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Dissatisfaction with Settlement Agreement: Grounds for Legal Malpractice?

Newell v. Hudson,
376 N.J. Super. 29, 868 A.2d 1149 (App. Div. 2001)

Student Contributor:  Natalie Resto

NJ Underlying matrimonial action

Facts: Hudson, an accountant, retained Newell as her attorney to defend her in a matrimonial action filed by her then husband. After lengthy negotiations and discussions with Newell, Hudson signed an Interspousal Agreement, which provided that she would receive monthly limited payments for four years based upon his income plus a discretionary bonus. Before Hudson signed the agreement, Newell explained to her the concept of alimony, and advised her that the amount she received might depend, in part, on the marital standard of living. After entering into the agreement Hudson and her husband each testified that they understood and voluntarily consented to the terms of the agreement.

About a day later, Hudson contacted Newell stating that she felt “pressured and intimidated by her husband’s counsel, the Judge and Newell,” and called into question his preparation and legal representation. Newell later filed a suit against Hudson for failing to pay outstanding legal fees. She filed a counterclaim alleging that Newell had committed legal malpractice by, among other things, failing to serve interrogatories on her husband, and failing to secure documents reflecting the status of certain investment accounts.

Issue: Can a litigant, dissatisfied with her decision to enter into a settlement, bring a claim for legal malpractice alleging that she actually had not understood the agreement, and was forced to enter into it, or will she be judicially estopped from bringing such a claim? 

Ruling: The court barred Hudson’s legal malpractice claim:

Hudson’s self-serving behavior is precisely the type of inconsistent judicial position-taking that the doctrine of judicial estoppel is designed to prevent. To permit this litigant to assert a contrary position in the malpractice action presumably to bolster her counterclaim in an effort to defeat Newell’s legitimate claim for counsel fees would result in a miscarriage of justice and impugn the integrity of the judicial process. Id. at 47.

Lesson:  New Jersey does not allow litigants to sue for legal malpractice based on settlement agreements that were entered into voluntarily, freely, and willingly in the underlying action.  Superficial allegations of duress and intimidation will not be countenanced by the Court.  Dissatisfaction with a settlement agreement is not grounds for a legal malpractice action in New Jersey. 

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Posted in: Family Law, Litigation, New Jersey