CT: Underlying sex discrimination matter
Facts: The client hired an attorney to represent her in a sex discrimination suit against client’s former employer. The attorney filed the following claims against the employer on behalf of the client: breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision. Two years later, the attorney tried to withdraw as plaintiff’s counsel resulting from a deteriorated attorney/client relationship. The District Court granted the attorney’s second motion to withdraw since the request was accompanied by documentation supporting the attorney’s assertions as well as the client’s approval of the withdrawal. That same day, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the client’s claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision. Client’s claims for negligent infliction of emotional harm and negligent supervision were time-barred from a two-year statute of limitations while the intentional infliction of emotional harm was barred by the Workers Compensation Act. Client represented herself for two more years until she lost on all of her claims against the employer, the District Court determining that the client was not actually mistreated by her former employer.
Client then filed suit against the attorney with five claims including lawyer malpractice; alleging that the attorney was negligent in failing to timely file the client’s emotional distress claim.
Issue: Is a malpractice claim barred by the Collateral Estoppel doctrine if the court has already determined and dismissed the plaintiff’s underlying factual assertions?
Ruling: Yes. In order to prove legal malpractice, a client must show causation and damages by demonstrating that but for the attorney’s mistake (late filing of emotional distress claim), the client would have won on her emotional distress claim. To have won on her emotional distress claim, the client would have had to prove the underlying facts she is asserting (that she was mistreated by her former employer). However, since the court had previously determined that she was not mistreated, the client could not have won on her emotional distress claim. Therefore, the client cannot prevail on a lawyer malpractice claim. The client is also barred from trying to reassert those facts (that she was mistreated) because the court had already determined that there was no mistreatment. This is called the Collateral Estoppel doctrine.
Lesson: “Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, is that aspect of res judicata which prohibits the re-litigation of an issue when that issue was actually litigated and necessarily determined in a prior action between the same parties upon a different claim.” This rule may serve to insulate attorneys from some claims of legal malpractice.