Tuesday, March 9, 2010
A law firm that had represented a client sued the client for unpaid fees. The plaintiff firm also sued the law firm that had referred the client, claiming that the defendant law firm had represented that their clients (the Nassers) guaranteed payment of their fees. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of claims against the referring law firm.
The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department held that the claims were viable:
The complaint alleges that defendants-respondents represented to plaintiff law firm that they had authority from the Nassers to promise payment of $75,000 of the legal fees incurred by plaintiff's client when, in fact, they lacked the authority to bind the Nassers. Thus, the complaint alleges a viable claim for breach of the implied warranty of authority. The complaint also alleges that defendants-respondents falsely represented to plaintiff law firm that they specifically discussed the subject matter of their authority and representations with the Nassers. Thus, the complaint alleges a viable clam for tortious misrepresentation of authority and assurances of payment.
To the extent the motion court relied on the principle of apparent authority, lack of consideration and the statute of frauds to dismiss these causes of action, such was error. The doctrine of apparent authority is irrelevant because the fourth and fifth causes of action are not seeking to hold the principals (the Nassers) liable on the ground that defendants-respondents had apparent authority from the Nassers to make promises of payment. Rather, these causes of action are seeking to hold the agents, defendants-respondents, liable for contracts or representations they purported to make on behalf of the principal (the Nassers) while acting without authority from the principal. Therefore, the fact that the Nassers never manifested to plaintiff law firm that defendants-respondents were authorized to act on the Nassers' behalf has no bearing on the viability of the fourth and fifth causes of action. Moreover, regardless of whether or not there was consideration running to the Nassers, defendants-respondents can still be held liable for their own tortious conduct in making deliberate misrepresentations of fact that they had authority to make the promises that the Nassers would pay $75,000 of the legal fees incurred by plaintiff's client (see Restatement (Third) of Agency §§ 6.10, 7.01 ). In addition, the statute of frauds does not come into play since the fourth and fifth causes of action are not seeking to enforce the unwritten agreement by the Nassers to pay plaintiff's client's legal fees against the Nassers. These causes of action state a claim against the defendants-respondents regardless of whether there is an enforceable contract with the Nassers.
The sixth cause of action against defendants-respondents for tortious interference with defendant Jacques Nasser's contract with plaintiff law firm to pay $37,500 of the legal fees incurred by plaintiff's client was also improperly dismissed by the motion court. In order for there to be a viable claim there must be a valid contract between Jacques Nasser and plaintiff law firm. Pursuant to General Obligations Law § 5-701(a)(2), every agreement, promise or undertaking which is a special promise to answer for the debt of another is void unless it is in writing. Under a long-standing exception to the statute of frauds, however, the promise need not be in writing if it is supported by new consideration moving to the promisor and beneficial to him, and the promisor has become in the intention of the parties a principal debtor primarily [*3]liable (see Martin Roofing v Goldstein, 60 NY2d 262, 264 , cert denied 466 US 905 ; Carey & Assoc. v Ernst, 27 AD3d 261 ). At the very least, the allegations in the complaint raise an issue of fact concerning whether Jacques Nasser agreed to act as a guarantor in the event plaintiff's client did not pay her legal fees, in which case there was no enforceable contract, or whether in seeking to secure the benefit of the cooperation of plaintiff's client in connection with the lawsuit against him by her employer, Jacques Nasser offered to lift the burden of the obligation to pay legal fees from plaintiff's client and pay the law firm directly, in which case the contract would not be barred by the statute of frauds (see Rowan v Brady, 98 AD2d 638, 639 ). Therefore, the sixth cause of action for tortious interference with contract is reinstated.
Finally, the motion court erroneously dismissed the seventh cause of action against defendants-respondents which alleges tortious interference by defendants-respondents with the attorney-client relationship between plaintiff law firm and its client, defendant Srour. Insofar as the complaint alleges that defendants-respondents, knowing that Srour was represented by plaintiff law firm, met with Srour alone, without informing plaintiff law firm of the meeting, and approximately three days later, Srour discharged plaintiff law firm, it is sufficient at this stage of the proceedings, to state a viable claim, and therefore the seventh cause of action is reinstated.