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Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: Bar to Civil Action for Legal Malpractice

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

NJ Underlying criminal action

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiff was indicted and prosecuted on various counts of criminal violations in federal court. He was appointed counsel, but later retained the defendants to represent him. Upon advice of the defendant attorneys, plaintiff accepted an unfavorable plea agreement and began serving his sentence. At some point thereafter, the plaintiff brought a 20 U.S.C. 2255 motion, pro se, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. His motion was denied by the United States District Court, District of New Jersey, and the plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit. The Court held four evidentiary hearings regarding the plaintiff’s motion, but the plaintiff’s petition was denied. The Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, affirmed the denial. Plaintiff subsequently filed a civil complaint against the defendants alleging legal malpractice. The defendants argued that the legal malpractice claim was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, given the adjudication of plaintiff’s claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

Issue: Whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars a criminal defendant from bringing a civil legal malpractice claim after the adjudication of a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel?

Ruling: Yes. The doctrine of collateral estoppel prevents a party from re-litigating issues that have previously been decided by another court of competent jurisdiction. Thus, where the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel has been fully litigated in the underlying criminal proceeding, it may not be considered again in a civil proceeding under the cloak of a professional negligence claim.

Lesson: New Jersey courts will not allow criminal defendants a second bite at the apple with a civil malpractice complaint after an adjudication on the very same issues in an ineffective assistance of counsel proceeding in the underlying criminal action.

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Posted in: Criminal Law, Entire Controversy Doctrine, Federal, New Jersey