Sash v. Schwartz, 2007 WL 30042 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).
N.Y. underlying criminal conviction
Student contributor: Cheryl Neuman
Facts: Plaintiff was represented by defendant attorney in a criminal proceeding. Plaintiff was arrested for unlawfully possessing and producing N.Y.P.D. badges and selling counterfeit police badges. He was also arrested for possession of counterfeit bar code stickers for merchandise at K-Mart stores. After appearing before the magistrate judge, plaintiff pled guilty to two counts. He was sentenced to eight years of supervised release. The Second Circuit affirmed the conviction but decreased the supervised release to three years. Plaintiff was also indicted for fraud, arising from filing false insurance documents claiming that his wife had been killed in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. Plaintiff claims that but-for defendant’s negligent representation, he would not have pled guilty to the various crimes with which he was charged.
Issue: Is the defendant liable to the plaintiff for legal malpractice?
Ruling: No, the defendant is not liable to the plaintiff for legal malpractice because a criminal defendant must show that the alleged legal malpractice was the “cause of the conviction.” Claudio v. Heller, 119 Misc.2d 432 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1983). The standard for a criminal defense malpractice claim differs from the standard for civil legal malpractice. A plaintiff must allege his innocence of the underlying offense to successfully bring a legal malpractice case against his attorney in an underlying criminal proceeding. The elements of a malpractice case in N.Y. are:
1) A duty
2) A breach of the duty, and
3) Proof that actual damages were proximately caused by breach of the duty
Lesson: “A criminal defendant may be able to prove that but for the action of his counsel he would have invoked the 5th amendment or succeeded in suppressing evidence.” Carmel, 70 N.Y.S.2d 173. A criminal defendant, however, who pled guilty or was found to be guilty, cannot assert his innocence. It is for that reason that a criminally convicted plaintiff cannot bring a legal malpractice cause of action under these circumstances. Had the conviction been overturned or vacated, then plaintiff’s claim might not have been barred.