NJ: Underlying matrimonial action
Facts: The client hired the lawyer to represent her in a matrimonial action, specifically a property distribution agreement and divorce by reason of extreme cruelty and battery. Two weeks after the property settlement agreement was signed in 1981, the client attended a divorce law seminar and learned that other effective dates could have been used on the equitable distribution. She told the lawyer about this and he told her not to worry. On August 13, 1982, the client hired a new lawyer who suggested that the first lawyer may have committed malpractice in (1) handling the equitable distribution agreement; and (2) not filing a separate tort claim for battery. Without extension, the statute of limitations would have run on August 2, 1982 for the equitable distribution claim and April 26, 1982 for the marital tort claim.
Issue: At what date should the statute of limitations begin to run on each of the client’s malpractice claims against the lawyer?
Ruling: The court must use the discovery principle to determine the statute of limitations period.
“The discovery principle modifies the conventional limitations rule only to the extent of postponing accrual of the cause of action until client learns, or reasonably should learn, the existence of a state of facts which may equate in law with a cause of action. Accrual will not further be delayed until client learns from a lawyer the legal effect of those facts.”
Burd v. New Jersey Telephone Company, 76 N.J. 284, 291, 386 A.2d 1310 (1978).
As to her first claim, the client was aware in 1981 of all facts relevant to the effective date of equitable distribution. Thus, “discovery” occurred when she attended the divorce law seminar in 1981, not in 1982 when she met her new lawyer. As to her second claim, she may proceed because she had not “discovered” the claim until 1982.
Lesson: The court reasoned that the two claims were not “single and continuous,” but rather “plural and discrete.” The information regarding equitable distribution was of no use to the client in her separate claim for marital tort. Thus, the statute of limitations on the other claim does not attach and the client may use her August 13, 1982 meeting with her new lawyer as the “date of discovery.”