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Non-Collectibility of Judgment: Affirmative Defense to Legal Malpractice Action

Albee Associates v. Orloff, Lowenbach, Stifelman and Siegel, P.A., 317 N.J.Super. 211 (App. Div. 1999)

NJ Underlying Civil Litigation

Student Contributor:  Joshua D. Aronson

Facts: Defendant attorneys were hired by the plaintiffs to represent them in a civil fraud action. An entry of default was granted in favor of the plaintiffs. Following the entry of default, one of the defendants in the underlying action filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. The defendant attorneys failed to list the plaintiffs as creditors in the bankruptcy petition and, subsequently, failed to file an adversary proceeding for non-dischargeability of the debt before the passing of the bar date. This prevented plaintiffs from collecting any money from the debtors due to the discharge in bankruptcy, and thereafter, plaintiffs pursued an action for legal malpractice against their former attorneys. The defendant attorneys submitted a motion for summary judgment under the theory that even if the plaintiffs were successful in a non-dischargeability complaint, they would still not have been able to collect due to the financial status of the debtors. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding that even if the plaintiffs’ judgment had not been discharged, the debtor would not have had the assets to be able to satisfy plaintiffs’ judgment. Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision.

Issue: Did the trial court improperly grant the attorneys’ motion for summary judgment in the legal malpractice action based upon the plaintiff’s inability to collect on their judgment against the debtors?

Ruling: The Appellate Division reversed and held that collectibility is ultimately a question of proximate cause. It remanded for a fuller factual record. The evidence submitted to the motion court  did not clearly establish that a reasonable juror could conclude that the debtor would have been unable to satisfy plaintiffs’ judgment.

By virtue of the "no-asset" Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding, [the debtor] may, at the time of the asset searches at least, have had no assets. But he was, as far as the record reveals, at one point capable of maintaining an income and acquiring assets.   To the extent a substantial portion of his prior debts have been extinguished, he has benefited from the bankruptcy and there is nothing in the record that would suggest that his "no-assets" status is anything but temporary or that he does not now have viable income.

Lesson: It would seem that in order to prevail in a legal malpractice case, the burden of proving a former client’s inability to collect an underlying debt, might well have shifted in some cases to the malpractice defendant. Of interest, see also Hoppe v. Ranzini,  (PDF) with permission of Thomson/Reuters, Westlaw.

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Posted in: Defenses, Litigation, New Jersey, Statute of Limitations, Substantial Factor-Proximate Cause