Friday, February 5, 2016
Actual innocence need not be proven for a defendant to sue a criminal defense attorney for malpractice, according to a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court
In the present case, the plaintiff faults his former criminal defense attorneys for allowing him to plead guilty to a specific crime that lacked a factual basis. He sued the attorneys for malpractice, but the district court granted them summary judgment because the plaintiff could not show he was actually innocent of any offense that formed the basis for the underlying criminal case.
On our review, we decline to adopt proof of actual innocence as a separate prerequisite to recovery for legal malpractice against criminal defense attorneys. Instead, we believe judges and juries should take innocence or guilt into account in determining whether the traditional elements of a legal malpractice claim have been established. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.
The court discusses the issue and concludes
we think the causation determination will frequently take into account the guilt or innocence of the client. And ultimately, we are not persuaded by the remaining public policy concerns other than causation. For example, while the notion that an individual should not "profit from participating in an illegal act" is a good general principle, Humphries, 712 S.E.2d at 800, it is too general to describe how our legal system actually operates. We do not bar criminal defendants who are guilty of their crimes from recovering overpayments from their criminal defense counsel, suing for clearly illegal searches, or suing the medical staff in the prison for medical malpractice. By analogy, a criminal defendant who is convicted of a crime due to legal malpractice, and gets that conviction set aside, should not be categorically barred from suing his or her former attorney just because the defendant may have been guilty of some lesser charge that would have resulted in a lower sentence.
Likewise, our legal malpractice precedents have not adopted the principle that "subsequent negligent conduct" by the attorney can be compared to the "culpability" of the client that required him to need legal services in the first place. See Wiley, 966 P.2d at 986; cf. Restatement (Third) § 54 cmt. d, at 404 (discussing the scope of comparative negligence in the context of legal malpractice and noting that "clients are entitled to rely on their lawyers to act with competence, diligence, honesty, and loyalty").
Further, the potential for "nuisance" suit did not alter the public policy analysis. (Mike Frisch)