CT: Underlying Wills, Trusts, and Estates Disputes
Facts: Client’s parents were older and experiencing serious health difficulties. Concerned with preserving their property and assets, he contacted an attorney to provide advice on the matter. The attorney (“Attorney”) advised him that federal and state laws would require the use of his parents’ assets to pay for their healthcare until those assets would be nearly depleted. Dissatisfied with this prospect, the Client retained the Attorney to review and analyze different options for the best handling of his parents assets. After going over the various potential avenues, the Attorney advised the Client that the best option might be to temporarily transfer the assets to the Client’s brother, who lived at home and was receiving disability benefits. Unfortunately, after the assets were transferred to the brother, he sold them to a third party. The Client subsequently sued the Attorney for numerous claims, including breach of fiduciary duty. However, he provided no expert testimony regarding the breach of fiduciary duty claim. The trial court held that this claim must fail without support from an expert witness.
Issue: Did trial court improperly conclude that the Client could not prevail on his breach of fiduciary duty claim without providing expert testimony?
Ruling: No. Expert testimony is required to prove legal malpractice claims, and a Client cannot evade this requirement by “couching” a legal malpractice tort claim in breach of fiduciary duty contract terms. Celentano v. Grudberg, 76 Conn.App. 119, 125, cert. denied, 264 Conn. 904 (2003). It is true that every attorney-client relationship leads to imposition of fiduciary duties, but a Client cannot avoid the burden to present expert testimony by just “styling” his cause of action as one for breach of fiduciary duty. See St. Onge, Stewart, Johnson & Reens, LLC v. Media Group, Inc., 84 Conn.App. 88, 95, cert. denied, 271 Conn. 918 (2004). In this case, the Client, asserted both legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the Attorney, and the breach of fiduciary duty was nearly a “carbon-copy” of the legal malpractice claim. Based on the record before the court, it was not improper for the trial court to find that the Client’s legal malpractice claim and breach of fiduciary duty claim both failed, when the Client failed to initially prove the nature of the fiduciary duty owed to him by the Attorney.
Lesson: This case demonstrates the nuances in the differences between a legal malpractice claim, grounded in tort theory, and a breach of fiduciary duty, grounded in contract theory. While the two types of claims are seemingly similar and related, a Client will not succeed if he does not recognize the critical distinctions between the two.