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NC: Lawyer Immune from Malpractice Suit When Client was a Guilty Criminal

Belk v. Cheshire, 159 N.C. App. 325, 583 S.E.2d 700 (2003)

NC: Underlying criminal defense matter

Student Contributor: Nicholas Kingsbury

Facts: Plaintiff hired an attorney to represent him in his federal charges of gambling and money laundering. As per an agreement the attorney reached with the federal prosecutor, the plaintiff would plead guilty, and forfeit his ownership in various pieces of real estate. In the final settlement agreement, the plaintiff represented that a certain piece of property was free of liens. However, it turned out that the property actually had a $140k mortgage attached to it. The plaintiff claimed that he did not read the settlement agreement, but instead relied on his attorney’s representations of what the agreement contained. The plaintiff received letters from the government shortly afterward, detailing the mortgage problem with the property the plaintiff forfeited to them. Plaintiff also received demands from various creditors that he pay the $140k mortgage. Plaintiff brought a legal malpractice action against the attorney.

Issue: (1) Does a plaintiff still have to show proximate cause (that his attorney was the main cause of his injury) if the underlying matter is not a civil suit, but a criminal plea bargain?
(2) Can a plaintiff bring a legal malpractice claim if he pleads guilty to an underlying criminal proceeding?

Ruling: (1) Yes. The typical burden on the plaintiff in a legal malpractice case is that the plaintiff would not have lost his underlying lawsuit if his lawyer hand not screwed up his representation of the plaintiff. Although the present situation does not involve an underlying civil lawsuit, but rather a criminal plea bargain, the same standard should apply: but for the attorney’s screw up, the plaintiff would not have sustained injury.
(2) No. Here, as part of the settlement agreement with the federal prosecutor, the plaintiff pled guilty to his charges of gambling and money laundering. He was also required to forfeit the real estate he procured as a result of his illegal dealings. Since the plaintiff pled guilty in his criminal lawsuit, he is barred from bringing a subsequent legal malpractice suit against his attorney.

Lesson: (1) Regardless of the underlying lawsuit, the subsequent legal malpractice action requires that the plaintiff prove that his former attorney was the proximate cause of his injuries.
(2) If a plaintiff is guilty of his crimes, he is presumed to be the proximate cause of his own injuries, not the actions of his defending attorney. Therefore, the guilty plaintiff cannot prove the requisite element of legal malpractice, that his attorney’s shoddy representation was the proximate cause of his injuries. Public policy also dictates that a criminal is not allowed to shift his punishment for his illegal acts to his attorney. 

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Posted in: North Carolina, Proximate Cause