Boone v. Bender, Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, June 22, 2010
Facts: Defendant attorneys represented the plaintiff in a matrimonial action which ended in a settlement. Subsequently, the plaintiff commenced this malpractice action alleging that defendants compromised their level of advocacy and coerced her into entering into the settlement. The defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the Supreme Court denied the motion. Defendants appealed.
Issue: Can Plaintiff pursue a malpractice action after consenting to a settlement in the underlying matter?
A claim for legal malpractice is viable, despite settlement of the underlying action, if it is alleged that settlement of the action was effectively compelled by the mistakes of counsel.
Applying that standard to the instant case, however, the Court found that:
[T]he plaintiff was satisfied with the defendants’ representation of her, that she had discussed the terms of the settlement with the defendants, that she understood that she would have the right to a trial if she did not wish to enter into the stipulation, that she had not been threatened or forced into entering into the stipulation, that she was entering into the stipulation voluntarily and of her own free will, that she had not taken any medications that would hamper her ability to understand the court proceedings, and that she had no additional questions for the defendants.
Accordingly, the Court concluded that plaintiff’s subsequent "unhappiness" with the settlement did not rise to the level of legal malpractice. Further, the Court found that the attorneys’ reasonable exercise of judgment in pursuing settlement did not constitute malpractice, and the plaintiff’s allegation that defendants did not pursue her claims "zealously" was mere speculation.
Lesson: Conjecture, conclusory allegations of malpractice, and mere dissatisfaction concerning a settlement that was entered into voluntarily, do not constitute the necessary factual or legal basis upon which to pursue a subsequent action for professional negligence.