NJ: Underlying contract cases
Facts: Defendant client retained attorney plaintiff to represent her in several attempts to get medical board certification and in disputes with insurance companies. The attempts to get certification were unsuccessful. The attorney and client signed an hourly fee contract for the services rendered prior to the commencement of these services. While some of Defendants requests for complaint filings were filed, others were instead met with letter-writing. Plaintiffs contend that Defendant owes them over $15,000 in legal fees, but Defendant does not believe so, arguing that they did not do what she asked of them and in any event there was evidence of double billing.
Issue: Was the law firm’s services negligently performed and can the client serve as her own expert witness?
Ruling: A party asserting malpractice must, under New Jersey law, present expert testimony that establishes the standard of care against which the attorney’s actions are to be measured. On the other hand, expert testimony may not be required if the actions of the attorney present a breach of an obvious professional norm and the fact-finder could resolve the dispute purely based on ordinary knowledge. The Court ruled that this case does not fall within the category of cases that are so straightforward that expert testimony is not required. The defendant failed to provide legally sufficient expert opinion, so her malpractice claim fails.
Lesson: When bringing a malpractice counter claim against an attorney’s suit for unpaid fees, the former client must take the utmost precaution and assume that a malpractice claim will require expert testimony. Matters of billing and reasonableness of fees requires expert testimony.