TX: Underlying divorce action
Facts: The malpractice suit arises from a divorce action. The client hired an attorney to enforce a court order against her husband and enjoin his firm in action. The attorney instead negotiated a settlement agreement, which the client approved. However, before the court rendered the divorce final the client requested that the attorney withdraw her consent to the agreement. The attorney failed to do so and client was bound by her consent. The client hired a new attorney and filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied. The client sued former attorney for legal malpractice for failing to withdraw her consent and precluding her from receiving a just division of the marital estate. The former attorney argued that the client’s claim should have been brought during the new trial stage of the underlying divorce action or were issues already litigated during the motion for a new trial. The court ruled in favor of attorney and client appealed.
Issue: Whether the client’s malpractice claims are barred because they should have been brought in previous suit or were issues previously litigated?
Ruling: No. A party cannot bring a second action based on matters previously litigated and on claims that arise out of the same subject matter that could have been litigated in the first suit. Parties may not re-litigate identical issues already resolved in a prior suit. To prevent suit, a party must establish that the parties were adversaries in the first action. There is no evidence that the parties were adversaries during the new trial stage. The party barring suit must also have been a party or connected to a party in the prior litigation. The attorney was not a party, nor in privy during the hearing on her motion for a new trial and withdrew from representing the client after the court entered the final divorce decree. The mere fact that the client based her motion on the attorney’s negligent conduct did not make the attorney an adversary. The client directs the complaint at the attorney’s negligence in failing to withdraw her consent and not on the fairness of the underlying action. The issues decided in the first action, her consent, are not identical to the issue in the present action, her legal representation. The client’s negligence claims did not need to be asserted in previous litigation. When an attorney is alleged to have committed malpractice during the representation of a matter in litigation, there is no injury to client until the underlying suit becomes final. The client did not appeal the underlying divorce decree and therefore her malpractice suit accrued when the trial court denied her motion for a new trial.
Lesson: A malpractice action will not be precluded where the party was unable to raise claims in previous litigation.