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NY: Hearst Heir in Legal Malpractice Claim Alleges Undue Influence

Hearst v. Hearst, 50 A.D.3d 959, 857 N.Y.S.2d 596 (App. Div. 2d Dep’t 2008).

NY: Underlying divorce case and undue influence claim

Student Contributor: Nicole Milone

Facts: John Randolph Hearst, Jr. (John) suffered a stroke in 1989. He was married to Barbara in 1990. When Barbara filed for divorce in 2004, John discovered that she and their attorney, Leonard Ackerman, allegedly defrauded him of over $20 million in investments. John claimed his wife and lawyer asserted undue influence on him, which he was susceptible to due to his stroke.

Issue: Is there a triable issue of fact as to whether Barbara asserted undue influence over John with respect to their investments? Did John state a prima facie case of legal malpractice against Ackerman such that summary judgment dismissing the claim was improper?

Ruling: Yes and yes. John raised a triable issue of fact as to Barbara’s undue influence with evidence that she transferred finances from joint accounts to accounts under her control only. The court found that there is an issue here as to whether Barbara was acting within John’s best interests. The court also found that there is sufficient to support a legal malpractice claim against Ackerman. John introduced evidence that Ackerman aided Barbara in the misuse of John’s assets.

Lesson: A client can survive a summary judgment claim if they raise a triable issue of fact with respect to the legal malpractice cause of action.

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Posted in: Conflicts of Interest, Family Law, New York, Wills Trusts & Estates