Wednesday, April 15, 2020
The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that a public defender is protected from liability by state law.
This case arises out of the representation of plaintiff Antonio Chaparro Nieves by a state public defender, Peter Adolf, Esq., for criminal charges related to sexual assault. After his conviction, Nieves was granted postconviction relief based on the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. DNA evidence later confirmed that Nieves was not the perpetrator, and the underlying indictment against him was dismissed. Nieves subsequently recovered $608,333.33 in damages from the State under N.J.S.A. 52:4C-2, a section of the Mistaken Imprisonment Act, N.J.S.A. 52:4C-1 to -7, for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He then filed the present legal malpractice action seeking damages against the Office of the Public Defender and Adolf.
Excerpted from the court's headnotes
The Court considers whether the Tort Claims Act (TCA), which governs tort actions filed against public entities and employees, applies to a criminal defendant’s legal malpractice claim filed against his public defender. The Court also considers whether, if the TCA applies, a claim for loss of liberty damages is subject to its “verbal threshold” for pain and suffering awards, as set forth in N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d).
This case arises out of the representation of plaintiff Antonio Chaparro Nieves by a state public defender, Peter Adolf, Esq. After his conviction, Nieves was granted postconviction relief based on the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. DNA evidence later confirmed that Nieves was not the perpetrator, and the underlying indictment against him was dismissed. Nieves subsequently recovered damages from the State for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He then filed the present legal malpractice action seeking damages against the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) and Adolf.
Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the TCA barred the damages sought because Nieves failed to vault N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d)’s verbal threshold. The motion court concluded that the TCA and its verbal threshold were inapplicable. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that “public defenders are public employees that come within the TCA’s immunities and defenses” and that Nieves’s claim fell squarely within the TCA. The Appellate Division also held that plaintiff’s claim for loss of liberty damages fell within the TCA’s limitation on recovery for pain and suffering in N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), which Nieves failed to satisfy.
The Court granted certification “limited to the issues of whether legal malpractice claims are exempt from the [TCA] and whether plaintiff’s ‘loss of liberty’ damages claim is subject to the verbal threshold of the TCA.” 237 N.J. 428 (2019).
HELD: The TCA applied to Nieves’s legal malpractice action, and his claim for loss of liberty damages failed to vault the verbal threshold for a pain and suffering damages claim under the strictures of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). Defendants were entitled to summary judgment...
Although the professional representational duty owed by a public defender is to his or her individual client, N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-11, public defenders are performing a public function -- that of ensuring representation for indigent defendants in criminal matters brought by the State, see N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-3, -5. The fact that such attorneys are adversaries of other state actors prosecuting the criminal charges does not mean they lose their state public employee status under the TCA. The Act contains no express exemption for public defenders, or for public entities and public employees who fall within the definitions of those terms but are excluded because of the nature of their work. The OPD is a public entity under the TCA and Adolf is an employee of that public entity. Therefore, the TCA with its immunities, defenses, and limitation on tort claims filed against public entities and their public employees applies to defendants...
JUSTICE ALBIN, dissenting in part, agrees that the TCA applies here and would also hold that non-pecuniary damages -- such as pain and suffering, loss of liberty, and loss of enjoyment of life -- should not be awarded in legal malpractice cases at least in the absence of egregious or extraordinary circumstances. Justice Albin disagrees, however, that the TCA’s limitation on awards for “pain and suffering” in N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) also limits awards for loss of liberty, which is a distinct species of damages not mentioned in the statute. In Justice Albin’s view, neither the text of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) nor the Court’s jurisprudence equates pain and suffering damages with loss of liberty damages, and the majority’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d) will have unintended negative consequences in cases unrelated to legal malpractice.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA’s opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate opinion, dissenting in part.
The Bar's view
The New Jersey State Bar Association fully supports defendants’ position that the TCA applies to claims of legal malpractice filed against public defenders in connection with representation of indigent individuals in criminal proceedings.
From the dissent
There is no basis in the TCA or our jurisprudence for the majority’s conclusion that “loss of liberty damages fall within the subset of emotional distress” in legal malpractice actions, see ante at ___ (slip op. at 19), or, for that matter, in any other legal action. Had the Legislature intended to sweep into the verbal threshold more than just pain and suffering damages, the statute would have limited the recovery of not just pain and suffering but also loss of liberty damages, or would have limited recovery of all non pecuniary damages. See N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). We must presume that the Legislature is conversant with our jurisprudence, that it chose the statute’s language with precision, and that it intended what it said. DiProspero, 183 N.J. at 492-94. Limiting the verbal threshold to pain and suffering was a policy choice made by the Legislature. This Court should not extend the metes and bounds of the verbal threshold beyond the Legislature’s clearly expressed intention...
Words and phrases make a difference. They do not have endless elasticity. Defining loss of liberty damages as the same as pain and suffering and emotional distress damages is a breaking point. I therefore respectfully dissent.
Video of oral argument is linked here.
The court affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division. (Mike Frisch)