Commercial Division Blog
Fiduciary Duty Claim Against Former Counsel Based on Conflict Timely Even Though Malpractice Claim Untimely
On December 28, 2017, the First Department issued a decision in Palmeri v. Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, 2017 NY Slip Op. 09252, holding that a breach of fiduciary duty claim against former counsel was timely based on a conflict even though the related malpractice claim was untimely, explaining:
Plaintiff's claim for legal malpractice, in turn, is untimely. Claims for legal malpractice are subject to a three-year statute of limitations and accrue when the malpractice is committed, not when the client learns of it. Plaintiff's legal malpractice claim first accrued on or about June 25, 2009, when defendant terminated its legal representation of him, but continued to represent Ramius in the ongoing FINRA investigation. He did not, however, file his claim until February 15, 2013, more than three years later.
. . .
However, the IAS court should have permitted the breach of fiduciary duty claim to proceed. The IAS court correctly noted that the claim was subject to a three-year statute of limitations. The court was mistaken, however, in finding that the allegedly wrongful conduct ended on June 25, 2009, when defendant unilaterally terminated its representation of plaintiff. On the contrary, defendant's conduct extended through at least June 29, 2011, during which time it represented Ramius and its employees in their participation at plaintiff's FINRA disciplinary hearing.
Here, plaintiff alleges not only that defendant breached its fiduciary duty when it terminated its professional relationship with him, but also when, until at least June 2011, it acted in a manner directly adverse to his interests. Where there is a series of continuing wrongs, the continuing wrong doctrine tolls the limitation period until the date of the commission of the last wrongful act.
Here, plaintiff has presented evidence of a continuing wrong, which is deemed to have accrued on the date of the last wrongful act. Indeed, the record contains evidence sufficient to create an issue of fact as to whether defendant breached its fiduciary obligations to plaintiff after June 2009 and well into June 2011 during its ongoing representation of the Ramius parties.
For example, as noted, the record contains evidence that in the early portion of 2011, defendant helped Ramius identify witnesses who would testify against plaintiff at his FINRA disciplinary hearing. Similarly, defendant was present on behalf of Ramius and Ramius employees who testified at plaintiff's FINRA hearing on June 28 through 29, 2011 — a hearing at which the employees gave testimony that was generally adverse to plaintiff's interests. This evidence is sufficient for a fact-finder to determine that defendant breached its duty of loyalty to plaintiff, a former client.
(Internal quotations and citations omitted).
We both bring and defend breach of fiduciary duty and professional malpractice claims and other claims relating to the duties of professionals such as lawyers, accountants and architects to their clients. Contact Schlam Stone & Dolan partner Erik Groothuis at firstname.lastname@example.org if you or a client have questions regarding such claims or appeals of such claims.