In Portus Singapore PTE LTD v Kenyon & Kenyon LLP, 16CV6865 (JGK), 2020 WL 1501886, at *5-6 [SDNY Mar. 30, 2020], the court dealt with the issue of whether the attorney can be held liable to his client for failing to take actions outside the scope of his representation. The court held:
In order to demonstrate that a lawyer was negligent “a plaintiff must show that an attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession” and that “the attorney’s breach of this professional duty caused the plaintiff’s actual damages.” McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714, 718-19 (2002) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “What constitutes ordinary and reasonable skill and knowledge cannot be fixed with precision, but should be measured at the time of representation.” Darby & Darby, P.C. v. VSI Intern., Inc., 95 N.Y.2d 308, 716 N.Y.S.2d 378, 739 N.E.2d 744, 747 (2000). Generally, “ordinary and reasonable skill” is determined by looking to standards of legal practice in the State of New York. See, e.g., Sokol, 468 F. Supp. 2d at 637 (discussing New York law practice commentary). Moreover, “[a]n attorney may not be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer.” Attallah v. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, LLP, 168 A.D.3d 1026, 93 N.Y.S.3d 353, 356 (2019).
In AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d 1033, 1035 (2007), following the liquidation of its parent company, the plaintiff corporation AmBase assumed primary liability for the parent corporation’s federal income taxes and secondary liability for all other liabilities. Following liquidation, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) found the parent company liable for six years’ worth of withholding taxes, which would be imputed to AmBase under the liquidation agreement. Id. AmBase retained Davis Polk “to represent [it] as agent for [the parent corporation] to resolve the tax issues currently before” the IRS. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Davis Polk then successfully challenged in the Tax Court the IRS’s determination that AmBase was liable. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1035. AmBase then turned around and sued Davis Polk for legal malpractice on the ground that Davis Polk had failed to advise AmBase that AmBase was only secondarily liable for payment of taxes. Id. AmBase alleged that although it ultimately prevailed in the Tax Court, Davis Polk’s negligence forced AmBase to maintain a multi-million-dollar loss on its books, thereby creating an appearance of insolvency that resulted in lost business opportunities. Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1036.
The New York Court of Appeals noted that the plain language of the retainer agreement “indicates that Davis Polk was retained to litigate the amount of tax liability and not to determine whether the tax liability could be allocated to another entity.” Id., 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 866 N.E.2d at 1037. Noting that “the issue whether plaintiff was primarily or secondarily liable for the subject tax liability was outside the scope of its representation,” the court held that the “defendants exercised the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession when they focused their efforts on the controversy between AmBase and the IRS – the subject of the retainer agreement – resulting in a most favorable outcome, which was publicly praised by AmBase principals.” Id.
Similarly, in Milbank, Tweed, the law firm agreed in its engagement letter to represent the plaintiff “to investigate and consider options that may be available to urge administrative reconsideration” of the plaintiff’s expulsion from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. 93 N.Y.S.3d at 355. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint that had alleged malpractice on the ground that Milbank, Tweed did not actually negotiate the plaintiff’s readmission to the school. Id. at 356. The court reasoned that an attorney cannot be held liable for failing to act outside the scope of a retainer and that negotiation with the school went beyond the stated scope of the agreement letter. Id.
Davis Polk and Milbank, Tweed stand for the proposition that the failure by a lawyer to take actions outside the scope of that lawyer’s representation of a client cannot form the basis of a legal malpractice suit.
R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer