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Duties to Non-Clients

LaBracio Family Partnership v. 1239 Roosevelt Avenue, Inc.,
340 N.J. Super. 155, 773 A.2d 1209 (App. Div. 2001)

Student Contributor:  Cheryl Neuman

N.J. Underlying real estate transaction

Facts:  Sevdalis was represented by his attorney, Kroop in selling his diner. Zervas, the buyer, was represented by his lawyer, Abazia. There were two mortgages involved in this transaction:
1.    Zervas was supposed to assume the first mortgage to a party named LaBracio, and
2.    Sevdalis was going to take the purchase money mortgage which would be secondary to the LaBracio mortgage.
At the closing, Abazia (buyer’s lawyer) took the deed and Sevdalis’s mortgage and said he was going to record them. He didn’t record them. Subsequently, Zervas physically assaulted Abazia, and took his files, the deed, and mortgage. Abazia told Kroop that the mortgage and deed were never recorded, but Abazia was then fired and Zervas hired a new lawyer, Burger.
Burger also did not record the deed or mortgage, and he gave the documents to his client, Zervas. During this time, Zervas granted mortgages on the property to unrelated mortgagees, thereby giving these new liens priority over the Sevdalis mortgage.  Sevdalis then brought a legal malpractice suit against  Kroop (seller’s attorney)  Abazia (buyer’s attorneys) and Burger (seller’s second attorney).

Issue : Whether Burger was negligent and if so, how should responsibility be allocated between the three lawyers?

Ruling: Burger was negligent and is therefore responsible for 25%, Abazia is responsible for 25%, and Kroop is responsible for 50% of the award. The court used the substantial factor test in determining whether Burger would be held responsible. Since his actions were a substantial factor in causing the injuries, he was indeed responsible.

Lesson: N.J. recognizes the existence of duties owed not only to an attorney’s client but also to third parties, such as  opposing counsel:

 attorneys may owe a duty of care to non-clients, when the attorneys know or should know, that non-clients will rely on the attorneys’ representations and the non-clients are not too remote from the attorneys to be entitled to protection.

LaBracio, 340 N.J. Super. 155, 163. 

The court further said that:

a duty to a non-client third party depends on balancing the attorney’s duty to represent clients vigorously, Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.3 (1993) with the duty not to provide misleading information on which third parties foreseeably will rely, Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 4.1 (1993).

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Posted in: New Jersey, Real Estate