Legal Malpractice Requires A Contract Between the Client and the Lawyer
In an excellent demonstration of what does and does not constitute a legal malpractice case, a recent decision by the Essex Superior Court Judge Feeley lays out the requirements for a basic legal malpractice case in Massachusetts. See McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.C. v. Grady (April 1, 2014).
The case involves a divorce dispute in which the defendants are the parents. Their daughter hires a law firm to represent her in a divorce. They guarantee payment for the law firm’s services. Upon completion of the services, they fail to pay. The law firm sues them for their fee. The parents counter claim for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment and the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A.
The key to understanding the decision in this case is to understand that the parents are not the clients. The law firm owes a duty to the client, and the client only.
Breach of Contract in Legal Malpractice Cases
It is clear that when you retain an attorney, if he or she neglects to undertake the work that you hired him or her for, there may be a breach of contract. In this case, however, the Court found that the counterclaim for breach of contract “may not add much” to their simple defense of the claim. The court found that it was sufficient to be considered a claim by the parents against the law firm.
The parents, after all, did have a contract with the law firm.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty in Legal Malpractices Cases
The breach of fiduciary duty claim against a law firm is a standard claim of a client against a lawyer or law firm. The lawyer is a fiduciary to his or her client. However, in this case, the parents of the client were not the client. They are simply the guarantors of the fee. The Court found that the law firm owed no fiduciary duty to the parents. Wherefore, the Court held that this counterclaim was insufficient. While a contractual relationship existed, there was no fiduciary relationship.
Unjust Enrichment in Legal Malpractice Cases
The Court found that this claim by the parents was akin to “trying to put a square peg into a round hole” because unjust enrichment is found when someone has gained unfairly, or unjustly, at the expense of the other. Clearly the law firm here had not gained anything unfairly. They may, or may not, have been insufficiently paid, but the were not unjustly enriched by their representation of the daughter in the divorce.
Unjust enrichment is usually when someone undertakes services for which there is no contract and the beneficiary of the services to pay. The beneficiary is unjustly enriched. If anything, the daughter may have been unjustly enriched – she may have received services, which were not paid for.
93A In Legal Malpractice Cases
To succeed in a 93A claim against your attorney, the Court held, you must have had a relationship in which the law firm, or lawyer, owed you a fiduciary duty. In this case, the parents were owed no such duty. Thus, for success in a Consumer Protection Act case against a law firm, you need to have the intimate, attorney client relationship in which you are the client and the law firm owes you a duty.
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