Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Fact-Specific Approach

The Minnesota Supreme Court holds that a legal malpractice case survives a statute of limitations defense.

Multiple acts by the same lawyer may give rise to separate claims for legal malpractice. To determine when multiple acts by the same lawyer are independent acts of negligence, a fact-specific approach should be used that may include weighing whether the plaintiff’s position was significantly worsened, whether the subsequent act involved the same type of conduct, whether the acts occurred at different times and during different transactions, whether the subsequent act was connected by a causal link to the first, and whether the subsequent act explicitly relied on the continued validity of the prior work.

 The loss of an opportunity to control one’s assets satisfies the "some damage" requirement for accrual of a legal-malpractice claim.

The case

At issue is whether appellant Joseph Frederick has filed a timely legal-malpractice claim under Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(5) (2016). Frederick’s attorney, respondent Kay Wallerich, prepared an antenuptial agreement for Frederick and his then-fiancée, Cynthia Gatliff, in 2006. The agreement did not include the statutorily required witness signatures, however, thus making it unenforceable. Frederick and Gatliff were married the next day. One year later, Wallerich drafted a will for Frederick, which incorporated the antenuptial agreement by reference. According to the will, Frederick did not leave any assets to Gatliff because the antenuptial agreement already specified the portion of his assets that she was to receive upon his death. When Gatliff filed for divorce after 6 years of marriage, she alleged that the antenuptial agreement was invalid because it lacked the requisite witness signatures.

Later that year, Frederick commenced a lawsuit against Wallerich for legal malpractice. Although the invalid execution of the antenuptial agreement fell outside of the 6-year limitations period for malpractice claims, Frederick alleged that subsequent representations by Wallerich that the antenuptial agreement was valid—most significantly when Wallerich drafted his will 1 year later—were separate legal-malpractice claims that each triggered their own statute of limitations periods. Wallerich moved for judgment on the pleadings, which the district court granted, determining that all of Frederick’s claims related to the antenuptial agreement were untimely filed. The court of appeals affirmed. Because we hold that Frederick has sufficiently alleged that Wallerich’s will drafting formed the basis for a separate malpractice claim within the limitations period, we reverse and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

 (Mike Frisch)

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