NY: underlying employment discrimination action
Facts: Plaintiff Steven L. Aaron was the defendant in two consolidated Federal sexual harassment suits. Defendant law firm Roemer, Wallens & Mineaux, or RWM (with defendant Richard J. Zahnleuter as the attorney who was primarily responsible for Mr. Aaron’s representation in the Federal sexual harassment suits) appeared on his behalf and filed answers in July and September 1995, even though plaintiff had neither signed a written retainer agreement nor paid a retainer fee. The relationship between Mr. Aaron and RWM went sour, and RWM indicated to him that it had taken steps to withdraw as counsel. Withdrawal was finalized by the District Court on November 17, 1995. Mr. Aaron retained new counsel and in April 1998 a judgment in the Federal sexual harassment action was handed down which awarded compensatory and punitive damages to the Federal plaintiffs. Mr. Aaron commenced a legal malpractice action on November 17, 1998, alleging that defendants were negligent in failing to assert an affirmative defense (the affirmative defense being that one of the Federal claims would have been time-barred) in the Federal action. Defendant’s answer asserted that the three-year statue of limitations on the malpractice action barred the present action, and defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The Supreme Court denied this motion, asserting that the attorney-client relationship between defendant and plaintiff did not terminated until November 17, 1995. Defendant appeals this ruling.
Issue: Was the motion for summary judgment properly denied?
Ruling: No. A claim to recover damages for legal malpractice accrues when the malpractice is committed, and must be interposed within three years from that date. The omissions by defendants occurred in July and September 1995 (when they interposed answers on behalf of plaintiff in his Federal actions) and, unless the statute of limitations was tolled by the continuous representation rule, the action is time barred. The court found that the continuous representation rule did not apply here.
Lesson: A claim for legal malpractice accrues when the alleged malpractice is committed, and must be brought within three years thereafter. An action that is not brought within this three-year period will be time-barred unless Plaintiffs are able to invoke the continuous representation rule.