In Curtis v Berutti, 77 Misc 3d 327 [Sup Ct 2022], the court discussed the issue re “near privity” concerning the attorney/client relationship.
In New York, absent fraud, collusion, malicious acts or other special circumstances, an attorney is not liable for professional negligence to third parties who are not in privity with the attorney; however, where the relationship is so close as to touch the bounds of privity, an action for legal malpractice may be maintained. Allianz Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Landmark Ins. Co., 13 A.D.3d 172, 787 N.Y.S.2d 15 (1st Dept. 2004).
“In order for a relationship to approach ‘near’ privity’s borders, for the purpose of maintaining a professional negligence claim, the professional must be aware that its services will be used for a specific purpose, the plaintiff must rely upon those services, and the professional must engage in some conduct evincing some understanding of the plaintiff’s reliance.” Allianz, 13 A.D.3d at 175, 787 N.Y.S.2d 15.
Although New York’s “near privity” exception is infrequently applied, sufficient “near privity” has been found under certain circumstances. See, e.g., Minsky v. Haber, 74 A.D.3d 763, 764, 903 N.Y.S.2d 441 (2d Dept. 2010) (near privity exception applied where attorneys represented daughter’s “personal interests” where she was deemed to be a “third-party beneficiary” of the attorney’s prior representation of her father); Baer v. Broder, 86 A.D.2d 881, 882, 447 N.Y.S.2d 538 (2d Dept. 1982) (near privity exception applied where widow, who, as executrix of her husband’s estate, hired attorney to prosecute a wrongful death action, was permitted to maintain an action against the attorney, in her individual capacity, for malpractice even though she had no privity of contract with the attorney in her individual capacity, since the widow and the attorney had a “face-to-face” relationship in the underlying wrongful death action and the widow was the “real party in interest” in the wrongful death action); Good Old Days Tavern, Inc. v. Zwirn, 259 A.D.2d 300, 300, 686 N.Y.S.2d 414 (1st Dept. 1999) (near privity exception applied where plaintiff, as president and sole shareholder of corporate client, was a foreseeable third-party beneficiary of the contract pursuant to which he retained the defendant/attorney to represent his corporation, which was tantamount to a relationship of contractual privity).
The precise question of whether an attorney who represents a guardian also represents the guardian’s ward (under a “near privity” exception or otherwise) has not been answered in New York. Other states, however, have answered the question in the affirmative. Such states have recognized that an exception to the privity requirement for legal malpractice liability must exist when a guardian hires an attorney specifically the benefit their ward. For example, in Illinois, courts have recognized that an attorney-client relationship extended from the attorney to the ward where the attorney, although hired by the ward’s guardian, was acting for the primary benefit or best interests of the ward. See Schwartz v. Cortelloni, 177 Ill. 2d 166, 174–75, 226 Ill.Dec. 416, 685 N.E.2d 871 (1997) (stating that the key factor to be considered is whether the attorney acted at the direction of or on behalf of the client for the benefit of the ward). Similarly, in Florida, it has been held that the attorney for guardian owes a duty to the ward where the ward is the intended third-party beneficiary of the attorney’s services. See Saadeh v. Connors, 166 So. 3d 959 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2015) (reinstating the ward’s legal malpractice claim against the guardian’s attorney and noting that the relationship between the guardian and the ward is such that the ward must be considered to be the primary or intended beneficiary and cannot be considered an “incidental” beneficiary). Further, Arizona courts have held that when an attorney undertakes to represent the guardian of an incompetent ward, the attorney assumes a relationship not only with the guardian but also with the ward as the intended beneficiary, whose interests overshadow those of the guardian and, thus, an attorney cannot escape liability for wrongful conduct on the ground of lack of privity. See In re Guardianship of Sleeth, 226 Ariz. 171, 244 P.3d 1169 (Ct. App. 2010); see also Fickett v. Superior Court, 27 Ariz. App. 793, 558 P.2d 988 (1976).
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