Underlying legal malpractice action
Facts: A dispute then arose between McKnight and Gingras, the lawyer who had handled the case in the district court, concerning attorneys’ fees. This dispute led Gingras to sue McKnight in a Wisconsin state court. One of McKnight’s defenses in that suit was that Gingras had committed malpractice. McKnight’s new lawyer, Kenneth Dean, the principal defendant in the present case filed on McKnight’s behalf a diversity suit against Gingras in federal court, charging Gingras with malpractice and thus essentially duplicating the defense that McKnight had raised in Gingras’s suit. Gingras obtained a judgment against McKnight in Wisconsin— and then pleaded it as res judicata in the federal malpractice suit that McKnight. The district judge held that the res judicata defensewas valid as to any claim pertaining to Gingras’s handling of the trial of the underlying discrimination suit (but not the appeal or remand), and thus wiped out any complaint about Gingras’s failure at the trial to present evidence in support of reinstatement or his claimed outstanding pay, or to calculate back pay correctly. Gingras had malpractice insurance with a cap of $1 million to cover both
liability and attorneys’ fees, and the insurance company had expended $235,000 on the
defense of McKnight’s malpractice suit against him. The company offered to settle the case for
the difference between that amount and the $1 million cap, that is, for $765,000 ($475,000 after
Dean deducted his fee). Dean is alleged by McKnight to have told him that this was the most he could expect to obtain, and so he "must" settle for it — concealing from him the fact that any judgment against Gingras could be satisfied out of Gingras’s personal assets as well as out of the proceeds of the insurance policy. So McKnight settled, thus setting the stage for this malpractice suit. McKnight claims that Dean committed malpractice in dropping the malpractice defense in the suit that Gingras had brought in the Wisconsin state court and in forcing him to settle for $765,000 rather than holding out for a larger settlement and if necessary proceeding to trial.
Issue: Can there be a malpractice claim for coercing a client to settle when the coercion does not harm the client?
Ruling: No. Although coercing a client to accept a settlement is a violation of a lawyer’s ethical duty to his client, it is sometimes harmless in the context of legal malpractice. McKnight argues that to repel summary judgment all he had to prove was that Dean’s malpractice had caused him some injury, however slight — and that would be true if Dean had obtained no money for McKnight. But Dean obtained $765,000, so that his negligence injured McKnight only if, had it not been for that negligence, McKnight could have expected to obtain more than that amount in his suit against Gingras. That he has failed to show.
Lesson: Just because a lawyer’s actions are unethical, does not mean that a malpractice claim will be successful.