February 28, 2013
The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department has affirmed the dismissal of legal malpractice claims involving the handling and distribution of insurance payments for a business that was located in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
The attorneys had initiated a chapter 11 proceeding on behalf of the business in August 2011.
The defendant attorneys had, by the time of the payment, moved their practice to the Marc Dreier firm.
This complicated things.
Defendants could not release the escrowed funds to their clients until the bankruptcy case was formally dismissed. They sought a "structured dismissal" of the case, negotiating with the creditors' committee and the U.S. trustee as to when and how the various interested parties would be paid by the estate. Defendants had advised plaintiffs that winding up the estate could "take some time." On September 26, 2008, after agreement with all of the necessary parties had been reached, Fox submitted a motion to the bankruptcy court to approve the voluntary dismissal of the bankruptcy proceeding. The bankruptcy court approved the dismissal in an order dated October 30, 2008. The order provided, in relevant part, for distribution of the cash held for plaintiffs within 15 days, with U.S. trustee fees being paid first, administrative expenses in the amount of $61,972.94 second, and all remaining cash to be paid to the secured creditors in partial satisfaction of the secured claim.
Following the bankruptcy dismissal order, Fox distributed $61,972.94 from a
TBF escrow account to pay the administrative fees, which largely consisted of its own legal fees. On December 2, 2008, after reconciliation of outstanding accounts with the U.S. trustee had been finalized, $3,475 was paid out of the TBF escrow account to the U.S. trustee in full satisfaction of fees. The remaining cash in the TBF escrow account belonged to plaintiffs, and was paid to them. Onthe same date, Fox sent an internal email to Dreier LLP accounting personnel requesting that a check payable to plaintiffs for $350,000 be drawn from the 5966 account and forwarded to Fox for delivery to plaintiffs.
Unfortunately and coincidentally, Marc Dreier was arrested the next day. Upon learning of the arrest, Traub immediately repeated his demand that Dreier LLP transfer funds being held in the 5966 account to the TBF escrow account. Dreier LLP acceded to this request, and the next day wired $441,145.58 to the TBF escrow account. These monies included the settlement payment to plaintiffs, as well as funds belonging to other clients of defendants. After the monies were transferred, Fox and Traub resigned from Dreier LLP and returned to TBF. On December 10, 2008, a federal district judge appointed a receiver for Dreier LLP and restrained the firm's assets. On December 16, 2008, Dreier LLP filed for bankruptcy.
The court found no basis for malpractice liability:
What separates this case from the cases cited by plaintiffs is the nature of the escrow account in which the subject funds were placed. Because the 5966 account had been used by Marc Dreier to operate his Ponzi scheme, the settlement funds became part of the pool to be distributed on a pro rata basis with the victims of the fraud (see Securities & Exch. Comm. v Credit Bancorp., 290 F3d at 89-90). Accordingly, the analysis performed in Carlson and OPM Leasing Servs. as to when the funds became the property of the intended beneficiary of the funds is irrelevant. Further, contrary to plaintiffs' argument, it makes no difference that when defendants transferred the funds to the Dreier LLP bankruptcy trustee they had been transferred to the TBF escrow account and were no longer in the escrow account which Marc Dreier had used to perpetrate his Ponzi scheme. Plaintiffs do not dispute defendants' position that the funds were transferred into the TBF escrow account with the understanding that they would not be released to plaintiffs without prior approval by whoever was ultimately assigned the tasks of sorting out the various claims which were sure to be made against the Dreier LLP bankruptcy estate.
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