Baldasarre v. Butler, 132 N.J. 278 (N.J. 1993)
NJ Underlying Real Estate Transaction
Facts: Plaintiffs inherited undeveloped land from their father and retained Defendant to act as attorney for the estate. The will directed the property to be sold and the proceeds divided between the Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs told Defendant that they wanted a price of $110,000 per lot. Defendant discussed the property with another client, DiFrancesco.
DiFrancesco wanted Defendant to represent him in the purchase of the property, despite the fact that Defendant had alerted him to the potential conflict of interest that could arise from his dual representation. After obtaining signed conflict of interest letters from both Plaintiffs (sellers) and DiFrancesco (buyer), the contract for sale was executed.
Pursuant to the contract, closing was subject to subdivision approval. During the subdivision approval process, DiFrancesco, represented by Defendant, entered into contract to sell the subject property to Messano Construction for $200,000 per lot, subject to DiFrancesco obtaining title to the property.
Defendant did not inform Plaintiffs of the Messano Construction contract, and when Plaintiffs were later informed, they brought a legal malpractice action against Defendant, and sued DiFrancesco, alleging legal and equitable fraud. They sought a rescission of their contract of sale with DiFrancesco, and compensatory and punitive damages. DiFrancesco counterclaimed, alleging tortious interference with his prospective economic advantage.
Issue: Can an attorney represent both buyer and seller in a real estate transaction?
Ruling: No. The potential for conflict in a real estate transaction is too great to permit even consensual dual representation of buyer and seller.
Lesson: The court adopted a new bright-line rule as a result of this case, prohibiting dual representation in real estate transactions because of the risk of disastrous consequences, given the inherent conflict of interest between a buyer and seller of real estate, the number of contingencies and options involved, and the large sums of money at stake.