Friday, July 5, 2019
The Utah Supreme Court reversed the entry of summary judgment for the defendant in a legal malpractice claim, holding that the four-year statute of limitations had not expired.
Matthew Ross Thomas claims he was convicted of two felonies because of malpractice by his trial counsel, Lyle Hillyard. Following his trial, Mr. Thomas hired new counsel and was able to secure a new trial. He then accepted a plea deal in which he achieved a better result than he had received at trial—replacing two felony convictions with three misdemeanor convictions. We must determine when his malpractice cause of action accrued.
The former client prevailed
We conclude that Mr. Thomas’s claim accrued at the conclusion of his criminal case—when he pled guilty to three misdemeanors. Because we find that Mr. Thomas’s claim was timely filed, we reverse.
Mr. Thomas was charged and convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual abuse. He hired Mr. Hillyard as his attorney. On October 26, 2012, a jury found him guilty of both felony counts. Mr. Thomas contends that Mr. Hillyard’s representation at trial was deficient in several respects. Specifically, he argues that Mr. Hillyard failed to object to inadmissible testimony from Mr. Thomas’s daughter and her counselor, failed to object to inadmissible other-acts evidence presented in his ex-wife’s testimony, failed to request key jury instructions, and failed to object to prejudicial statements in the prosecutor’s closing argument.
The statute of limitations for criminal defense malpractice begins at the end
We hold that a legal malpractice claim based on alleged malpractice committed in the course of a criminal proceeding does not accrue until the underlying action has concluded and there is no appeal of right available. Additionally, we hold that if a defendant chooses to pursue a claim under the Post-Conviction Remedies Act (PCRA), the statute of limitations will be tolled throughout the pendency of the claim. Under this framework, Mr. Thomas’s claim was timely. So we reverse and remand to the district court.
Today we hold that where there is an ongoing proceeding, the resolution of which informs the fact of malpractice or damages, the claim does not accrue until the conclusion of that proceeding...
We hold that a malpractice claim does not accrue until the underlying direct action has concluded and there is no appeal of right available. Once there is no appeal of right available, the harm is sufficiently final. So the cause of action accrues and the statute of limitations begins to run. Defendants may, of course, decline to bring a direct appeal, in which case they may bring a malpractice action following expiration of the time to file an appeal. But if a defendant chooses to appeal, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the appeal is final.