NJ Underlying Attorney’s Fee Dispute
Facts: Plaintiff attorney provided legal services for defendant for about eight months until defendant discharged plaintiff. During the period plaintiff represented defendant she submitted bills for legal services and disbursements. Defendant paid only a portion of the bill. Plaintiff then filed a complaint for the unpaid balance against defendant. Defendant then counterclaimed alleging, in vague and general terms, legal malpractice against plaintiff. At the summary judgment stage, numerous court orders, by different judges, were entered directing Defendant to submit an expert’s report with respect to the allegations of attorney malpractice. Defendants did not submit the report and filed numerous extensions. It was not until the dismissal of their counterclaim, with prejudice, that defendants finally authorized their attorney to release the expert report.
Issue: Whether a complaint of general allegations is enough to form a claim of attorney malpractice.
Ruling: No, the court held that there was no basis demonstrated by the general allegations of the defendant’s counterclaim for a claim of attorney malpractice. It is improper to assert a claim without any factual basis for that claim, especially a claim for malpractice. Pleadings that recite mere conclusions without facts and reliance on subsequent discovery do not justify a lawsuit. Defendant alleged a vague, non-particularized claim of legal malpractice which was asserted in its pleadings more as a defense to plaintiff’s claim for attorney’s fees. Such a defense had to have had some basis known to defendant or discussed with the new attorney before filing such a counterclaim of attorney malpractice against plaintiff. If there had been any essential facts known to the defendant about possible attorney malpractice then they should have been communicated by defendant to the new attorney early on in the litigation so as to readily be the subject of a required expert’s report. Instead, defendant intentionally and personally delayed for a lengthy period of time in authorizing its attorney to obtain an expert.
Lesson: In an action for nonpayment of attorney’s fees, the former client should not assert a counterclaim of attorney malpractice as a defense if he is not able to identify specific facts related to the claim of attorney malpractice. Unsupported and general conclusions will not form a claim of attorney malpractice.