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NJ: "Equitable Exceptions" to Settle and Sue

Heathcote v. Gidding, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, August 11, 2010 

Facts:  After the conclusion of the underlying matrimonial action, Plaintiff asserted a variety of instances in which his former attorney deviated from the standards of professional representation.

The trial judge, relying on Puder, granted the attorney’s motion for summary judgment based on Plaintiffs’ representations in the underlying action that he understood the terms of his settlement, had entered into it freely and voluntarily, and believed it to be fair.  The judge further noted that certain of the negligence claims advanced by Plaintiff were not supported by expert opinion. 

Issue: Can a plaintiff voluntarily settle his claims and sue his former attorney without expert opinion to support his professional negligence action? 

Ruling: No.  Once a client asserts that he entered into an agreement without the benefit of competent advice, he must support it with specific facts and, unless the issue is one of common knowledge, with expert opinion.  Here, the Plaintiff provided no expert opinion to identify his attorney’s obligations, the manner in which he departed from those obligations, and the consequences to plaintiff.  After a detailed review of the factual circumstances, the Court further concluded that it would not be equitable to allow Plaintiff to pursue his claims against his former attorney: 

Summary judgment requires more than a statement that plaintiff was not aware of the ramifications of his status as the parent of alternative residence.

Related to the child support calculation claims is a claim that plaintiff did not know of a "secret" account into which his former wife placed child care reimbursements from her employer. The record demonstrates, however, that plaintiff’s wife agreed to provide a credit to plaintiff from this reimbursement for any child care costs owed by him to her. Assuming plaintiff did not know that his former wife had established a separate account into which she deposited the reimbursement funds, he does not offer any evidence to establish that any omission by defendant caused him any damage.

Plaintiff also argues that defendant never ascertained that his former wife received a $7000 bonus that should have been available for equitable distribution. This record clearly demonstrates that plaintiff knew that his wife received an annual bonus and that it was usually payable in March of the following year. This is a far cry from Ziegelheim in which the wife entered a matrimonial settlement without the benefit of full and complete disclosure of marital assets because her attorney may not have conducted a diligent investigation. Here, the record reveals that plaintiff was well informed of the parties’ assets and all sources of income.

Under these circumstances, the Court affirmed dismissal of Plaintiff’s malpractice claim as an "equitable exception" under Puder.

Lesson:  Although Ziegelheim and Guido allow an allegedly wronged client to settle his claims and then sue his former attorney for negotiating a less than favorable settlement, the Court appears to have retained the discretion to examine the factual circumstances surrounding the settlement and dismiss Plaintiff’s negligence action as "inequitable."

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Posted in: New Jersey