Friday, May 1, 2015
Claims by the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune against Proskauer Rose LLP on allegations of fraud, excessive legal fees and unjust enrichment may go forward, according to a decision yesterday by the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department.
The court affirmed dismissal of the legal malpractice claim.
The law firm had initiated discussions of the possible sale of long-held J & J stock. The plaintiffs agreed to consider the law firm's proposal.
The issue involved a complex series of steps recommended "to effectuate the tax [avoidance] strategy."
Between October 13, 2000 and November 30, 2000, plaintiffs took the complex series of steps recommended by TDG [a business that developed tax avoidance strategies] and Proskauer to effectuate the tax strategy. They paid TDG a total of $1,379,650 in fees and costs, of which they allege that $425,000 was paid by TDG to Proskauer to cover its legal fee.
In June 2001, Proskauer sent plaintiffs a 63-page opinion letter, dated December 29, 2000, which concluded that "it was more likely than not" that the scheme, already executed, would not generate any gain or loss, or accrue any penalties if it was disallowed by the IRS.
In January 2002, the IRS announced a tax amnesty program which allegedly would have been applicable to plaintiffs' situation. However, Proskauer did not notify plaintiffs of that program. In April 2006, the IRS sent plaintiffs a letter requesting documents and detailed information about the tax avoidance strategy they had implemented over five years earlier. Plaintiffs sought counsel from Waxenberg, but he informed them that Proskauer was conflicted by its representation of TDG. Concerned that the agency would ultimately challenge the scheme and assess penalties against them, plaintiffs secured a tolling agreement from Proskauer which, after a later extension, tolled the statute of limitations for any claims against Proskauer up to and including July 31, 2011. Ultimately, the IRS ruled the shelter transaction was not entitled to favorable capital gains tax treatment and assessed plaintiffs back taxes, penalties and interest amounting to millions of dollars.
In December 2010, plaintiffs became aware of a decision in a federal case in Massachusetts District Court (Fidelity Intl. Currency Advisor A Fund, LLC v United States, 747 F Supp 2d 49 [D Ma 2010]). That case was brought by a former Proskauer client who had executed a tax avoidance plan similar to that recommended to plaintiffs by Proskauer and Akselrad. The District Court, after a 44-day trial, issued findings of fact and conclusions of law which stated that the attorneys "agreed in advance to provide favorable legal opinions in order to induce taxpayer-investor" to get involved in the shelter opportunity, and that Proskauer and another law firm had "derived substantial profit from the promotion and sale of the tax shelter strategy, and therefore had a financial interest in upholding the strategy" (747 F Supp 2d at 212, 213).
In July 2011, plaintiffs commenced this action against defendants.
this Court has stated that, where an attorney enters into a business transaction with a client whereby the two parties' interests may at some point diverge, the ethics rules place on the attorney the burden of obtaining the client's consent, after full disclosure, "irrespective of the sophistication of the client" (Forest Park Assoc. Ltd. Partnership v Kraus, 175 AD2d 60, 62 [1st Dept 1991] [holding that law firm should have been disqualified from representing the plaintiff in a litigation, which was an entity in which 49 of its partners were investors, where the firm had previously represented the defendant in connection with the transaction in which the entity was formed]; accord Schlanger v Flaton, 218 AD2d 597, 602-603 [1st Dept 1995]). Accordingly, defendants were required to place plaintiffs' interests above all else, without regard to their perceived pedigrees, fortunes or business savvy.
Indeed, the mere facts that plaintiffs were wealthy and could afford high-priced counsel are insufficient for us to draw the conclusion that, as a matter of law, they should have known that there was almost a 50% possibility that the tax strategy would not succeed. On this record, defendants cannot establish the specific backgrounds of plaintiffs and their familiarity with the tax code and IRS practices such that defendants can argue that plaintiffs were not justified in relying on defendants' advice. Ironically, this argument by defendants bolsters plaintiffs' excessive fee claim, since it invites the question why, if they were truly so sophisticated, they needed a $425,000 opinion from Proskauer to convince them to pursue the TDG/Proskauer strategy. Further, it is worth noting that one of the things a sophisticated investor is presumed to know to do before entering a transaction is to consult with its attorney (see Stuart Silver Assoc. v Baco Dev. Corp., 245 AD2d 96, 99 [1st Dept 1997]). That is precisely what plaintiffs did, and they were entitled to rely on defendants' advice.
Finally, plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages properly survived dismissal. Defendants' conduct is alleged to have been directed at a wide swath of clients, and the first amended complaint sufficiently alleges intentional and malicious treatment of those clients as well as a "wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations" (Walker v Sheldon, 10 NY2d 401, 405 ). Indeed, although we offer no opinion regarding whether the particular scheme at issue was criminal in its manipulation of the tax laws, plaintiffs have demonstrated that similar tax avoidance schemes resulted in the indictments of some of their promoters. Accordingly, the demand for punitive damages is adequately stated. Defendants cite Denenberg v Rosen (71 AD3d 187 [1st Dept 2010], lv dismissed 14 NY3d 910 ) for the purported proposition that an attorney's involvement in promoting an unsuccessful tax avoidance scheme can never support a claim for punitive damages. However, this Court made no such declaration in that case. Nor did this Court find in Denenberg that the pension plan at issue was generally defective. Rather, it held that "it was the operation of plaintiff's particular plan that caused the problems with the IRS" (71 AD3d at 195) (emphasis added).