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OH: Failure to Name Individual Attorney Results in Dismissal of Malpractice Action

Bohan v. Jackson, Court of Appeals of Ohio, July 22, 2010. 

Facts:  Shortly prior to his death, Bohan’s father indicated his desire to his attorney, Kennedy, to amend a revocable trust to make Bohan the sole beneficiary.  The father executed a handwritten statement, in Kennedy’s presence, directing his firm to amend the trust agreement accordingly.  The father died two days later, and Kennedy’s firm had not amended the trust agreement.  Kennedy thereafter advised Bohan that the handwritten note was not a legal document that could alter the terms of his late father’s trust. 

Bohan then brought a malpractice action against Kennedy’s firm.  The lower court dismissed the action for failure to name a party against whom relief could be granted and Bohan appealed.

Issue:  Is it necessary to name an individual attorney, or can relief for legal malpractice be awarded only against a law firm? 

Ruling:  The Court of Appeals held that "a law firm does not engage in the practice of law, and therefore, cannot directly commit legal malpractice."  Accordingly, by naming only the firm as a defendant, Bohan failed to name a party against whom relief could be granted.

The Court further noted that Bohan’s action would have been dismissed for lack of privity, even if he had named Kennedy individually.  Here, the trust at issue was revocable.  Accordingly, Bohan’s interest did not vest until his father’s death.  Without a vested interest in the trust, Bohan was not in privity with the firm, and therefore, could not prove an essential element of a legal malpractice action — that Kennedy, or his firm, owed Bohan a duty of care.

Lesson:  Under Ohio law, an action for legal malpractice against a law firm alone is not viable. Further, plaintiff must be able to establish an attorney-client relationship or privity with the defendants.

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Posted in: Ohio, Privity