Dude, Where’s My Lawyer?: attorney illness

Man sitting on a suitcase and looking through binoculars, illustrating an article about attorney illness by Richard Klass

She obtained a money judgment against a property owner for personal injuries she sustained. To collect the judgment, the injured plaintiff’s counsel retained Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer as special collection counsel.

Proceeding to declare there’s no homestead exemption:

Once a judgment has been entered, there are various enforcement measures available to the creditor to collect the money due on the judgment from the debtor. One of the most effective means of enforcing a Judgment is through a Sheriff’s auction sale of a debtor’s real property.

Prior to the Sheriff conducting an auction sale of real estate, there is a requirement under CPLR 5206 that the judgment creditor file a proceeding to determine whether there is sufficient equity in the real property over and above both the liens and mortgages on the property and, if applicable, the debtor’s “homestead exemption” from which the judgment may be satisfied. The homestead exemption represents a certain monetary amount of equity in a debtor’s principal residence protected from creditors.1 If the court determines that there is sufficient net equity, then an order may be entered authorizing the Sheriff to levy on the real property and conduct the auction sale.

Discovery on the issue of the homestead exemption:

In the proceeding to determine that the debtor’s house could be sold at Sheriff’s auction, the debtor claimed that the subject house was his principal residence. In response, the creditor was granted leave of court to conduct discovery proceedings on the issue of the debtor’s homestead exemption claim. Discovery demands, including interrogatories and document demands, were served upon the debtor’s attorney.

Despite having been served with the discovery demands, the debtor failed to respond to them. The debtor’s failure to respond to the interrogatories and produce documents continued even after the direction of the court in the preliminary conference order and a subsequent order. The creditor filed a motion to strike the debtor’s answer and preclude him from asserting the homestead exemption claim. Once again, the debtor failed to respond or comply. The court gave the debtor one last chance to respond. Needless to say, the debtor did not respond despite all of the chances afforded to him, and the court struck his answer and his defenses, including the claimed homestead exemption.

Debtor claims default was due to his attorney’s illnesses:

The debtor’s new attorney filed a motion with the court requesting that the order striking his answer be vacated because his prior attorney was suffering from physical and mental illnesses. The prior attorney submitted an affirmation stating that he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and was also suffering from mental illness, and that he has had to withdraw his representation in other cases.

In opposing the request to vacate the debtor’s default, the creditor argued (a) that the prior attorney failed to provide proof of mental illness; (b) from reviewing court calendars, there was no proof that the prior attorney withdrew from other cases; (c) the debtor failed to respond to discovery demands long before the default; and (d) the debtor still failed to sustain his burden of proving his claimed homestead exemption.

An attorney’s illness must be corroborated by medical documentation:

The judge laid out the criteria necessary to determine the debtor’s motion to vacate his default based upon the claim of his attorney’s illness, stating as follows:

“The illness of a party’s attorney, when corroborated by medical documentation, including the affirmation of a physician, suffices as a reasonable excuse for vacatur of a default. (Pierot v. Leonard, 154 AD3d 791 [2d Dept. 2017]; Weitzenberg v. Nassau County Dept. of Recreation & Parks, 29 AD3d 683 [2d Dept. 2006]; Norowitz v. Ponconco, Inc., 96 AD2d 581 [2d Dept. 1983]. [The attorney’s] alleged physical and mental health issues are not established by a doctor’s affirmation and therefore do not serve as a reasonable excuse to vacate the default. Nonetheless, [the attorney’s] initial default occurred prior to the alleged June 20th date of diagnosis, and [the attorney] fails to submit detailed submissions explaining the respondent’s delays in responding to the petitioner’s discovery demands, in complying with the court’s February 27th order mandating discovery, as well as his failure to oppose the petitioner’s April 16th motion to strike (compare with Hageman v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 25 AD3d 760 [2d Dept. 2006].

Finally, the Court notes that respondent’s Answer was stricken and judgment entered after a history of noncompliance with orders to produce discovery essential to this litigation. . . . The Court finds that given the history of this litigation, the explanation proferred by respondent and his former counsel is vague, unsubstantiated and incredible, and does not constitute a reasonable excuse for respondent’s default (see Herrera v. MTA Bus Co., 100 AD3d 962 [2d Dept. 2012]); Wells Fargo Bank, NA v. Cervini, 84 AD3d 789 [2d Dept. 2011]. Given the Court of Appeals’ guidance in Gibbs v. St. Barnabas Hospital, 16 NY3d 74 [2010], as well as Second Department case law cited above, the Court finds it would be an improvident use of its discretion to vacate the default judgment in light of respondent’s history of default and noncompliance. Further, prior counsel’s alleged illness, which constituted the excuse for the default, only accounted for a small period of time in which respondent was to have provided discovery.”

The judge found that the petition was entitled to judgment as a matter of law and granted the petition directing the sale of the debtor’s 100% interest in the real property.

1 Currently, a judgment debtor’s “homestead exemption” amount depends on which county the property is located, which is as follows:

  • $170,825 if the property is in the counties of Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, Westchester, or Putnam.
  • $142,350 if the property is in the counties of Dutchess, Albany, Columbia, Orange, Saratoga or Ulster.
  • $85,400 if the property is in any other county.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Scales of justice illustrating article about legal malpractice.

…issue of collateral estoppel concerning a matter previously litigated…

In Gobindram v Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, P.C., 175 AD3d 586, 589-91 [2d Dept 2019], the state court considered the issue of collateral estoppel concerning a matter previously litigated in the federal bankruptcy court. The court held:

“The doctrine of in pari delicto mandates that the courts will not intercede to resolve a dispute between two wrongdoers” (Kirschner v. KPMG LLP, 15 N.Y.3d 446, 464, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941). “[T]he principle that a wrongdoer should not profit from his own misconduct is so strong in New York that … the defense applies even in difficult cases and should not be weakened by exceptions” (id. at 464, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941 [internal quotation marks omitted] ). “The defense requires intentional conduct on the part of the plaintiff” (Sacher v. Beacon Assoc. Mgt. Corp., 114 A.D.3d 655, 657, 980 N.Y.S.2d 121; see Kirschner v. KPMG LLP, 15 N.Y.3d at 474, 912 N.Y.S.2d 508, 938 N.E.2d 941).

Scales of justice illustrating article about legal malpractice.

Collateral estoppel precludes a party from relitigating in a subsequent action or proceeding an issue raised in a prior action or proceeding and decided against that party, whether or not the tribunals or causes of action are the same (see Buechel v. Bain, 97 N.Y.2d 295, 303, 740 N.Y.S.2d 252, 766 N.E.2d 914; Shifer v. Shifer, 165 A.D.3d 721, 723, 85 N.Y.S.3d 92). There must be an identity of issue which has necessarily been decided in the prior action and is decisive of the present action, and there must have been a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision now said to be controlling (see Buechel v. Bain, 97 N.Y.2d at 303–304, 740 N.Y.S.2d 252, 766 N.E.2d 914; Shifer v. Shifer, 165 A.D.3d at 723, 85 N.Y.S.3d 92).

Here, the federal courts in the plaintiff’s bankruptcy proceeding finally adjudicated a mixed issue of law and fact identical to that raised by the in pari delicto defense asserted by the defendants in the current legal malpractice action, i.e., the plaintiff’s culpability in connection with the filing of the inaccurate bankruptcy petition. Those courts found that the plaintiff knowingly and intentionally made a false and fraudulent statement under oath by swearing that he had read the SOFA and that it was true and correct, and that the plaintiff’s alleged reliance on the defendants to accurately prepare the bankruptcy submissions did not negate his fraudulent intent. These findings established that the plaintiff was in pari delicto with the defendants to the extent that he alleges they acted negligently in preparing and filing the inaccurate bankruptcy petition. Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting that branch of the defendants’ motion which was to dismiss so much of the legal malpractice cause of action as sought to recover damages for the defendants’ preparation and filing of the inaccurate bankruptcy petition based on the doctrines of collateral estoppel and in pari delicto.

However, we disagree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting that branch of the defendants’ motion which was to dismiss so much of the legal malpractice cause of action as sought to recover damages for the defendants’ failure to amend the bankruptcy petition. The findings of the federal courts regarding the knowing and fraudulent conduct on the plaintiff’s part related solely to the initial filing; they made no determination that the plaintiff acted knowingly and fraudulently in failing to file an amended petition. Accordingly, that part of the plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action is not subject to dismissal on the grounds of collateral estoppel and in pari delicto.

As an alternative ground for affirmance (see Parochial Bus Sys. v. Board of Educ. of City of N.Y., 60 N.Y.2d 539, 545–546, 470 N.Y.S.2d 564, 458 N.E.2d 1241), the defendants contend that the legal malpractice cause of action should have been dismissed in its entirety pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), since the parties’ evidentiary submissions on the motion established that the plaintiff hired subsequent counsel who had ample opportunity to rectify their alleged error in this regard (see e.g. Perks v. Lauto & Garabedian, 306 A.D.2d 261, 262, 760 N.Y.S.2d 231). This contention lacks merit.

On a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), the court must “accept the facts as alleged in the complaint as true, accord plaintiffs the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory” (Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511; see Nonnon v. City of New York, 9 N.Y.3d 825, 827, 842 N.Y.S.2d 756, 874 N.E.2d 720). “When evidentiary material is considered, the criterion is whether the proponent of the pleading has a cause of action, not whether [she or] he has stated one, and, unless it has been shown that a material fact as claimed by the pleader to be one is not a fact at all and unless it can be said that no significant dispute exists regarding it, … dismissal should not eventuate” (Guggenheimer v. Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d 268, 275, 401 N.Y.S.2d 182, 372 N.E.2d 17).

Here, the record reveals that the plaintiff did not retain the services of new counsel until December 2011. By that time, the bankruptcy trustee had already noted inconsistencies in the petition and requested an accounting relating to the omitted tax refund transfers, and the plaintiff’s creditors had commenced the adversary proceeding. Giving the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference (see Leon v. Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 87–88, 614 N.Y.S.2d 972, 638 N.E.2d 511), this time line suggests that the defendants, not the subsequent attorney, represented the plaintiff at the time when a voluntary amendment to the petition could have significantly reduced the prospect of a finding that the plaintiff made a false and fraudulent statement in the bankruptcy petition (see In re Tully, 818 F.2d 106, 111 [1st Cir.]; Matter of Kilson, 83 B.R. 198, 203 [D. Conn.]). Accordingly, at this preliminary stage of the litigation, the defendants have failed to conclusively demonstrate that the plaintiff’s subsequent attorney had a sufficient opportunity to correct their alleged error in failing to amend the petition, such that they did not proximately cause any damages flowing from that error (see generally Tooma v. Grossbarth, 121 A.D.3d 1093, 1096, 995 N.Y.S.2d 593; Grant v. LaTrace, 119 A.D.3d 646, 647, 990 N.Y.S.2d 227).

We find unpersuasive the defendants’ additional alternative contention that the legal malpractice cause of action was properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(3) because that cause of action belongs to the bankruptcy estate and the plaintiff lacked standing to assert it. “On a defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based upon the plaintiff’s alleged lack of standing, the burden is on the moving defendant to establish, prima facie, the plaintiff’s lack of standing” (BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP v. Rychik, 161 A.D.3d 924, 925, 77 N.Y.S.3d 522; see CPLR 3211[a][3]; MLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d 881, 881–882). “[T]he motion will be defeated if the plaintiff’s submissions raise a question of fact as to its standing” (U.S. Bank N.A. v. Clement, 163 A.D.3d 742, 743, 81 N.Y.S.3d 116 [internal quotation marks omitted]; see MLB Sub I, LLC v. Bains, 148 A.D.3d at 882, 50 N.Y.S.3d 410).

Here, in response to the defendants’ prima facie showing that the plaintiff’s legal malpractice cause of action was the property of the bankruptcy estate (see Wright v. Meyers & Spencer, LLP, 46 A.D.3d 805, 849 N.Y.S.2d 274; Williams v. Stein, 6 A.D.3d 197, 198, 775 N.Y.S.2d 255; In re Strada Design Assoc., Inc., 326 B.R. 229, 237–240 [S.D. N.Y.]), the plaintiff raised a question of fact as to whether the bankruptcy trustee had abandoned the cause of action in accordance with Bankruptcy Code (11 USC) § 554(a) and had authorized the plaintiff to pursue it. Accordingly, dismissal of the legal malpractice cause of action for lack of standing is not available at this juncture.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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“Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”

Simon & Garfunkel,
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

Rabbit with yellow fur standing next to gray and yellow turtle illustrating article by Richard Klass about nonresident plaintiffs posting security for costs.

A foreign company sued a New York State resident, seeking to force the sale of his house in order to satisfy its judgment.  The company existed under New Jersey law with a New Jersey corporate address.  The house was located in Nassau County.

Petition to Sell House

The judgment creditor’s petition to sell real property alleged that there was sufficient equity in the house exceeding the homestead exemption and existing mortgage lien.  The petition further alleged that attempts to execute on the judgment debtor’s personal property failed and the creditor had otherwise been unable to satisfy its judgment.  Combined, these allegations would normally be enough to satisfy the pleading requirements under CPLR 5203, 5206 and 5238.

In response to the petition, the debtor/homeowner retained Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer, to defend the proceeding in order to retain his house.  The defenses put up included the fact that the mortgage lender had already begun foreclosure proceedings and there was a question as to the validity of the claim that there was any net equity in the property.  Further, since the house was owned by the debtor with his wife as a “ tenancy by the entirety, ” the house could not be sold without consideration of her property rights.

Stopping the Creditor in its tracks

Sometimes, a debtor needs a respite from the continual attacks by creditors.  One way to accomplish this is by a bankruptcy filing, in which the automatic stay imposed upon filing stops the pecking at a debtor’s assets by creditors.  Another way to slow down a creditor is to temporarily stay the lawsuit while the debtor and his family “ circle the wagons ” to either gather up strong defenses or develop an orderly plan in which debts will be repaid or settled.  An effective method of getting this pause is by requesting that the judge stay the lawsuit of a non-New York State creditor until the plaintiff/creditor posts security for the costs of the action.

Security for Costs

New York court rules require nonresident plaintiffs maintaining lawsuits in New York courts to post security for the costs for which they would be liable if their lawsuits were unsuccessful.  CPLR 8501(a) provides that, “ except where the plaintiff has been granted permission to proceed as a poor person or is the petitioner in a habeas corpus proceeding, upon motion by the defendant without notice, the court or judge thereof shall order security for costs to be given by the plaintiffs where none of them is a domestic corporation, a foreign corporation licensed to do business in the state or a resident of the state when the motion is made. ” CPLR 8502 provides that until security for costs is given pursuant to court order, all proceedings other than to review or vacate such order shall be stayed, and that if the plaintiff shall not have given security for costs at the expiration of 30 days from the date of the order, the court may dismiss the complaint upon motion by the defendant.

Security for costs is a device ordinarily used against a nonresident plaintiff to make sure if he loses the case, he will not return home and leave the defendant with a costs judgment that can be enforced only in the plaintiff’s home state.  By directing a nonresident to post a bond, the defendant is protected from frivolous lawsuits and is assured that, if successful, he will be able to recover costs from the plaintiff.

In rebuffing a challenge to the constitutionality of the requirement of security for costs imposed upon a nonresident plaintiff, the court in Clement v. Durban, 147 AD3d 39 [2016] aff’d 32 NY3d 337 [2018] cert denied 139 S.Ct. 2649 [2019] held that the court rules do not deprive nonresident plaintiffs of reasonable and adequate access to New York courts and, thus, are constitutional.  Where nonresidents are subject to different treatment than New York residents, there must be reasonable grounds for diversity of treatment (so as to prevent discrimination against citizens of other states).  Disparity of treatment of nonresidents is permitted in situations where there are valid, independent reasons for it; in this situation, deterring frivolous or harassing lawsuits and preventing prevailing defendants from having to chase plaintiffs into foreign jurisdictions to collect their judgments are considered valid reasons.

Upon motion by the defendant requesting that the plaintiff post a bond as security for costs, the judge granted the motion and directed the nonresident plaintiff to post security in the amount of $10,000 for costs.  The plaintiff did not do so within the 30 day period after the order and, accordingly, the court dismissed the lawsuit.

Richard A. Klass, Esq.

©2019 Richard A. Klass. Credits: Photo of Richard Klass by Rob Abruzzese, 2019. Marketing agency: The Innovation Works, Inc. (www.TheInnovationWorks.com)  Image at top of page: Shutterstock

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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[ nonresident plaintiffs ]

The benefits of filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy

In precarious times, when local economies are faltering, many people attempt to retain their homes despite mounting debts.

The Bankruptcy Code, under Chapter 13, provides an individual wage-earner with a mechanism of proposing a “plan” or reorganization, in which the “debtor” may retain the asset and make payments to creditors. The most common reason for a debtor to file a petition under Chapter 13 is to protect his primary residence from foreclosure sale.

As opposed to a bankruptcy petition under Chapter 7, where the debtor turns over to the trustee all non-exempt assets for distribution to creditors in proportion, the Chapter 13 debtor will make regular payments to the trustee pursuant to a plan (which may range in term from three to five years). For instance, if the debtor has a house worth $100,000, and wants to keep it, the debtor will propose a plan to pay creditors during the term of the plan that same value in order to retain the property. A basic tenet of Chapter 13 is that the proposed plan will pay creditors more than if the debtor had filed a Chapter 13 petition for liquidation.

One of the most important considerations in filing a Chapter 13 and, ultimately, confirming the plan is whether the debtor has the ability to make the requisite payments. Since the debtor must pay not only the scheduled plan payments to the trustee for the arrearages on the mortgage and other listed creditors, but also current mortgage payments, special consideration must be made of the debtor’s income and expenses to test affordability.

The greatest benefit of filing a Chapter 13 petition is the “automatic stay” under the Bankruptcy Code. This stay stops all actions on the part of creditors to collect their debts. In the typical case, the stay stops the upcoming mortgage foreclosure auction sale on the courthouse steps. It cannot be understated that the timing of the filing of the petition is significant; e.g., the filing of the petition after the foreclosure auction sale is generally fatal to attempting to retain the real property in the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. Another benefit of Chapter 13 is to file a plan that proposes to pay creditors less in percentage than that owed. Certain calculations to determine the appropriate reduced percentage are necessary.

by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Bankruptcy: an overview

It is unavoidable to conclude, from the news, that people in the United States are in pain! Financial pain and hurt!

Tens of millions of people in this country suffer from the strains of debt: Mortgage Debt, Credit Card Debt, Auto Finance Debt, Tax Debt, Student Loan Debt!

For some of these people, filing bankruptcy may be the best option to dig out of a bad situation. A consultation with a competent attorney may be the first step in digging out.

What is bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy is a concept as old as the Bible. In biblical times, in the Jubilee Year, all debts owed to creditors would be forgiven. In our United States Constitution, the privilege of filing for bankruptcy is inscribed. While some people still perceive there being a great stigma in filing for bankruptcy protection, most people recognize that it is not only legally mandated, but is well-rooted in good ethical and moral behavior.

The term “Bankruptcy” refers to a proceeding in a special court called the “United States Bankruptcy Court” in which a person (the “debtor”) files a “petition” and obtains “relief” from the court. The petition is a document which lists four broad categories of information about the debtor:

  1. Assets
  2. Debts
  3. Income
  4. Expenses

The bankruptcy process, an overview:

After the petition is filed with the court, the debtor is interviewed by a court-appointed trustee, who inquires as to the circumstances that led up to bankruptcy and determines whether there are any assets to administer on behalf of creditors. The end result of a bankruptcy case is the “discharge” of debts.

In order to prepare for the decision as to whether bankruptcy is appropriate, the person should assemble various documents, such as tax returns, paystubs, account statements for all debts, appraisals of property, deeds or title to property, and bank statements.

Through the bankruptcy process, the debtor may be permitted to retain property which is “exempt” from creditors. There are various exemptions under law which permit a debtor to keep property, such as household furnishings, homestead exemption in real estate, pensions, and other items. The skilled practitioner will assist in finding exemptions for most or all of the debtor’s property. If property is not exempt, then the trustee can sell it and pay over the sale proceeds to creditors.

For many people, the decision to file bankruptcy is motivated by one or both of the following two factors:

  1. Discharge of debt: Most debts will be discharged. This means that the debtor will no longer be obligated to repay the debts. Some debts are not dischargeable because they are exceptions to the rule, such as domestic support obligations, tax debt, or government fines. However, even some of these seemingly nondischargeable debts may still be discharged. Other debts may be “secured” on property for collateral for the loan, such as a home mortgage or auto finance loan. These debts might not be discharged because the creditor may seek to take back the property.
  2. Automatic stay: The other major reason people file for bankruptcy is to get the benefit of the “Stop” sign – the automatic stay. Sometimes, creditors are calling the debtor day and night to get payments on accounts; sometimes, there is a garnishment on the debtor’s wages; and sometimes, bank accounts are being seized. Once the bankruptcy is filed, creditors are “stayed” or stopped from pursuing the debtor further. For many debtors, this is quite a relief!

There are two general types of bankruptcy cases:

The first type is a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, also known as a “liquidation proceeding” or “straight bankruptcy.” In this case, the debtor turns over to the trustee all non-exempt assets, in order for the assets to be liquidated or sold by the trustee to pay creditors. It is no secret that 95% of personal bankruptcies are “No Asset” cases, in which the debtor has no non-exempt assets to turn over to the trustee.

The second type is a “Reorganization” proceeding, which can be filed under Chapter 9 (municipalities); Chapter 11 (corporate entities and larger-debt cases); Chapter 12 (family farmers); and Chapter 13 (individual wage-earner cases). In a reorganization case, the debtor has non-exempt assets he wants to keep, such as a home, and proposes a plan to repay creditors a certain amount of money over a certain term.

If you have questions concerning bankruptcy, please feel free to contact the law offices of Richard A. Klass, Esq. by phone or e-mail for more information.

copyr. 2014 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation in Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.comcreate new email with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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