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Breach of Fiduciary Duty and a Lighter Burden of Proof: The Prophylactic Rule

Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy v. Boon, 13 F.3d 537 (2nd Cir. 1994)

NY Underlying Representation: Prospective Purchase of Bankrupt Company’s Assets

Student Contributor: John Anzalone

Facts: Defendant Law firm represented Plaintiff through an agent in her attempt to purchase the assets of a bankrupt company. Problems occurred with the deal and the Agent was dismissed by the Plaintiff. Agent then told Firm that he wanted to buy the assets of the bankrupt company. Despite knowing that Plaintiff still sought to purchase the assets, Firm told Plaintiff that it would represent Agent in his attempt to purchase the assets. Plaintiff objected to this subsequent representation of Agent. Agent outbid Plaintiff with Firm’s assistance. The jury found that Firm’s representation of Plaintiff’s Agent breached its fiduciary duties to her and was a "substantial factor in preventing her from obtaining assets she sought in the transaction."

Issue: Was the determination that Firm breached its duty to its former client by representing Plaintiff’s agent in the same transaction incorrect?

Ruling: In affirming the lower court, the Second Circuit held that the Firm breached its fiduciary duty to Plaintiff, based on the following considerations:
1) Firm committed a serious breach of its fiduciary duties to Plaintiff as a former client by representing a party with interests adverse to the Plaintiff in the same transaction.
2) The nature of this breach triggers the prophylactic rule so plaintiff has to prove that Firms’ actions were a substantial factor in its damages instead of the normal requirement of proximate cause.
3) The jury could have found that Firm’s action were a substantial factor in Agent purchasing the assets rather than Plaintiff because their presence could have given Agent more credibility. The jury could have found that the deal moved forward because Agent and Firm agreed to use Plaintiff’s money in an escrow account for Agent’s purchase too. This potential usage also could have been held as interfering with Plaintiff’s negotiations because she had to take action to protect her funds from usage by her former agent.
4) There was factual evidence supporting that Firm used confidential information gained from Plaintiff in its representation of Agent because it knew that Plaintiff was not willing to bid higher than she had previously stated to them. 

Lesson: If an attorney or a law firm is alleged to have breached their fiduciary duty to the client they are subject to the prophylactic rule that will make it easier for a plaintiff to prove the proximate cause element of the legal malpractice cause of action. The burden will be reduced from “but for” to “substantial factor”.

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Posted in: But for-Proximate Cause, Commercial, Federal, Fiduciary Duty, New York, Proximate Cause