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NJ:Local Counsel's Duty to Litigants

Ingemi v Pelino & Lentz  866 F. Supp. 156 (D.N.J. 1994)

NJ Underlying Action-Claim for pension benefits

Student Contributor: Candice L. Deaner

Facts: Plaintiff instituted a malpractice suit against related New Jersey and Pennsylvania law firms due to their mishandling of the underlying litigation. Plaintiff specified her desire to have a New Jersey attorney and the New Jersey law firm was retained as local counsel. They then petitioned the court to admit pro hac vice two lawyers from the Pennsylvania firm. The New Jersey firm argued that one of the Pennsylvania lawyers was the only one to give advice and act “on the judgmental and strategic issues,” and contended that the New Jersey firm served “merely” as local counsel, performed ministerial tasks, and undertook “discovery and motion practice in a manner that did not require making judgments or giving advice regarding prejudgment remedies or settlements,” and therefore was not liable in this action.

Issue: What is the role of local counsel when pro hac attorneys are admitted to handle the case?

Ruling: The Court found that the New Jersey firm “underestimated the role of local counsel” and stated that “by virtue of submitting the pro hac vice application, the New Jersey firm was responsible for the ‘conduct of the cause.’” Local court rules “require local counsel to take more than a de minimis role in the representation,” and clearly indicate “that local counsel is the counsel of record with attendant responsibilities, not out-of-state counsel admitted pro hac vice.”

The Court held that

“Local counsel must also supervise the conduct of pro hac vice attorneys and must appear before the court in all proceedings. Even if pro hac vice attorneys attempt to delegate solely routine or ministerial tasks to local counsel, local counsel remains counsel of record and wittingly or unwittingly exposes itself to liability for penalties such as sanctions.”

Lesson: A law firm retained as local counsel has equal responsibility even though other counsel is actually handling the prosecution of the case. ,  Liability is not delegated to the pro hac vice attorneys. Local counsel must continue to supervise the pro hac vice attorneys and appear in court. A law firm cannot avoid liability by claiming that other counsel was primary. The responsibility still lies with the local counsel to supervise and handle the case.

Editor’s Note: For other cases holding local counsel potentially liable  for malpractice to client, see also:. Ortiz v. Barrett, 278 S.E.2d 833, 838 (Va. 1981);  Gould, Inc. v. Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co., 738 F. Supp. 1121 (N.D. Ohio 1990); Neel v. Magana, Olney et al., 98 Cal. Rptr. 837, 491 P.2d 421 (1971); Wildermann v. Wachtell, 267 N.Y.S. 840, 841 (1933), affirmed, 271 N.Y.S. 954 (1934). 

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Posted in: Federal, Litigation, Local & Co-Counsel, New Jersey, Torts/Personal Injury