Underlying claim: Age discrimination case
Facts: Plaintiff, Robert Beatty, was employed with the FAA, Department of Transportation from 1962 until his retirement in September 1996. He was an Air Traffic Manager of Willow Run Tower at Detroit Metro from 1987 to 1995, and in 1992 Dennis Ragle became his supervisor. In 1995, Ragle issued Beatty a performance rating of "unacceptable" for the period from August 1993 to March 1995, and on April 10, 1995, Ragle reassigned him to the position of Program Specialist at Detroit Metro. That position was the same pay and grade as Air Traffic Manager, but Beatty contends that in contrast to the Air Traffic Manager position, it was a much lower profile position with no management responsibilities and no possibility for promotion. Beatty refused to report to the reassigned position when it commenced in June 1995, and claimed medical leave for a year. When the FAA sought further proof of eligibility for medical leave after the year, he chose instead to voluntarily retire. During that same time period, Beatty challenged the reassignment and was represented by his attorney, defendant, Wood. Beatty has brought a legal malpractice action against Wood for failing to timely appeal an EEOC dismissal for age discrimination. The age discrimination claim was determined to be meritless.
Issue: Can a claimant receive damages for demonstrating not that his case was meritorious, but by showing that he could have obtained settlement for the nuisance-value of the suit?
Ruling: No. A legal malpractice cause of action is meant to provide a litigant with damages that he would have been entitled to under law had the case been properly handled. It is not a vehicle for compensating a litigant for the damages that could have been extracted by pursuit of a
meritless case. Under Illinois law an element of a legal malpractice claim is the requirement that plaintiff demonstrate that "but for" the attorney’s negligence, he would have prevailed in the underlying action. Lucey, 234 Ill.Dec. 612, 703 N.E.2d at 476. We have already held that the thrust of that requirement is that "a malpractice plaintiff cannot prevail merely by showing that his claim which his lawyer booted, though baseless, had some nuisance value."
Lesson: If the underlying claim does not have merit, plaintiffs cannot prove proximate cause and damages of the cause of action for legal malpractice.