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NY: Fee Dispute, Malpractice, and Res Judicata

Liberty Associates v. Etkin, 2010 NY Slip Op 225 (2nd Dept. Jan. 10, 2010)

Facts:  In March, 2002, the plaintiff, Liberty Associates, commenced an action to recover damages for legal malpractice against their former attorney. In January, 2003, the attorney’s firm commenced an action against Liberty Associates in the Superior Court of New Jersey to recover fees for the legal services rendered. In 2004, during the pendency of the malpractice action, Liberty Associates and the attorney’s firm settled the New Jersey fee dispute action, which was dismissed with prejudice. Upon learning of the settlement, the attorney moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint in the malpractice action. The Supreme Court granted the attorney’s motion.

Issue: Was Liberty Associates’ pending malpractice claim against its former attorney barred by the doctrine of res judicata because of the dismissal of a separate action by the former attorney’s firm to collect attorney’s fees?

Ruling:  Yes.  

[T]he plaintiff’s claim is barred by the doctrine of res judicata, which "precludes a party from litigating a claim where a judgment on the merits exists from a prior action between the same parties involving the same subject matter. A valid final judgment bars future actions between the same parties on the same cause of action, which includes "all other claims arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions . . . even if based upon different theories or if seeking a different remedy."

The Court further noted that a stipulation of discontinuance with prejudice without reservation of right or limitation of the claims disposed of is entitled to preclusive effect under the doctrine of res judicata.

Lesson:  Dismissal of one action involving the underlying matter, without an adequate reservation of rights, will preclude the client from pursing malpractice claims as to the same matter in a separately filed action. 

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Posted in: Entire Controversy Doctrine, New York