Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Contemplation Of Death

The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss a legal malpractice claim that posed the following issue

The remarkable defense proffered in this professional malpractice action is that an attorney who neglects a matter so that the statute of limitations runs against his client cannot be held legally accountable if the attorney happens to expire before the applicable limitations period.

The client had retained the now-deceased attorney, who associated with another attorney (now disbarred) who is also a defendant in this litigation. The estate moved to dismiss the malpractice claim but

Other than a death certificate, there is no evidence concerning [deceased attorney] Tanzman's treatment or the course of his illness or when he was hospitalized. Nor is there any information about the nature of his law practice, beyond a letterhead that identifies three other attorneys as "of counsel." While it is clear from the letter dated September 30, 2010 that Tanzman was aware of the impending expiration of the statute of limitations against his client, it is unknown whether he took any steps to prepare a complaint for filing or whether he attempted to enlist the assistance of any other attorney including the attorneys of counsel in his firm....

Plaintiff is entitled to the inference that Tanzman died as a result of a chronic, terminal illness that he knew, or should have known, presented the immediate risk that his ability to represent his clients' interests might be impaired (see Yuko Ito v Suzuki, 57 AD3d 205, 207 [1st Dept 2008]). Here, defendants offered no evidence to elaborate on the cause or circumstances surrounding Tanzman's death. The submitted certificate of death for Tanzman merely states that Tanzman passed away on October 24, 2010 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The record suggests that plaintiff had cancer, and that his death may have been foreseeable, but the nature and duration of his illness cannot be determined from the death certificate and defendants' other submissions. Further, the record reflects that Tanzman was well aware that Collazo could not be relied upon to assist with plaintiff's representation. According to Tanzman's own statement, Collazo had done nothing on the matter in over a year, and Tanzman's retainer agreement assigned Collazo only a limited role in the case. In any event, as of September 2010, when Tanzman expressed his concern over the running of the statute of limitations in a letter to Surrogate's Court, Collazo had been convicted on a federal criminal offense and was facing sentencing and disbarment. Plaintiff is entitled to the factual inference that, at this late juncture and mindful of his ill health, Tanzman was aware of the need to prepare and file a complaint or to arrange for one to be filed as soon as the necessary letters of administration were received. The letters of administration was issued on October 6, 2010. Tanzman neither filed a complaint nor engaged another attorney to file one in his stead despite the availability of three attorneys associated with the firm as of counsel.

The case lives on. (Mike Frisch)

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