Thursday, April 29, 2021
No Privity, No Recovery, When Law Firm Seeks Payment From Client's Insurer
A law firm may not recover its legal fees from its client's insurer according to a decision of the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department
Plaintiff law firm lacks standing to recover its legal fees under the insurance policy, to which it is not a named party (Miller & Wrubel, P.C. v Todtman, Nachamie, Spizz & Johns, P.C., 106 AD3d 446 [1st Dept 2013]). Plaintiff was merely an "incidental beneficiary to its client's malpractice insurance policy" (id.). Thus, the motion court properly found that plaintiff's sole recourse was against the insured, its client, and not its client's insurance provider.
Plaintiff's argument that it had a direct contract with defendant on account of the various correspondence between itself and one of defendant's employees also fails. Indeed, these letters merely confirm, consistent with the policy's requirement that the insurer's consent of the insured's choice of counsel not be "unreasonably withheld," that defendant consented to the insured's continued retention of plaintiff.
The motion court also properly dismissed plaintiff's claim for unjust enrichment, which required a showing, among other things, that defendant was enriched (Mandarin Trading Ltd. v Wildenstein, 16 NY3d 173, 182 ). It is undisputed that defendant will pay the full limit of the policy to reimburse the insured for its defense and settlement costs of the covered claims, regardless of whether those costs were incurred by plaintiff or the other lawyers that the insured retained. Further, the retainer agreements between plaintiff and the insured govern this dispute, which provides a further basis for affirming the order (Clark-Fitzpatrick, Inc. v Long Is. R.R. Co., 70 NY2d 382, 388 ).