In dismissing the plaintiff’s claim against an attorney for violating Judiciary Law Section 487, the New York State Court of Appeals held:
Here, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs (see De Lourdes Torres v Jones, 26 NY3d 742, 763 ), defendants established prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the Judiciary Law Section 487 (1) claim by demonstrating that plaintiffs failed to allege that defendants engaged in deceit or collusion during the course of the underlying federal intellectual property lawsuit against GM and EMI [FN2]. In response, plaintiffs failed to satisfy their burden to establish material, triable issues of fact (id.). The affidavits plaintiffs submitted in opposition to summary judgment did not allege that defendants committed any acts of deceit or collusion during the pendency of the underlying federal lawsuit. To the extent defendants were alleged to have made deceitful statements, plaintiffs’ allegation that defendants induced them to file a meritless lawsuit based on misleading legal advice preceding commencement of the lawsuit is not meaningfully distinguishable from the conduct we deemed insufficient to state a viable attorney deceit claim in Looff (97 NY at 482). The statute does not encompass the filing of a pleading or brief containing nonmeritorious legal arguments, as such statements cannot support a claim under the statute [FN3]. Similarly, even assuming it constituted deceit or collusion, defendants’ alleged months-long delay in informing plaintiffs that their federal lawsuit had been dismissed occurred after the litigation had ended and therefore falls outside the scope of Judiciary Law Section 487 (1). Thus, plaintiffs’ Judiciary Law Section 487 cause of action was properly dismissed.
Bill Birds, Inc. v Stein Law Firm, P.C. 2020 NY Slip Op 02125 Decided on March 31, 2020 Court of Appeals DiFiore, J. Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law Section 431. This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.
Decided on March 31, 2020 No. 19
[*1]Bill Birds, Inc. et al., Appellants, v Stein Law Firm, P.C. et al., Respondents.
It is important for an attorney to withdraw from an action once the attorney has terminated the attorney-client relationship. If not, then the client may claim that the statute of limitations for legal malpractice has not been triggered, as decided in Courtney v McDonald, 176 AD3d 645 [1st Dept 2019]:
The first cause of action in plaintiffs’ complaint alleges legal malpractice with respect to defendants representation of plaintiffs in two underlying actions—the 304 W 18th Street matter and the 175 W 12th Street matter. Contrary to defendants’ argument, the malpractice cause of action with respect to the 175 W 12th Street matter is not time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations applicable to legal malpractice claims (CPLR 214 ). Defendants failed to demonstrate that the attorney-client relationship ceased to exist within three years of August 28, 2017, the date plaintiffs filed this action. Although defendants sent a letter, dated August 7, 2014, unilaterally terminating their representation of plaintiffs, they failed to move to withdraw from representation in the foreclosure action (see CPLR 321 [b]) until more than a year after sending the subject letter. Accordingly, to the extent plaintiffs’ first cause of action concerns alleged legal malpractice by defendants in their representation of plaintiffs in the matter concerning 175 W 12th Street, the motion to dismiss that cause of action was properly denied.
The Appellate Division, in Kleinman v Weisman Law Group, P.C., 176 AD3d 1046 [2d Dept 2019], dismissed a former client’s legal malpractice action based upon the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The court stated as follows:
In 2013, the defendant Weisman Law Group, P.C. (hereinafter the defendant firm), commenced an action against the plaintiff to recover unpaid legal fees in the Nassau County District Court. The plaintiff asserted a counterclaim, alleging that he was overbilled by the defendant firm. A judgment was entered in favor of the defendant firm and against the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed the judgment of the Nassau County District Court to the Appellate Term of the Supreme Court for the Ninth and Tenth Judicial Districts, which affirmed the judgment (seeWeisman Law Group, P.C. v. Kleinman, 60 Misc.3d 133[A], 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 51042[U], 2018 WL 3309514 [App Term, 2d Dept, 9th & 10th Jud Dists 2018] ). In 2016, the plaintiff commenced the instant action against the defendants asserting causes of action alleging, inter alia, breach of contract and legal malpractice.
The plaintiff contends that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel do not apply in the instant case, as the Nassau County District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his counterclaim in the prior action. Contrary to the plaintiff’s contention, the Nassau County District Court did have jurisdiction over his counterclaim pursuant to Uniform District Court Act Section 208(b), as the counterclaim was for money only. The doctrine of res judicata precludes the plaintiff from litigating the claims set forth in his complaint, as a judgment on the merits exists in the prior action between the same parties involving the same subject matter (see Matter ofJosey v. Goord, 9 N.Y.3d 386, 389, 849 N.Y.S.2d 497, 880 N.E.2d 18; Matter of Hunter, 4 N.Y.3d 260, 269, 794 N.Y.S.2d 286, 827 N.E.2d 269). New York has adopted the transactional analysis approach to res judicata, so that once a claim is brought to a final conclusion, all other claims between the same parties or those in privity with them arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions are barred, even if based upon different theories or if seeking a different remedy (see Matter ofJosey v. Goord, 9 N.Y.3d at 389–390, 849 N.Y.S.2d 497, 880 N.E.2d 18; Matter of Hunter, 4 N.Y.3d at 269, 794 N.Y.S.2d 286, 827 N.E.2d 269; *124 O’Brien v. City of Syracuse, 54 N.Y.2d 353, 357, 445 N.Y.S.2d 687, 429 N.E.2d 1158; Greenstone/Fontana Corp. v. Feldstein, 72 A.D.3d 890, 893, 901 N.Y.S.2d 643).
Furthermore, the plaintiff’s causes of action are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue clearly raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party or those in privity, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same (seeRyan v. New York Tel. Co., 62 N.Y.2d 494, 500, 478 N.Y.S.2d 823, 467 N.E.2d 487; Williams v. New York City Tr. Auth., 171 A.D.3d 990, 97 N.Y.S.3d 692). The doctrine of collateral estoppel applies here, as the issues in both actions are identical, the issue in the prior action was actually litigated and decided, there was a full and fair opportunity to litigate the action, the issue previously litigated was necessary to support a valid and final judgment on the merits, and the defendant Rachel J. Weisman was in privity with the defendant firm (seeConason v. Megan Holding, LLC, 25 N.Y.3d 1, 17, 6 N.Y.S.3d 206, 29 N.E.3d 215; Williams v. New York City Tr. Auth., 171 A.D.3d at 991–992, 97 N.Y.S.3d 692; Karimian v. Time Equities, Inc., 164 A.D.3d 486, 83 N.Y.S.3d 227).
In Gobindram v Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 175 AD3d 586, 589-91 [2d Dept 2019], the state court considered the issue of collateral estoppel concerning a matter previously litigated in the federal bankruptcy court. The court held:
“The doctrine of in pari delicto mandates that the courts will not intercede to resolve a dispute between two wrongdoers” (Kirschner v. KPMG LLP, 15 N.Y.3d 446, 464, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941). “[T]he principle that a wrongdoer should not profit from his own misconduct is so strong in New York that … the defense applies even in difficult cases and should not be weakened by exceptions” (id. at 464, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941 [internal quotation marks omitted] ). “The defense requires intentional conduct on the part of the plaintiff” (Sacher v. Beacon Assoc. Mgt. Corp., 114 A.D.3d 655, 657, 980 N.Y.S.2d 121; see Kirschner v. KPMG LLP, 15 N.Y.3d at 474, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941).
Collateral estoppel precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same (seeBuechel v. Bain, 97 N.Y.2d 295, 303, 740 N.Y.S.2d 252, 766 N.E.2d 914; Shifer v. Shifer, 165 A.D.3d 721, 723, 85 N.Y.S.3d 92). There must be an identity of issue which has necessarily been decided in the prior action and is decisive of the present action, and there must have been a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision now said to be controlling (seeBuechel v. Bain, 97 N.Y.2d at 303–304, 740 N.Y.S.2d 252, 766 N.E.2d 914; Shifer v. Shifer, 165 A.D.3d at 723, 85 N.Y.S.3d 92).
Here, the federal courts in the plaintiff’s bankruptcy proceeding finally adjudicated a mixed issue of law and fact identical to that raised by the in pari delicto defense asserted by the defendants in the current legal malpractice action, i.e., the plaintiff’s culpability in connection with the filing of the inaccurate bankruptcy petition. Those courts found that the plaintiff knowingly and intentionally made a false and fraudulent statement under oath by swearing that he had read the SOFA and that it was true and correct, and that the plaintiff’s alleged reliance on the defendants to accurately prepare the bankruptcy submissions did not negate his fraudulent intent. These findings established that the plaintiff was in pari delicto with the defendants to the extent that he alleges they acted negligently in preparing and filing the inaccurate bankruptcy petition. Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting that branch of the defendants’ motion which was to dismiss so much of the legal malpractice cause of action as sought to recover damages for the defendants’ preparation and filing of the inaccurate bankruptcy petition based on the doctrines of collateral estoppel and in pari delicto.
However, we disagree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting that branch of the defendants’ motion which was to dismiss so much of the legal malpractice cause of action as sought to recover damages for the defendants’ failure to amend the bankruptcy petition. The findings of the federal courts regarding the knowing and fraudulent conduct on the plaintiff’s part related solely to the initial filing; they made no determination that the plaintiff acted knowingly and fraudulently in failing to file an amended petition. Accordingly, that part of the plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action is not subject to dismissal on the grounds of collateral estoppel and in pari delicto.
As an alternative ground for affirmance (seeParochial Bus Sys. v. Board of Educ. of City of N.Y., 60 N.Y.2d 539, 545–546, 470 N.Y.S.2d 564, 458 N.E.2d 1241), the defendants contend that the legal malpractice cause of action should have been dismissed in its entirety pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), since the parties’ evidentiary submissions on the motion established that the plaintiff hired subsequent counsel who had ample opportunity to rectify their alleged error in this regard (see e.g.Perks v. Lauto & Garabedian, 306 A.D.2d 261, 262, 760 N.Y.S.2d 231). This contention lacks merit.
On a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), the court must “accept the facts as alleged in the complaint as true, accord plaintiffs the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory” (Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511; seeNonnon v. City of New York, 9 N.Y.3d 825, 827, 842 N.Y.S.2d 756, 874 N.E.2d 720). “When evidentiary material is considered, the criterion is whether the proponent of the pleading has a cause of action, not whether [she or] he has stated one, and, unless it has been shown that a material fact as claimed by the pleader to be one is not a fact at all and unless it can be said that no significant dispute exists regarding it, … dismissal should not eventuate” (Guggenheimer v. Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d 268, 275, 401 N.Y.S.2d 182, 372 N.E.2d 17).
Here, the record reveals that the plaintiff did not retain the services of new counsel until December 2011. By that time, the bankruptcy trustee had already noted inconsistencies in the petition and requested an accounting relating to the omitted tax refund transfers, and the plaintiff’s creditors had commenced the adversary proceeding. Giving the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference (seeLeon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511), this time line suggests that the defendants, not the subsequent attorney, represented the plaintiff at the time when a voluntary amendment to the petition could have significantly reduced the prospect of a finding that the plaintiff made a false and fraudulent statement in the bankruptcy petition (seeIn re Tully, 818 F.2d 106, 111 [1st Cir.]; Matter of Kilson, 83 B.R. 198, 203 [D. Conn.]). Accordingly, at this preliminary stage of the litigation, the defendants have failed to conclusively demonstrate that the plaintiff’s subsequent attorney had a sufficient opportunity to correct their alleged error in failing to amend the petition, such that they did not proximately cause any damages flowing from that error (see generallyTooma v. Grossbarth, 121 A.D.3d 1093, 1096, 995 N.Y.S.2d 593; Grant v. LaTrace, 119 A.D.3d 646, 647, 990 N.Y.S.2d 227).
We find unpersuasive the defendants’ additional alternative contention that the legal malpractice cause of action was properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(3) because that cause of action belongs to the bankruptcy estate and the plaintiff lacked standing to assert it. “On a defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based upon the plaintiff’s alleged lack of standing, the burden is on the moving defendant to establish, prima facie, the plaintiff’s lack of standing” (BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP v. Rychik, 161 A.D.3d 924, 925, 77 N.Y.S.3d 522; see CPLR 3211[a]; MLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d 881, 881–882). “[T]he motion will be defeated if the plaintiff’s submissions raise a question of fact as to its standing” (U.S. Bank N.A. v. Clement, 163 A.D.3d 742, 743, 81 N.Y.S.3d 116 [internal quotation marks omitted]; seeMLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d at 882, 50 N.Y.S.3d 410).
Here, in response to the defendants’ prima facie showing that the plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action was the property of the bankruptcy estate (seeWright v. Meyers & Spencer, LLP, 46 A.D.3d 805, 849 N.Y.S.2d 274; Williams v. Stein, 6 A.D.3d 197, 198, 775 N.Y.S.2d 255; In re Strada Design Assoc., Inc., 326 B.R. 229, 237–240 [S.D. N.Y.]), the plaintiff raised a question of fact as to whether the bankruptcy trustee had abandoned the cause of action in accordance with Bankruptcy Code (11 USC) § 554(a) and had authorized the plaintiff to pursue it. Accordingly, dismissal of the legal malpractice cause of action for lack of standing is not available at this juncture.