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Schepisi & McLaughlin v. Manos

A-2638-09T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

CONTRACTS; ATTORNEYS — Even if a law firm deviates from its client’s instructions on legal strategy in litigation, such as that over an easement agreement, it is not bound to file its client’s non-lawyer strategy plan.

A law firm had sued a former client for unpaid legal fees and the client counterclaimed for legal malpractice. The alleged malpractice arose out of the firm’s representation in litigation brought by the former client’s neighbors, wherein they were alleging willful breach of an easement agreement. In the former client’s counterclaim, the client alleged multiple problems that she had with the lawyers, mostly stating that her lawyers did not do what she told them to do. Without any legal malpractice experts, the lower court denied the client’s motion for summary judgment and granted the firm’s motion for judgment dismissing the counterclaim. The lower court entered judgment for the fee without any affidavits.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision. A legal malpractice cause of action entails: (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship implying a duty of care by the defendant attorney; (2) the breach of that duty by the defendant; and (3) proximate causation of the damages claimed by the plaintiff. A legal malpractice claimant must show a standard of conduct and a deviation from that conduct. The Court held that even if the law firm had deviated from the client’s instructions on legal strategy, it was not bound to follow her non-lawyer strategy plan. The client was setting herself up as an expert because her claims were solely that the law firm did not do what she ordered in regards to the conduct of the litigation. This was unacceptable to the Court. The client also failed to articulate how she was prejudiced by the firm’s disregard of her instructions. Therefore, the Court found that the client only established an attorney-client relationship and the attorney’s concomitant duty. She failed to establish the claim for deviation from the duty and standard of care.

The former client also argued that she did not agree to the settlement that the law firm reached in the other litigation. The Court held that those issues should have been resolved in the easement lawsuit; the neighbors were not parties to this lawsuit, and this claim affected their rights as well. Either way, the client lost that right to appeal because her time for the appeal expired. However, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the entry of judgment because the law firm submitted no affidavits to support the amount that was due or the reasonableness of the fees.

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