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Defenses: Collateral Estoppel on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Alevras v. Tacopina, 399 F.Supp.2d 567, (N.J. 2005); 

NJ Underlying criminal action.

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiff was prosecuted and indicted on various counts of criminal violations in federal criminal court. He was appointed counsel but later retained the defendants to represent him. With the advice of his attorneys the plaintiff accepted an unfavorable plea agreement and began serving his sentence. After the plaintiff entered his guilty plea, he brought a 20 U.S.C. β 2255 motion, pro se, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. His motion was denied by the District Court and the plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit. The District Court held four evidentiary hearings on remand regarding the plaintiff’s motion, but the plaintiff’s petition was denied for a second time and affirmed by the Third Circuit. Then the plaintiff filed a seven count civil complaint against the defendant alleging legal malpractice. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint and made a motion for summary judgment.

Issue: Whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars a criminal defendant from making civil legal malpractice claims for criminal malpractice where claims for ineffective assistance of counsel have been adjudicated, decided and rejected in a 20 U.S.C. β 2255 criminal proceeding?

Ruling: Yes. In granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice, the District Court held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars a legal malpractice claim against a criminal defense attorney based on the following reasoning:
1) The doctrine of collateral estoppel prevents a party from re-litigating issues that have previously been adjudicated and decided previously by another court of competent jurisdiction. Thus, where the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel has been fully litigated in the post-conviction proceeding, it may not be considered again in a civil proceeding.
2) As a matter of public policy, we cannot allow criminal defendants to re-litigate issues in civil court where the same issue was litigated by a court of competent jurisdiction. To allow otherwise would undermine the effective administration of the judicial system.  

Lesson: A criminal defendant cannot bring a legal malpractice case concerning the quality of his criminal defense counsel when he raised or had a full and fair opportunity to raise the issue  of ineffective assistance of counsel and he knew the facts regarding the attorneys alleged malpractice during the criminal proceedings.


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Posted in: Criminal Law, Defenses, Federal, New Jersey