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First Circuit: Emotional Distress Damages in Legal Malpractice

Wagenmann v. Adams, 829 F.2d 196 (1st Cir. September 9, 1987).

Facts:  After what appeared to be a series of misunderstandings between Wagenmann and his family members, Wagenmann was searched and arrested without a warrant, brought to a holding cell, and ultimately, involuntarily admitted to a mental hospital.  His court-appointed attorney, Healy, entered a general appearance on Wagenmann’s behalf in connection with the commitment proceedings, bail and criminal charges.  

Allegedly, Healy never inquired as to what had happened, but did say that he was a friend and fellow parishioner of one of the individuals who had been responsible for reporting Healy to the police.  When Wagenmann asked Healy to withdraw and get him another lawyer, Healy apparently refused.  Healy also refused Wagenmann’s requests to be brought before a judge.  

Instead, Healy proposed that Wagenmann immediately leave town or agree to be committed to a mental hospital. Wagenmann refused and a psychiatrist present at the time saw no grounds upon which Wagenmann could be admitted.  Healy then commented "maybe in New York you’re something, but [in Massachusetts], you’re nothing," and left.  

Wagenmann was later informed that he had in fact been committed to a mental hospital for a twenty day observation period.  After some time, Wagenmann was visited by a psychiatrist who saw no basis to justify his admission and arranged for his immediate release.

Wagenmann subsequently sued Healy for legal malpractice, requesting damages for emotional distress.  Wagenmann was awarded damages against Healy and Healy appealed.

Issue:  Is a Plaintiff in a legal malpractice suit entitled to damages for emotional distress? 

Ruling:  Yes, if it is foreseeable from the attorney-client relationship that a breach of the applicable standard of care will cause the client to suffer a loss of liberty or social stigma.

The Court noted that "an attorney who commits malpractice is liable to client for any reasonably foreseeable loss caused by his negligence."  If it were otherwise, especially in situations where the attorney-client relationship was based on something other than the client’s economic concerns, the attorney would effectively be immunized from liability even though he exposed his client to a "parade of horribles."

Here, Wagenmann was entitled to damages for emotional distress — He had been involuntarily confined to a mental hospital as a result of his attorney’s negligence and alleged misconduct.  This, in turn, caused Wagenmann continuing anguish and fear that others, including prospective employers, would learn of it and question his sanity.  Consequently, the Court concluded: 

That Healy was guilty of malpractice in the defense of commitment proceedings, rather than in the prosecution of a civil claim for damages, is no reason artificially to shield him from the condign consequences of his carelessness. 

Lesson:  Emotional damages are recoverable in legal malpractice action where the client’s damages include something other than a purely economic loss, i.e. incarceration, false imprisonment, or significant injury to reputation. 

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Posted in: Damages, Federal, Massachusetts