Fraser v. Bovino, 317 N.J.Super. 23 (App. Div. 1998).
Student Contributor: Lisa Larato
NJ Underlying Real Estate/Land Use Transaction
Facts: A deal for the sale of land fell through due to delays caused by challenges to the municipal approval of a condominium project. The real estate agent (Fraser) and the landowners (Genlaws) brought an action against the adjoining landowner (Defendant Bovino) who objected to the condominium project, his attorney, and others involved in ruining the deal. Fraser asserts that Bovino’s attorney (Allen) committed malpractice and acted unethically. The Genlaws also filed a claim against their attorneys Martini and Blessing who had been retained to prosecute their action against Bovino and his attorney.
The only claims still viable for the Genlaws were those which fell under the six year statute of limitations. It was undisputed that the attorneys returned the Genlaws’ file to them a few weeks before this statute of limitations expired, on January 28, 1997. The complaint, however, was not filed until April 25, 1997.
The Superior Court, Law Division, granted summary judgment to certain defendants in both actions. Appeals were filed and consolidated.
Issues: (1) Is Bovino’s attorney liable to the real estate agent, Fraser, for legal malpractice? (2) Are Martini and Blessing liable to the Genlaws for failure to file a timely complaint?
Ruling: (1) Bovino’s attorney (Allen), representing an individual who contested the proposed land use application, did not owe Fraser, the broker, even a limited duty of care. (2) Since Martini and Blessing returned the Genlaws’ file to them several weeks before the statute of limitations on their claims expired, their withdrawal from representation did not adversely affect the clients’ interests so as to warrant liability.
Lesson: Allen, who was not Fraser’s attorney, but the attorney of his adversary, did not owe Fraser any level of a duty of care so as to make him liable to Fraser under a professional malpractice claim.
Under New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16, Martini and Blessing did not commit malpractice because they (1) did not wait for the statute of limitations to run before withdrawing, and (2) left enough time for the Genlaws to file their complaint within the statute of limitations. That the Genlaws failed to timely file their complaint, was entirely their own negligence, and bore no relation to the decision of Martini and Blessing to withdraw as counsel in a timely manner.
Editor’s Note: In all cases, make sure that before withdrawing, there is a reasonable amount of time left for the client to get substitue counsel to file a complaint before the statute of limitations runs. If it’s getting close, consider a pro se complaint for the client thus giving the client even more time to get new counsel and thereby preventing the client’s claim from becoming time barred. Do what is reasonable to help the client preserve their cause of action if you’re not going to continue with representation, at least until they get new counsel.