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NY: Collateral Estoppel No Defense to Legal Malpractice Action

Alaimo v. McGeorge, 893 N.Y.S.2d 331 (3rd Dept. 2010)

Underlying Personal Injury Action

Facts:  Plaintiffs initiated a pro-se personal injury action in 1999.  In May, 2004, Plaintiffs retained the defendant attorneys to prosecute their claims.  Approximately one month later, Plaintiffs’ action was struck for failure to present a medical expert.  Plaintiffs were given one year to restore the case, but failed to timely comply.  Defendants subsequently refunded the retainer and terminated representation. 

Shortly thereafter, Plaintiffs moved to restore their complaint pro-se.  The Supreme Court denied the motion and dismissed the case with prejudice for failure to present a reasonable excuse for not refiling the personal injury action within the one year time limit.  The Court further noted that the reports from Plaintiffs’ medical providers with the motion to reinstate "failed to establish any causal connection between any allegedly improper conduct [and the injuries complained of]."

Plaintiffs subsequently sued the defendant attorneys for legal malpractice.

Issue:  Is Plaintiffs’ legal malpractice action barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, since the Court had already made a determination as to the Plaintiffs’ inability to succeed in the underlying personal injury matter?  Did Plaintiffs state a cause of action for legal malpractice in light of the Supreme Court’s finding that they failed to establish proximate cause?

Ruling:  Plaintiffs stated a cause of action for legal malpractice and the doctrine of collateral estoppel did not apply. 

The Appellate Division explained the elements of collateral estoppel:

  • An identical issue decided in the prior action that is decisive of the instant action; and
  • The party to be precluded from relitigating the issue had a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination.

The Court ruled that collateral estoppel did not apply, since Plaintiffs’ motion to reinstate the case required a showing of merit sufficient to establish a triable issue of fact, and that in that setting conclusory allegations are insufficient.  In contrast, on defendants’ motion to dismiss, even conclusory allegations with respect to the medical evidence are deemed to be true.  Accordingly, defendants failed to establish that the showing of proximate cause as to Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries was identical in the underlying action and the malpractice action.

Similarly, although the medical evidence may not have been sufficient for purposes of the motion to reinstate the underlying matter, it was entitled to the benefit of every reasonable inference on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.   

Lesson:  Where the plaintiff’s burden of proof is heavier in the underlying action than in a preliminary motion in the malpractice action, plaintiff’s claims will not be barred based upon its failure to meet a heavier burden in the underlying matter.  

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Posted in: Entire Controversy Doctrine, New York, Torts/Personal Injury