Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

“Tight Causal Relationship” Required to State Claim for Legal Malpractice Liability in New York

Farrell Family Ventures, LLC v. Sekas, 863 F. Supp. 2d 324 (S.D.N.Y. 2012):


In order to state a claim for legal malpractice, a party must allege that (1) the attorney was negligent; (2) such negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiff's losses; and (3) actual damage. E.g., Flutie Bros. LLC v. Hayes, 04 Civ. 4187 (DAB), 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31379, 2006 WL 1379594, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. May 18, 2006). As defendants acknowledge (Defs.' Mem. at 6), the proximate cause requirement is a "high bar to attorney malpractice liability, seek[ing] to insure a tight causal relationship exists between the claimed injuries and the alleged malpractice, and demand[ing] a nexus between loss and injury." Flutie Bros., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31379, 2006 WL 1379594, at *5 (internal quotation marks omitted). In order to plead causation adequately, the party must show that "but for the attorney's negligence, what would have been a favorable outcome was an unfavorable outcome." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Where the asserted effect of counsel's alleged actions or omissions is purely speculative, a motion to dismiss may be granted. See, e.g., AmBase Corp. v. Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 N.Y.3d 428, 866 N.E.2d 1033, 834 N.Y.S.2d 705, 709 (2007) (affirming dismissal of complaint where "there [was] no way to know whether the advice not given" would have altered the underlying action); Sherwood Grp. V. Dornbush, Mensch, Mandelstam & Silverman, 191 A.D.2d 292, 594 N.Y.S.2d 766, 768 (1st Dep't 1993) (where party's contentions were couched in "gross speculations on future events" and claims were "speculative in nature," dismissal was warranted).

Regarding the negligence prong, a lawyer's conduct falls below the applicable standard of care when he "fail[s] to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member the legal profession." McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301, 785 N.E.2d 714, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). An attorney's "selection of one among several reasonable courses of action," however, "does not constitute malpractice." Rosner v. Paley, 65 N.Y.2d 736, 738, 481 N.E.2d 553, 492 N.Y.S.2d 13 (1985). Even where a complaint "poses several other alternatives which might have been pursued," if it alleges "no more than an error of judgment," the allegations do not rise to the level of malpractice, and the complaint may be dismissed. Id.

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