Friday, May 11, 2018

Too Late To Sue

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed a court appeals decision and granted summary judgment to the defendant law firm in a legal malpractice case

A client appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of her attorney and the attorney’s law firm in her legal negligence action. The client argued the court erred in finding the statute of limitations barred her action. She also contended the court erred in declining to apply the discovery rule, the continuous-representation rule, or the doctrine of fraudulent concealment.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which reversed the judgment of the district court. The attorney and his firm applied for further review, which we granted. On further review, we hold no genuine issue of material fact exists as to when the cause of action accrued and the statute of limitations bars the client’s action because the cause of action accrued more than five years before she filed suit. We also hold the client may not use the discovery rule, the continuous-representation rule, or the doctrine of fraudulent concealment to circumvent the limitations period. Accordingly, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the judgment of the district court.

The alleged malpractice was advice to the client to pay estate bills from exempt funds (life insurance and 401k payments). 

we find Skadburg sustained actual, nonspeculative injury when she paid the creditors with the exempt funds on Gately’s alleged advice in 2008. Therefore, her cause of action accrued in 2008 when she made those payments. Because Skadburg made these payments more than five years before she commenced this action on August 19, 2015, section 614.1(4) bars her action unless a legal doctrine tolls the limitations period or estops Gately from raising the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense.

Skadburg argues three exceptions to the strict commencement of the limitations period. These exceptions are the discovery rule, the continuous-representation rule, and the doctrine of fraudulent concealment. Although Gately has the burden of establishing the statute-of-limitations defense, Skadburg, as the party attempting to avoid the limitations period, has the burden of demonstrating any exception.

Communications between lawyer and client showed client knowledge

Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Skadburg, the latest date she had actual or imputed knowledge of the possible connection between Gately’s advice and the damages caused by that advice, i.e., the payment of the estate’s debts from exempt funds was March 26, 2010. Accordingly, we find there is no genuine issue of material fact that by March 26, 2010, Skadburg had the duty to investigate the possible connection between Gately’s bad legal advice and her damages once she knew of such a possibility. At that time, the statute of limitations began to run under the discovery rule. She filed her action more than five years after March 26, 2010.

The court rejects the continuous representation rule where the client knows of the alleged malpractice and as to fraudulent concealment

We conclude as a matter of law Skadburg failed to prove by a clear and convincing preponderance of the evidence elements (2) and (4) of fraudulent concealment because Skadburg knew or was on inquiry notice about the deficiencies in Gately’s advice at the time she sent her communications. Thus, her reliance upon the alleged concealment was unreasonable. Accordingly, no genuine issue of fact exists as to whether Gately fraudulently concealed Skadburg’s cause of action for legal negligence, and Gately is entitled to judgment.

Link to the briefs and oral argument here. (Mike Frisch)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2018/05/the-iowa-supreme-court-reversed-a-court-appeals-decision-and-granted-summary-judgment-to-the-defendant-law-firm-in-a-legal-ma.html

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