…the client must prove that he sustained damages….

Once the defendant-law firm has moved for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint, the client must prove that he sustained damages. See, Nill v Schneider, 173 AD3d 753 [2d Dept 2019]:

A plaintiff in an action alleging legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney’s failure to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (see Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker & Sauer, 8 N.Y.3d 438, 442, 835 N.Y.S.2d 534, 867 N.E.2d 385; Sang Seok NA v. Schietroma, 163 A.D.3d 597, 598, 79 N.Y.S.3d 636). “ An attorney’s conduct or inaction is the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s damages if but for the attorney’s negligence, the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action, or would not have sustained actual and ascertainable damages ” (Nomura Asset Capital Corp. v. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, 26 N.Y.3d 40, 50, 19 N.Y.S.3d 488, 41 N.E.3d 353 [citation and internal quotation marks omitted]; see Richmond Holdings, LLC v. David S. Frankel, P.C., 150 A.D.3d 1168, 1168, 52 N.Y.S.3d 672).

“ It is a defendant’s burden, when it is the party moving for summary judgment, to demonstrate affirmatively the merits of a defense, which cannot be sustained by pointing out gaps in the plaintiff’s proof ” (Quantum Corporate Funding, Ltd. v. Ellis, 126 A.D.3d 866, 871, 6 N.Y.S.3d 255). Once a defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d 959, 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118; Valley Ventures, LLC v. Joseph J. Haspel, PLLC, 102 A.D.3d 955, 956, 958 N.Y.S.2d 604).

Here, the defendant met her prima facie burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff did not sustain actual and ascertainable damages proximately caused by the defendant’s alleged negligent representation (see Harris v. Barbera, 163 A.D.3d 534, 536, 79 N.Y.S.3d 643; Panos v. Eisen, 160 A.D.3d 759, 760, 75 N.Y.S.3d 69; Kaloakas Mgt. Corp. v. Lawrence & Walsh, P.C., 157 A.D.3d at 779, 66 N.Y.S.3d 897). The evidentiary submissions established that the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages was the occurrence of a tree falling on the subject property during Hurricane Sandy, and not any claimed failure on the part of the defendant to discover, prior to the closing, any alleged discrepancy between the certificate of existing use and the 2007 survey of the subject property (see Excelsior Capitol LLC v. K & L Gates LLP, 138 A.D.3d 492, 492, 29 N.Y.S.3d 320; cf. Esposito v. Noto, 132 A.D.3d 944, 946, 19 N.Y.S.3d 300). In opposition, the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact. Accordingly, we agree with the Supreme Court’s determination granting the defendant’s cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the amended complaint insofar as asserted against her. For these same reasons, we agree with the court’s determination denying the plaintiff’s motion, inter alia, for summary judgment on the issue of liability.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case

Bakcheva v Law Offices of Stein & Assoc., 2019 NY Slip Op 00844 [2d Dept Feb. 6, 2019] is a good reminder that a defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case. The court held:

A plaintiff seeking to recover damages for legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession, and that the breach of this duty proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (see McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301–302, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; Biberaj v. Acocella, 120 A.D.3d 1285, 1286, 993 N.Y.S.2d 64). A defendant seeking summary judgment dismissing a legal malpractice cause of action has the burden of establishing prima facie that he or she did not fail to exercise such skill and knowledge, or that the claimed departure did not proximately cause the plaintiff to sustain damages (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d 959, 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118; Betz v. Blatt, 160 A.D.3d 696, 698, 74 N.Y.S.3d 75). The defendant must affirmatively demonstrate the merits of a defense, rather than merely pointing out gaps in the plaintiff’s proof (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d at 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118).

We agree with the Supreme Court that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the legal malpractice cause of action. Although the defendants established their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact in opposition. Specifically, the plaintiff submitted evidence that she had informed the defendants, prior to the closing, that the main portion of the apartment was on the seventh floor of the building and that the apartment included a second level. According to the plaintiff, the defendants committed malpractice because they failed to recognize the illegality of the second level, since neither the certificate of occupancy nor the approved condominium offering plan authorized the existence of an eighth floor to the condominium.

R. A. Klass
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Plaintiff must establish elements of proximate cause

In Verdi v Jacoby & Meyers, LLP, 154 AD3d 901 [2d Dept 2017], the court held:

“ To establish a cause of action to recover damages for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must establish the elements of proximate cause and damages, i.e. “ a plaintiff must show that but for the attorney’s negligence, he or she would have prevailed on the underlying claim ” (Rau v. Borenkoff, 262 A.D.2d 388, 389, 691 N.Y.S.2d 140; see Di Giacomo v. Michael S. Langella, P.C., 119 A.D.3d 636, 638, 990 N.Y.S.2d 221), by proving “ a case within a case ” (McKenna v. Forsyth & Forsyth, 280 A.D.2d 79, 82, 720 N.Y.S.2d 654 [internal quotation marks omitted] ). ”

Plaintiff claimed attorney malpracticed with regard to a settlement

In Freeman v Brecher, 2017 NY Slip Op 07949 [1st Dept Nov. 14, 2017], the plaintiff claimed that the attorney malpracticed with regard to a settlement. In affirming the dismissal of the case, the appellate court held that,

Plaintiff’s claim for legal malpractice in connection with an underlying settlement fails to state a cause of action in the absence of allegations that the “settlement … was effectively compelled by the mistakes of [defendant] counsel” (Bernstein v. Oppenheim & Co., 160 A.D.2d 428, 430, 554 N.Y.S.2d 487 [1st Dept.1990] ) or the result of fraud or coercion (see Beattie v. Brown & Wood, 243 A.D.2d 395, 663 N.Y.S.2d 199 [1st Dept.1997] ). Plaintiff’s equivocal denial of knowledge of the terms of the settlement is flatly contradicted by the clear terms of the settlement agreement (see Bishop v. Maurer, 33 A.D.3d 497, 499, 823 N.Y.S.2d 366 [1st Dept.2006], affd. 9 N.Y.3d 910, 844 N.Y.S.2d 165, 875 N.E.2d 883 [2007] ). Additionally, plaintiff’s speculative and conclusory allegations of proximately caused damages cannot serve as a basis for a legal malpractice claim (see Pellegrino v. File, 291 A.D.2d 60, 63, 738 N.Y.S.2d 320 [1st Dept.2002], lv. denied 98 N.Y.2d 606, 746 N.Y.S.2d 456, 774 N.E.2d 221 [2002] ). Plaintiff’s cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty arising from the same conduct was correctly dismissed as duplicative of the legal malpractice claim (see Garnett v. Fox, Horan & Camerini, LLP, 82 A.D.3d 435, 436, 918 N.Y.S.2d 79 [1st Dept.2011]; InKine Pharm. Co. v. Coleman, 305 A.D.2d 151, 152, 759 N.Y.S.2d 62 [1st Dept.2003] ).”

Client stated valid cause of action

In action brought against an attorney who represented the plaintiff in a prior legal malpractice action, the Second Department held that the client stated a valid cause of action and the order granting the motion to dismiss the complaint was reversed.

~ ~ ~

4777 Food Services Corp., Appellant,

v

Anthony P. Gallo, P.C., et al., Respondents.

Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, New York

2016-05087, 67736/14

May 24, 2017

In an action to recover damages for legal malpractice, the plaintiff appeals from an order of the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Asher, J.), dated March 23, 2016, which granted the defendants’ motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint.

Ordered that the order is reversed, on the law, with costs, and the defendant’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint is denied.

In this action to recover damages for legal malpractice, the complaint alleges that the defendants, Anthony P. Gallo, P.C., and Anthony P. Gallo (hereinafter together Gallo), who represented the plaintiff in a prior legal malpractice action against the plaintiff’s former attorneys, Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., and Joseph N. Rizzo, Jr. (hereinafter together Rizzo), negligently *1055 failed to respond to certain discovery demands by Rizzo, which resulted in the Supreme Court (Gazzillo, J.) precluding the introduction of evidence in the plaintiff’s legal malpractice action against Rizzo (4777 Food Servs. Corp. v Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., 2013 NY Slip Op 33007[U] [Sup Ct, Suffolk County 2013] [hereinafter the Rizzo order]). The complaint further alleges that, as a result of this evidence being precluded, the court which issued the Rizzo order found that the plaintiff had failed to meet its burden of proof as to the element of damages sustained as a result of Rizzo’s malpractice.

In this action, Gallo moved pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint, and relied in part on the Rizzo order. Gallo argued that the Rizzo order held that even if the subject evidence had not been precluded, the evidence would have been too speculative to support a damages award, and as a result, the complaint was subject to dismissal.

In the order appealed from, the Supreme Court (Asher, J.), relying on certain language in the Rizzo order, determined that Justice Gazzillo “expressly found” that the evidence, had it not been precluded, would have been too speculative to permit an award of damages, and granted Gallo’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss. The plaintiff appeals, and we reverse.

“On a motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (7), the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true, the plaintiff is accorded the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and the court’s function is to determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory” (Biro v Roth, 121 AD3d 733, 735 [2014], citing Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 87-88 [1994]; Grant v LaTrace, 119 AD3d 646, 646-647 [2014]). “A cause of action to recover damages for legal **2 malpractice requires proof of three elements: (1) that the defendant failed to exercise that degree of care, skill, and diligence commonly possessed and exercised by an ordinary member of the legal community, (2) that such negligence was the proximate cause of the actual damages sustained by the plaintiff, and (3) that, but for the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff would have been successful in the underlying action” (Cummings v Donovan, 36 AD3d 648, 648 [2007], citing Simmons v Edelstein, 32 AD3d 464 [2006]). According the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, we conclude that the complaint states a cause of action.

A motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) on the ground that a defense is founded on documentary evidence “may be appropriately granted only where the documentary*1056 evidence utterly refutes [the] plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law” (Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 NY2d 314, 326 [2002]; see Rodolico v Rubin & Licatesi, P.C., 114 AD3d 923 [2014]; Endless Ocean, LLC v Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo, 113 AD3d 587 [2014]; Siracusa v Sager, 105 AD3d 937 [2013]).

Here, the Rizzo order does not utterly refute the allegations in the complaint, nor does it establish a defense as a matter of law. The order concludes, in part, that there was no proof of actual damages presented by the plaintiff, due to the plaintiff’s failure to respond to at least two of Rizzo’s discovery demands, which resulted in the preclusion of the damages evidence. The Rizzo order then states, referring to the precluded evidence, “[m]oreover, even if, arguendo the [c]ourt were to overlook that deficiency, its probative value is highly suspect” (4777 Food Servs. Corp. v Demartin & Rizzo, P.C., 2013 NY Slip Op 33007[U], *9 [2013]). Contrary to the Supreme Court’s conclusion, this alternate holding, which constitutes dicta, was not a finding on the merits and did not utterly refute the allegations in the complaint against Gallo (see O’Connor v G & R Packing Co., 53 NY2d 278 [1981]; Malloy v Trombley, 50 NY2d 46, 50 [1980]; Pollicino v Roemer & Featherstonhaugh, 277 AD2d 666, 667-668 [2000]). Accordingly, the Supreme Court should have denied Gallo’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) to dismiss the complaint. Mastro, J.P., Sgroi, LaSalle and Connolly, JJ., concur.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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