Rosemary E. Smith v. Jerome R. Lewis, 12 Cal. 3d 349 (Cal. 1975)
CA Underlying divorce action
Student Contributor: Evan Michael Hess
Facts: Defendant attorney was retained to represent Plaintiff in a divorce proceeding. The Plaintiff brought the malpractice action asserting Defendant negligently failed to assert Plaintiffs community interest in the retirement benefits of her husband. Defendant alleges that the law with regard to retirement benefits was unclear at the time of representation, thus insulating him from liability for failing to assert said claim.
Issue: How much research is enough for an attorney to avail oneself from malpractice?
Ruling: The Supreme Court of California held:
“The law is now settled in California that "retirement benefits which flow from the employment relationship, to the extent they have vested, are community property subject to equal division between the spouses in the event the marriage is dissolved." (In re Marriage of Fithian, 10 Cal.3d 592, 596, (1974) citing Waite v. Waite, 6 Cal.3d 461 (1972));
“In determining whether defendant exhibited the requisite degree of competence in his handling of plaintiff’s divorce action, the crucial inquiry is whether his advice was so legally deficient when it was given that he may be found to have failed to use "such skill, prudence, and diligence as lawyers of ordinary skill and capacity commonly possess and exercise in the performance of the tasks which they undertake." (Lucas v. Hamm, 56 Cal.2d 583, 591 (1961))”;
“an attorney does not ordinarily guarantee the soundness of his opinion . . . he is expected, however, to possess knowledge of those plain and elementary principles of law which are commonly known by well informed attorneys, and to discover those additional rules of law which, although not commonly known, may readily be found by standard research techniques.”
Lesson: Regardless of the state of the law, an attorney must, at the very least conduct due diligence to assure that the advice he gives his client is legally sound. If an attorney conducts a reasonable assessment of the state of the law, an attorney will not be held liable for failing to anticipate how that unsettled point of law will be resolved.
Note: Smith v. Lewis was overturned on other grounds in In re Marriage of Brown, 15 Cal. 3d 838, 851 (Cal. 1976).