August 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Bringing Malpractice Claim to Reduce Liability for Attorney Fees is Not Abuse of Process

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Parks v. Edward Dale Parrish, LLC on Thursday, February 7, 2019.

Torts—Malpractice—Abuse of Process—Breach of Fiduciary Duty—Attorney Fees—Expert Witness

Parrish and Edward Dale Parrish LLC (defendants) represented plaintiff in two cases, a partition case and a dissolution case, against plaintiff’s former, long-term girlfriend. Plaintiff was not satisfied with the results. After he failed to pay Parrish for his legal services, Parrish filed a notice of attorney’s lien in the partition case. In response, plaintiff filed this case against defendants, alleging that they provided negligent representation and breached their fiduciary duty to him in both cases. Defendants counterclaimed for breach of contract (seeking an award of fees incurred in previously representing plaintiff) and abuse of process (based on plaintiff bringing this case).

At the close of plaintiff’s evidence, defendants moved for directed verdicts on all of his claims. The district court concluded that the breach of fiduciary duty claim was duplicative of the negligence claim and dismissed that claim. Plaintiff moved for a directed verdict on the counterclaims, which the court denied. The jury returned verdicts for defendants on all claims and counterclaims. The court also awarded defendants costs for their expert witness. Plaintiff moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). This motion was deemed denied when the district court did not timely act on it. 

On appeal, plaintiff first contended that the district court erred in denying his motion for directed verdict and motion for JNOV on defendants’ abuse of process counterclaim. Bringing a malpractice case to obtain a result that such an action is designed to achieve doesn’t constitute an improper use of process, regardless of the motive. Here, the district court erred in reasoning that the jury could find an abuse of process if it found merely that defendants didn’t provide negligent representation. Given the lack of evidence of any improper use of process, the district court should have granted plaintiff’s motion for a directed verdict or motion for JNOV on the abuse of process counterclaim.

Plaintiff next contended that the district court erred in dismissing as duplicative his breach of fiduciary duty claim relating to the partition case. Where the professional negligence claim and breach of fiduciary duty claim arise from the same material facts and the allegations pertain to an attorney’s exercise of professional judgment, the breach of fiduciary duty claim should be dismissed as duplicative.  Here, plaintiff alleged that Parrish breached his fiduciary duty by entering into a stipulation without his consent. The same allegation underlies in part the negligence claim and implicates Parrish’s exercise of professional judgment. Therefore, the district court did not err in dismissing the breach of fiduciary duty claim.

Plaintiff also contended that the district court erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict on defendants’ breach of contract counterclaim. Defendants claimed that plaintiff breached a contract by failing to pay them attorney fees. Plaintiff argued that defendants had to prove the reasonableness of the fees they sought through expert testimony, and because defendants didn’t present any such testimony, the claim necessarily fails. When breach of contract damages are unpaid attorney fees, laypersons can determine the reasonableness of fees without an expert’s help. Here, Parrish testified about the services rendered, the reasonableness of the time spent on the services, and the fees charged for the services, and the jury considered the bills to plaintiff. Thus, the jury had sufficient evidence to assess the reasonableness of the claimed fees.

The judgment in favor of defendants on the abuse of process counterclaim was vacated. The judgment was affirmed in all other respects. The case was remanded for the district court to enter judgment in plaintiff’s favor on the abuse of process counterclaim and to amend the judgment as to damages accordingly.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Burden to Prove Collectability of Judgment in Underlying Case Lies with Claimant

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in LeHouiller v. Gallegos on Monday, January 28, 2019.

Attorney Malpractice—Burden of Proof—Tort.

In this attorney malpractice case founded on professional negligence, the supreme court was asked to decide who—the client or the attorney—bears the burden to prove that any judgment that could have been obtained against the underlying defendant would or would not have been collectible. The court held that because the collectibility of the underlying judgment is essential to the causation and damages elements of a client’s negligence claim against an attorney, the client-plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the lost judgment in the underlying case was collectible.

Here, the record shows that client-plaintiff failed to prove that the underlying judgment would have been collectible. However, given the absence of a clear statement from this court regarding client-plaintiff’s burden to prove collectibility at the time of trial, and given that the issue was not raised in this case until after client-plaintiff had presented her case-in-chief, the court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.