Sunday, March 18, 2018
The Iowa Supreme Court has held that proof of exoneration is not necessarily required for a convicted defendant to sue for legal malpractice
This appeal presents the narrow question of whether the relief required rule (also called the exoneration rule) applies to a convicted criminal suing one of his defense attorneys for legal malpractice over an alleged missed opportunity to shorten his period of supervised probation. This rule ordinarily requires proof the client had been exonerated from the underlying conviction. The defendant attorney was retained after the malpractice plaintiff was convicted and sentenced on three counts of welfare fraud and ordered to pay restitution. The attorney successfully obtained postconviction relief vacating two convictions and over $80,000 in restitution and successfully opposed the state’s effort to have his client civilly committed as a sexually violent predator. Meanwhile, the offender, represented by separate counsel, was incarcerated for a probation violation. The district court later determined sua sponte that his term of supervised probation should have ended earlier, which would have avoided nearly a year in prison. The offender then sued one of his lawyers for malpractice.
The defendant attorney moved for summary judgment on four grounds. The district court reached only one ground and granted summary judgment based on the relief-required rule. The court of appeals reversed the summary judgment and held the client may sue over the alleged sentencing error without proving his exoneration from the conviction, so long as he obtained relief from the sentencing error. That is the position taken by the Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers. We hold the malpractice plaintiff in this situation must prove relief from the sentencing error allegedly caused by the malpractice, not the underlying conviction. We express no opinion on the alternative grounds for summary judgment, including the scope of this defendant–attorney’s duty, if any, to monitor the duration of supervised probation. Those issues were not briefed or argued on appeal and may be decided by the district court on remand.
The court considered the approach of other jurisdictions
These cases reflect the Restatement (Third) position we adopt today. Because Kraklio does not allege Simmons negligently caused his conviction, Kraklio need not prove relief from that conviction. But the relief-required rule still applies to the alleged sentencing error. That is, Kraklio must prove he obtained relief from his period of supervised probation that he claims Simmons should have ended sooner. See Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 53, at 389 (“A lawyer is liable . . . only if the lawyer’s breach of a duty of care or breach of fiduciary duty was a legal cause of injury, as determined under generally applicable principles of causation and damages.”); id. reporter’s note cmt. d, at 397–98 (collecting cases holding collateral relief from the conviction is not required when the malpractice plaintiff does not challenge the conviction); see also Johnson, 136 P.3d at 80 (“An unlawful restraint of liberty can constitute harm . . . .”); Powell v. Associated Counsel for the Accused, 129 P.3d 831, 833 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006) (“His unlawful restraint beyond th[e maximum] period [allowed by law] was not a consequence of his own actions.”).
The district court hearing Kraklio’s revocation challenge ruled that his probation actually had ended while he was incarcerated for the probation violation. We conclude this ruling constituted sufficient relief from the alleged sentencing error to avoid summary judgment under the relief-required rule.
Note the significant improvements in access to case information on the Iowa Supreme Court web page. (Mike Frisch)