Levinson v. D’Alfonso & Stein, 320 N.J.Super. 312 (App. Div. 1999)
NJ Underlying personal injury action
Student Contributor: Michael Park
Facts: Plaintiff hired attorney to handle his personal injury/automobile negligence claim. Plaintiff and attorney entered into a written retainer agreement, which contained a clause that provided that any settlement would require plaintiff’s authorization before being accepted. However, at some time during the case, the attorney accepted settlement on plaintiff’s behalf, despite not having authorization. The client filed an action against the attorney alleging negligence-professional malpractice, fraud, and breach of contract, but failed to provide an affidavit of merit. The action was then dismissed for failure to provide the affidavit of merit.
Issue: Was an affidavit of merit required to file a complaint of negligence-professional malpractice?
Ruling: The Superior Court, Appellate Division affirmed in part, and reversed and remanded in part the decision by the Superior Court, Law Division for the following reasons:
1) The court affirmed that the Affidavit of Merit statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-26 to 29, applied to the plaintiff’s claims of malpractice because the legally significant facts that gave rise to the cause of action did not occur until after June 29, 1995, the effective date of the statute. The court deferred to the Supreme Court’s interpretation in Alan J. Cornblatt, P.A. v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218 (1998), where an affidavit requirement was not applicable where the principal facts that gave rise to a cause of action that occurred before the statute’s effective date. Therefore, the plaintiff should have provided an affidavit from an appropriate licensed person, which would state that there is a reasonable probability that a departure from acceptable standards occurred.
2) The fraud alleged by the plaintiff was simply a repeat of the malpractice charge with the word “fraud” tacked on, and should therefore be dismissed.
3) The court reversed and remanded the decision by the lower court to dismiss the breach of the retainer agreement’s approval-of-settlement clause because an expert evaluation is not needed to see that a simple breach of contract had occurred.
Lesson: When a complaint against an attorney alleges legal malpractice, an affidavit of merit must be provided, with few exceptions. The only way for the court to know whether a standard of care has been deviated from is if an expert in that profession will attest to that possibility by affidavit. For matters that would be obvious to laymen or those which do not involve a deviation from a professional standard of care, such as breach of a clause in a contract, an affidavit of merit is not required.
Practice Note: Play it safe. Get your expert’s affidavit of merit before you file your Complaint. You might even attach the Affidavit to your Complaint and file and serve them together. That eliminates the chance of missing the time limitations for timely serving an affidavit of merit, which can then lead to a dismissal of an otherwise meritorious Complaint.