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Assigning Your Legal Malpractice Claims: "Hidden Treasure" in Tough Times ?

Hedlund Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Weiser, Stapler & Spivak, et ano.
517 Pa. 522, 539 A.2d 357 (1988)

Martin hired attorney Spivak to apply for a patent for a machine that Martin had invented and manufactured. Spivak prepared the application but he did not timely file it. Hedlund Manufacturing purchased Martin’s business, including the rights to all pending patents. When Hedlund learned that Spivak had filed the patent application late, they had Martin assign to them all rights and causes of actions arising out of the lawyer’s malpractice. Hedlund then sued Martin’s lawyer for legal malpractice alleging negligence and breach of contract.

Issue: Can Hedlund (the assingee) sue the assignor’s lawyer based on the assignment of the legal malpractice claim, even though there is no attorney-client relationship between the assignor and the lawyer?

Ruling: The PennsylvaniaSupreme Court said yes, reversing the lower court that had held that lack of privity barred the malpractice suit. The Court held legal malpractice claims can effectively be assigned and that "privity is not an issue involving an assigned claim because the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor and does not pursue the cause of action in the assignee’s own right." Thus, the assignment of a cause of action for legal malpractice is valid and can be used by the assignor to circumvent the privity defense. It might also be viewed as a "hidden" asset in the sale of a business.

New York: Assignment of legal malpractice claims are permitted. See, Tawil v. Finkelstein, et al 646 NYS2d 691 (App Div. 1st Dept, 1996). But they probably have to be explicit and unambiguous CALPERS v. Shearman & Steling, 95 N.Y. 2d 427 (2000).

New Jersey: Assignment of legal malpractice are not permitted for public policy reasons. Alcman Services Corp. v. Bullock 925 F. Supp. 252 (DNJ 1996).

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Posted in: Intellectual Property, Pennsylvania, Privity