CT: Underlying real estate matter
Facts: The client hired the lawyer in 2001 to help her with her purchase of a condominium. In 2006, the client brought a legal malpractice claim against the lawyer. The client claims that the lawyer breached his contractual duties by: failing to advise her that the condominium was classified as an affordable housing unit; failing to tell her that the affordable housing unit would be subject to resale price limitations for twenty years; neglecting to have her sign an acknowledgment that she understood the affordable housing terms; and failing to explain the affordable housing covenant to her. The client claims she was harmed by the lawyer’s actions because she placed large amounts of money into improving the condominium and would not be able to recover that money in a future sale. The client tried to base her claim on contract law, stating that when the lawyer accepted her fee for the purchase of the condominium, a lawyer-client contract formed. The lawyer defended on the grounds that the client’s claim sounded in tort law, and that the client was trying to bring the case under contract law only because she had missed the three-year statute of limitations that is applicable to legal malpractice claims.
Issue: May a client try to avoid the statute of limitations by basing her legal malpractice claim on breach of contract rather than negligence?
Ruling: No. In this case, the client was trying to bring her claim as a breach of contract so that the claim would be subject to a six-year statute of limitations instead of a three-year statute of limitations. However, the Court found that the complaint set forth a legal malpractice claim based on negligence. The client was harmed by the lawyer’s negligent failure to use the requisite standard of care in advising the client about the details pertinent to her condominium purchase. Therefore, the claim is time barred by the three-year statute of limitation because the client waited over four years to file.
Lesson: A client cannot seek to bring a tort claim under contract law theory just by disguising the claim in contractual language. In addition, the client cannot attempt to use the original lawyer-client contract to make this a breach of contract claim. Thus,
“where the client claims the lawyer negligently performed legal services . . . the complaint sounds in negligence, even though the client claims that he retained the lawyer or engaged his services.”