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NJ: Malpractice Court can Dismiss on Grounds Not Dismissed by Underlying Court

Beese-Munoz v. Barbone, Esq., N.J. App. Div.  (per curiam) Decided May 20, 2011).

NJ Underlying Work Place Discrimination Claim

Facts: In this legal malpractice case, plaintiff appeals from the order granting defendant’s summary judgment motion and dismissing her case. Plaintiff retained defendant to pursue her discrimination claims against the Lakehurst Naval Station and others. Her lawyer drafted and filed a complaint on plaintiff’s behalf. The Department of the Navy moved to dismiss on three grounds; two procedural–failure to effect proper service of process and one substantive–failure to state a cause of action. The Judge  granted the motion to dismiss  without prejudice on the basis of improper service of process. Defendant lawyer forgot to notify his client of the dismissal for 13 months.  Plaintiff  alleges defendant’s failure to notify her of the  Court’s decision in a timely fashion deprived her of the opportunity to cure the procedural deficiency, and thus precluded her from prosecuting her cause of action against the Navy. Now, the defendant lawyer moves for summary judgment dismissing the malpractice complaint for claiming that the client would have been unable to establish proximate cause–that she had no meritorious underlying claim.

Issue: If the client’s underlying claim was dismissed without prejudice because of the lawyer’s negligence, can the lawyer move to dismiss the malpractice complaint on other grounds?  

Ruling:  Yes

Notwithstanding  the  negligent failure to notify plaintiff of the dismissal, plaintiff cannot prevail in this legal malpractice case because her complaint against the Navy was substantively without merit and procedurally barred by her failure to exhaust administrative remedies in that she failed to cooperate with the administrative processing of her discrimination claim. 


The trial court correctly found that defendant’s negligence was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s inability to successfully prosecute [the underlying case]. Rather, it was plaintiff’s failure to cooperate…This lack of cooperation amounted to failure to exhaust administrative remedies, thus creating an independent procedural bar to the prosecution of her [underlying] claim. The fact that [the Judge in the underlying action] based his decision on a different discrete issue does not preclude the trial court [in the malpractice action] from determining a different and independent basis for dismissing plaintiff’s case [in the underlying action]. 

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Posted in: Case Within a Case, Labor & Employent, New Jersey, Proximate Cause