires Knowing the Underlying Outcome

Posted on Updated on

Natalja Vildziuniene (“Vildziuniene”) sued attorney Bradley Foreman (“Foreman”) for conspiracy to commit fraud and legal malpractice.  Specifically, she alleged that Foreman conspired to defraud her, breached the duty of care, and represented her in various court proceedings without her knowledge.  Foreman moved successfully to dismiss these counts and Vildziuniene appealed.  The Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, affirmed.  With respect to the conspiracy to commit fraud, it stated that Vildziuniene’s accusations were a “mere characterization of acts as a conspiracy.” Id. at ¶47.  Moreover, “there were no allegations that Foreman knew the other defendants, spoke with the other defendants, or knew anything about the allegedly fraudulent purpose behind these” supposedly fraudulent transactions.  Id. at ¶50.  Regarding the alleged malpractice, the Appellate Court noted that “there are no allegations as to what happened in any of the cases in that Foreman allegedly represented plaintiff” such as whether Vildziuniene even prevailed in those matters.  Id. at ¶54.  It was therefore impossible to ascertain whether she would have prevailed in the underlying actions but for Foreman’s negligence.

Vildziuniene v. Rieff, 2019 IL App (1st) 181324-U

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

Counsel Cannot Claim Judicial Error if Client is not Properly Informed of His Rights

Posted on Updated on

Iurii Rypninskyi (“Rypninskyi “) and Joseph Hope (“Hope”) were involved in a vehicular accident.  Hope sued Rypninskyi for negligence in Illinois state court.  American Inter-Fidelity Exchange (“AIFE”), the insurer for the owner of the truck Rypninskyi was driving, agreed to defend Rypninskyi and retained the law firm Cassiday Schade to do so.  Throughout the discovery phase and the subsequent trial, Cassiday Schade had repeated trouble contacting Rypninskyi and ensuring his presence.  Rypninskyi did not even appear at trial to testify.  Id. at 1.  The trial court sanctioned him for this by ordering in limine that he could not introduce a report prepared by the trooper who had responded to the accident or Hope’s statements to the trooper.  When the trial court found that Rypninskyi, through Cassiday Schade, violated that order, it entered a default judgement against him as to liability.  Id.  The jury then returned a $400,000 verdict for Hope, but Cassiday Schade did not file an appeal.  Rypninskyi sued Cassiday Schade for legal malpractice, arguing that their failures had caused him not to appear at trial and suffer the judgment against him.

Cassiday Schade moved for summary judgment, invoking the “judicial error” doctrine.  Id. at 2.  They asserted that the trial court had erred in defaulting Rypninskyi as to liability, and that its error was an intervening cause “that severed the causal connection between its alleged malpractice and Rypninskyi’s injury.”  Id.   The Court rejected this argument, pointing out that “had Rypninskyi known about the judgment, he would have asked Cassiday Schade to appeal it.”  Id. at 1.  This indicated that Cassiday Schade had not kept Rypninskyi apprised of the progress of his case.  Having failed to inform Rypninskyi that there was a judgment against him that warranted reconsideration, the Court found that “Cassiday Schade was responsible for failing to appeal.”  Id. at 2.  It explained that “where an allegedly negligent attorney elects not to appeal a judgment that the attorney contends resulted from a judicial error, the attorney may not invoke judicial error as a defense to the client’s malpractice claim.”  Id.

Am. Inter-Fid. Exch. v. Hope, No. 17 C 7934, 2019 WL 4189657 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 4, 2019)

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

R.F. Techs., Inc. v. LeClair Ryan, P.C., No. 17 C 1886, 2018 WL 835349 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 12, 2018)

Posted on Updated on

The Northern District held that a complaint that alleged that lawyers’ malpractice caused a client to pay more to settle a case than it otherwise would have had to pay adequately plead proximate cause and damages.   The court also refused to take judicial notice of an order assessing sanctions against the malpractice plaintiff and, therefore, held that there was no evidence to support unclean hands and in pari delicto defenses at the motion to dismiss stage.

R.F. Techs., Inc. v. LeClair Ryan, P.C.

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

Century-National Ins. Co. v. Schoen, 2017 IL App (1st) 163261-U

Posted on

In this unpublished opinion, the First District affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice claim due to plaintiff’s inability to establish that the defendant lawyer’s conduct caused damages.

The suit alleged malpractice by two separate law firms who allegedly failed to give their insurance carrier client notice that the underlying plaintiff had made a policy limit settlement demand.  The underlying personal injury case was filed against an employer and employee.  The insurance carrier retained one law firm to represent the employer and a separate law firm to represent the employee.  During the underlying litigation, the plaintiff sent letters making policy-limit settlement demands  to both law firms.  The case did not settle and the plaintiff won a large jury verdict.  Thereafter, the employer assigned its rights against the insurance carrier to the underlying plaintiff, who brought a bad faith refusal to settle lawsuit against the insurance carrier.  The bad faith complaint’s allegations mentioned only the employer’s law firm and the employee’s law firm which also received the policy limit settlement demand letter.  The carrier settled the bad faith claim and then sued both law firms for malpractice.  The court affirmed the dismissal of the malpractice claim against the law firm not named in the bad faith complaint.  Even though the insurance carrier alleged it would have known of the settlement demand sent to the employer’s law firm if the employee’s law firm had given notice of the demand it received, the court held that was insufficient to establish causation.  The court further held that the employee’s law firm could not have proximately caused the insurance carrier’s injury because only the employer assigned its claim to the underlying plaintiff who brought the bad faith claim.

Century-National Ins. Co. v. Schoen, 2017 IL App (1st) 163261-U

 

Recent Illinois Case: Hyatt Johnson USA 2004 LLC v. Goldsmith

Posted on

In this unpublished order, the First District affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants.

The malpractice claims related to the drafting of investment documents and settlement documents. The Appellate Court affirmed dismissal of the claims based upon the investment documents. The plaintiffs asserted that the documents resulted in the appointment of a receiver and sought to recover the fees paid to the receiver. The court, however, held that the plaintiffs were not damaged because there was no evidence that the receiver’s fees were greater than the fees that would have been paid to a manager.

The court also held that the criminal theft of funds from the entity was an intervening cause prohibiting the plaintiffs from establishing proximate cause because there was no evidence that the theft was foreseeable.

The court reversed summary judgment on the malpractice claims related to the settlement documents. The court held that if the defendants’ negligence in drafting the settlement documents allowed funds to be transferred to an entity not entitled to the funds, the plaintiffs will be able to prove “specific and identifiable damages” associated with their efforts to recover those funds.

Hyatt Johnson USA 2004 LLC v. Goldsmith, 2016 IL App (1st) 151622-U 

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

Recent Illinois Case: Rawal v. Newland and Newland LLP

Posted on Updated on

In this unpublished opinion, the First District affirmed the dismissal of a legal malpractice case for failure to plead proximate causation. The court held that the complaint did not adequately plead that the plaintiff would have succeeded in the underlying litigation but for the defendants’ malpractice because the allegations of success were conclusory and the plaintiff did not plead sufficient facts to prove the “case within a case.”

Rawal v. Newland and Newland LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 151940-U

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