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In Ruling Clarifying NJ Legal-Malpractice Law, Judge Dismisses Suit against Divorce Attorney

Case Study

In Ruling Clarifying NJ Legal-Malpractice Law, Judge Dismisses Suit against Divorce Attorney

By the time Seth L. Laver finished drafting the legal document, he’d spent upward of 100 hours on it.

Some of that was at the office. Some of it was at home after putting the kids to bed. And all of it paid off once fellow Goldberg Segalla partner Matthew S. Marrone stepped into a New Jersey courtroom and successfully argued the points laid out in the 26-page brief Seth wrote supporting the attorneys’ motion for summary judgment.

In a November 30 ruling expected to help define what constitutes a viable legal-malpractice claim in New Jersey, a state Superior Court judge granted the Goldberg Segalla attorneys’ motion and dismissed the suit against their client, a lawyer sued for negligence by a woman he once represented in a contentious divorce. The judge’s decision saved our client as much as $500,000—the amount of the plaintiff’s demand based on her trucker ex-husband’s income, which fluctuated between $25,000 and $85,000 annually. It also saved our client the uncertainty and stress of a trial, which was fast approaching as Seth and Matt sought to have the case dismissed based on evidence already presented. With the trial scheduled to start Monday, December 3, Matt successfully argued for summary judgment three days before, on Friday.

The clock wasn’t all that was working against Seth and Matt. So were the odds, Matt figured, given the vagaries of legal-malpractice law in New Jersey, which until now hasn’t been clear about what constitutes a legitimate claim. In helping define what rises to the level of provable legal malpractice, Goldberg Segalla’s successful defense of the divorce lawyer should help in future legal-malpractice cases in New Jersey, Seth said. “We think this case would help to define when a legal malpractice claim in New Jersey accrues, or comes into existence as a legally enforceable claim, and what the standards there are to support a legal malpractice case,” he said.

The suit, filed November 28, 2016, alleged that the divorce attorney for the plaintiff, a mother of two, should have told her she was entitled to permanent alimony before she agreed to a temporary nine-year arrangement. Though the 2003 divorce settlement that ended her 17-year marriage stated she could go back to court when alimony ended to try and make it permanent, she was unsuccessful when she sought to do so through new attorneys. So she sued the lawyer who had represented her in the divorce, alleging he should have advised her to go to trial rather than to settle for temporary alimony.

Tapped to defend the divorce lawyer, Seth and Matt set about the task with characteristic expertise and skill and the sort of teamwork honed as they work together in Goldberg Segalla’s Philadelphia office and in the firm’s Management and Professional Liability Practice Group.

Seth represents attorneys, accountants, real-estate and insurance professionals, and architects across the country and counsels clients in risk-management, workplace issues, and other matters. Though he seeks to avoid litigation and minimize risk, when necessary he calls on his extensive experience handling individual and class-action cases; for clients who do end up embroiled in disputes or claims, he uses holistic legal strategies customized to their immediate needs and long-term goals and aims to resolve the litigation as quickly and cost-efficiently as possible.

Matt, too, has represented clients in many forms of complex litigation, some at risk of losses exceeding $10 million. He has tried numerous cases to verdict and argued before various courts of appeal, including the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. His experience includes liability matters involving non-profit directors and officers and governments; civil rights and employment issues; product-liability; trademark and copyright infringement; and death or catastrophic-injury litigation. He also frequently counsels and represents insurers in coverage disputes.

As Matt and Seth mounted a defense for their divorce-lawyer client, they were prepared to go to trial, for they didn’t expect the plaintiff to settle for anything less than six figures—an amount to which they wouldn’t agree.

In terms of the damages awarded, legal-malpractice suits—those cases in which a lawyer needs a lawyer—have the potential to be extremely costly professional-liability cases. While a 2018 study shows the number of legal-malpractice claims has remained fairly constant, it also shows that the amounts paid out in them has increased. In 2017, five major insurers made payouts exceeding $50 million, three paid claims between $50 and $100 million, and one paid more than $150 million, according to the 2018 study. Though not on that level, the suit against the New Jersey divorce lawyer had the potential to be quite costly in its own right, likely ranging into six figures.

Faced with two unappealing options—going to trial or agreeing to an unacceptable settlement—Seth and Matt decided on a third course of action. They would file a motion for summary judgement seeking to have the suit dismissed. Carefully citing facts of the case already on record from testimony or evidence discovered while investigating the dispute, Seth’s brief supporting the motion drilled down on three main arguments:

  • The plaintiff voluntarily settled the divorce case;
  • She filed her suit after the statute of limitations had run out; and
  • Her attorney in the divorce was not liable for malpractice.

In the brief, Seth summed up the case in no-nonsense language: “Rather than taking her chances of potentially a greater (or lower) recovery following trial,” he wrote, “[the plaintiff] accepted the certainty of a resolution and expressed her satisfaction with the agreement under oath. It was a great deal [but she] had a change of heart.”

After listening to Matt argue the points in court, the judge agreed on all three counts and dismissed the case against our client. The ruling, Seth said, is “a big deal” for legal-malpractice law in New Jersey, which has long been difficult to navigate, especially for defendants.