Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Buck And A Bed Leads To A Legal Malpractice Matter Of First Impression In Idaho

A disinherited son lost his legal malpractice case in the Idaho Supreme Court which affirmed the grant of summary judgment by the district court.

The court considered a matter of first impression: the problem of a "hypothetical appeal." 

Thomas Lanham (Thomas) appeals from the district court’s dismissal of his legal malpractice action against his former attorney, Douglas Fleenor (Fleenor). Fleenor represented Thomas in a will contest regarding the will of Gordon Lanham (Gordon), Thomas’s father. After the magistrate court ruled against Thomas at the summary judgment stage, Fleenor filed an untimely appeal, which was rejected on that basis.

Because the appeal brought by Fleenor was untimely, Thomas brought a legal malpractice action against Fleenor in district court. Thomas alleged that the failure to timely appeal the magistrate’s ruling proximately caused him financial loss because he had a meritorious appeal that he never got to pursue due to Fleenor’s negligence.

The will

The facts in this case are largely undisputed. On November 16, 2010, Gordon began dictating his Will via an audio recording device. Gordon recorded his Will intermittently on nine separate days, concluding on January 7, 2011. On January 19, 2011, the ten dictated paragraphs were transcribed into his written Will. On February 19, 2011, the Will was signed, witnessed, and notarized. Thomas has not contested the validity of the Will.

In his Will, Gordon explicitly limited the inheritance of Thomas and Thomas’s brother Keith Lanham to one dollar and one wooden bed each.

After Gordon died

Thomas later retained Fleenor to challenge certain portions of the Will. Fleenor filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the Will failed to properly dispose of the residue of Gordon’s estate (including the subject properties); the effect of which would mean any property not specifically devised would pass to Thomas and Keith as Gordon’s intestate heirs. In response, Judd, acting on behalf of Gordon’s estate, filed a cross-motion for summary judgment arguing Thomas’s claim should be dismissed because Gordon’s intent to disinherit his sons was clear and the Will fully and properly disposed of all of Gordon’s property.

When Thomas lost

Fleenor filed a notice of appeal to the district court on August 13, 2014, forty-nine days after the magistrate’s written judgment was filed. (The time for filing an appeal is forty-two days. I.R.C.P. 83(b)(1)(A).) The district court dismissed the appeal as untimely and found that the June 20, 2014 motion to reconsider did not toll the period for appeal, because the magistrate’s written decision was filed after the motion for reconsideration was filed.

At issue 

the district court ruled that a determination of whether an underlying, unperfected appeal would have been successful, if pursued in a timely way, was a question of law for the court to decide. (An unperfected appeal giving rise to a legal malpractice suit will be referred to in this decision as a “hypothetical appeal.”)

The court here found that the attorney was properly awarded summary judgment by the district court

Although this Court has decided many legal malpractice cases, it does not appear to have decided one in which the basis for the legal malpractice claim was an unperfected appeal. Consequently, we must decide, as a matter of first impression, if the potential success of a hypothetical appeal is an issue of fact to be decided by a jury, or rather is it a question of law for the court to decide. We conclude, as have twenty-eight other jurisdictions (twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia, 4 RONALD E. MALLEN, LEGAL MALPRACTICE § 33:118 at n.9 (2018 ed.)), that it is a question of law to be decided by the court. 

An appeal would have lost

In reviewing the tripartite test set out in Krokowsky each component has been met. Gordon intended to create an unfettered power allowing Judd to distribute his estate “in any way he sees fit”; he granted the authority to his “friend and cousin” Judd Lanham; and he specified the property over which the power existed: “all my personal and real property” not bequeathed in the Will.

The fact that Gordon also clearly and unequivocally disinherited Thomas in the Will supports the conclusion that Gordon intended to convey a general power of appointment to Judd and that he did not want the residue go to Thomas. As Gordon wrote in his Will:

Thanksgiving is over and I just wanted to add to this program that my son, Thomas Everett Lanham, 48 years old, has already been given all he needs to have and that I am going to leave $1 more dollar [sic] against whatever is legal to him and then he is going to be on his own.

Giving Gordon’s Will the technical interpretation Thomas suggests would only frustrate Gordon’s intent.

Thomas is not obligated to pay attorney's fees

In this case, Thomas is not asking this Court to second-guess evidence or findings of fact. The core issue turns on an unsettled question of law. The issue before this Court is a matter of first impression. The Will did not include the phrase “power of appointment.” It was therefore reasonable for Thomas to appeal in order to have an unsettled question of law answered.

Consequently, Fleenor’s request for attorney’s fees is denied.

Shout out to Mike Oths and Concordia Law students who make up our Idaho readership. (Mike Frisch)

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