Tuesday, September 20, 2022
Class Action Against Class Counsel Revived
The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the dismissal of a legal malpractice claim against class counsel
This is a proposed class action lawsuit pertaining to actions allegedly taken by attorney Kathryn Barnett and others in connection with prior class action litigation concerning the Galilee Memorial Gardens cemetery. In the prior class action case (“the Galilee Class Action”), Ms. Barnett served as lead counsel for a class that alleged several defendant funeral homes had wrongfully abandoned the remains of the class’ deceased loved ones at the cemetery. See Wofford v. M.J. Edwards & Sons Funeral Home Inc., 528 S.W.3d 524, 527 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2017) (affirming trial court’s decision granting class certification in the Galilee Class Action). Under the operative complaint in the present case, which is brought by Plaintiff April Hawthorne, a member of the Galilee Class Action class, it is generally alleged that Ms. Barnett and attorney John Morgan, along with their corporate affiliates, refused to entertain and respond to over $14,475,000.00 in settlement offers made by the funeral home defendants during the pendency of the Galilee Class Action.
Having considered the matter on appeal, we respectfully disagree with the trial court and hold that claims for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duties are sufficiently well-pleaded in the complaint. It is not exactly clear why the trial court was of the opinion that the Plaintiff’s allegations do not rise to the level of actionable conduct, but it appears clear to this Court that the Plaintiff has pled facts implicating valid legal theories. Indeed, the Plaintiff has accused the class counsel in the Galilee Class Action of having acted recklessly, by among other things, ignoring settlement offers and rejecting them on illogical bases, and of having failed to carry out fundamental obligations owed to represented clients, namely not communicating the fact that settlement offers had been made. Of course, the Plaintiff has asserted that damages resulted from class counsel’s failures to act upon the settlement offers such that actual settlements could be achieved.
We also conclude that the claim for punitive damages was sufficiently pled and note that the complaint submits that the Defendants’ actions were, among other things, “at the bare minimum, reckless.” We, therefore, reverse the trial court’s dismissal of the legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duties, and punitive damages claims.