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Settle and Sue: Pennsylvania Style

Martos v. Concilio, 427 Pa. Super. 612; 629 A.2d 1037 (1993)

Student Contributor: Christopher Henn

PA Underlying divorce- property settlement agreements

Facts: The plaintiff retained defendant to represent him in his divorce. Plaintiff and his former spouse agreed to a property settlement. The parties then executed a new property settlement agreement that modified the first. The second settlement resolved property distribution and custody of their children. Alimony, debt repayment and other obligations were submitted for judicial determination. The trial court appointed a master to make recommendations after the property settlement agreement was incorporated by court order. Following the master’s recommendations, plaintiffs financial burden exceeded $250,000. Dissatisfied, the Plaintiff brought a malpractice suit against defendant attorney alleging inadequate representation. The Plaintiff was especially displeased that the terms reached by the first settlement agreement had been renegotiated in the second settlement agreement.

Issue: Whether the plaintiff was required to allege fraud in the inducement of the property settlement agreement.

Ruling: The court distinguished its prior holding in Collas v. Garnick, 425 Pa. Super. 8 (1993) by noting that there were two separate and distinct actions in that case; “[t]he prior action in which they signed the release had been completely settled; the action which they planned to bring against the seatbelt manufacturer was a separate and distinct action.” Id. at 615.

After recognizing the judicial preference for settlement, the court recited its holding in Miller v. Berschler, 423 Pa. Super. 405 (1993) as dispositive of the issue;

a party dissatisfied with the settlement agreement can only seek redress if it can establish that it was fraudulently induced into agreeing to settle, and it is incumbent on the client to plead with specificity fraud in the inducement.

The Lesson: Once a client expressly agrees to settle a dispute he will not be permitted to recover against his attorney on a malpractice claim absent fraudulent conduct by the attorney. However, if the settlement of one dispute serves to prevent subsequent actions against third parties, without the client’s knowledge, the client may be permitted to recover on a malpractice theory.

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Posted in: Family Law, Pennsylvania