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Current Developments in the Commercial Divisions of the
New York State Courts by Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP
Posted: September 4, 2018

Documents Submitted by Law Firm to Show Lack of Relationship Not Documentary Evidence Sufficient to Justify Dismissal

On August 22, 2018, The Second Department issued a decision in First Choice Plumbing Corp. v. Miller Law Offs., PLLC, 2018 NY Slip Op. 05825, holding that documents submitted by a law firm to show that it had not been engaged by the plaintiff were not documentary evidence sufficient to justify dismissal, explaining:

The defendant made a pre-answer motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), (5), and (7). The defendant argued, among other things, that no attorney-client relationship existed with respect to the mechanic’s liens. In support of that contention, the defendant submitted copies of the lien extensions, which were filed by nonparty Speedy Lien; a copy of a contract between First Choice and nonparty Construction Lien Consultants, LLC, to investigate, recover, and/or settle the debts owed to First Choice, as reflected in one of the mechanic’s liens; and emails and a letter. In the order appealed from, the Supreme Court found that the defendant submitted documentary evidence which utterly refuted the plaintiffs’ allegation that there was an attorney-client relationship between them and the defendant with respect to the liens and their extensions. Accordingly, the court granted that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the complaint on the ground that no attorney-client relationship existed, and denied, in effect, as academic, the remaining branches of the defendant’s motion. The plaintiffs appeal.

A motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the action is barred by documentary evidence may be appropriately granted only where the documentary evidence utterly refutes plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law. In order for evidence to qualify as documentary, it must be unambiguous, authentic, and undeniable. Judicial records, as well as documents reflecting out-of-court transactions such as mortgages, deeds, contracts, and any other papers, the contents of which are essentially undeniable, would qualify as documentary evidence in the proper case. Conversely, letters, emails, and affidavits fail to meet the requirements for documentary evidence.

Here, the emails and letters submitted in support of the defendant’s motion were not documentary evidence within the meaning of CPLR 3211(a)(1). To the extent that the other evidence submitted was documentary, that evidence did not conclusively establish the absence of an attorney-client relationship between the plaintiffs and the defendant with respect to the liens and their extensions. Thus, the Supreme Court should not have granted that branch of the defendant’s motion which was to dismiss the complaint on this ground.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

This decision relates to the New York procedural rules allowing a claim to be dismissed if it is refuted by documentary evidence (CPLR 3211(a)(1)). As this decision notes, documentary evidence does not mean just any kind of document. However, many decisions have held that the law is “fuzzy” on when a document can be used as documentary evidence under 3211(a)(1). Contact Schlam Stone & Dolan partner John Lundin at jlundin@schlamstone.com if you or a client have questions regarding whether a claim against you can be refuted at the pleadings stage by documentary evidence.

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