T&E Litigation Newsletter - 1/16/13

January 2013Advisories

In Staten v. O’Neill, Case No. 11-P-23, 2013 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3 (Jan. 3, 2013), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of claims against a lawyer by his former clients, the successor trustees of a trust he had represented.

The defendant lawyer (“Attorney O’Neill”) drafted the trust and served as the trust’s lawyer until 2005. In 2006, a third party wished to pursue a case against the trustees, and Attorney O’Neill referred the third party to his own personal lawyer and allegedly spent four hours on the telephone with that lawyer as he drafted a complaint, which ultimately resulted in a judgment of approximately $300,000 against the trustees in their individual and fiduciary capacities.

The trustees sued Attorney O’Neill for negligence, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and conflict of interest. The claims rested on the premise that Attorney O’Neill employed knowledge gained during his representation of the trustees and transmitted that knowledge to the lawyer to whom he referred the case against them, which contributed to the judgment against them. The Court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against Attorney O’Neill, which the Court characterized as speculative because they failed to show plausible causation of the eventual judgment by reason of the referral. Most significantly, the Court explained that “[t]he mere referral of a claim against the trustees by [Attorney O’Neill] to separate counsel would not by itself constitute a breach of fiduciary duty or a betrayal. Equally plausibly, the referral could represent compliance with a duty not to undertake a matter against a present or former client.” The Court also noted, however, that the course of maximum prudence would be for a lawyer to abstain completely from contact with a claim against a present or former client.

In Masciari v. Fenichel, Case No. 12-02757 (Middlesex Sup. Ct. Nov. 30, 2012), the Middlesex Superior Court denied a motion to dismiss a legal malpractice action against an attorney who drafted a will that was the subject of a will contest. The executor of the estate, which incurred a $44,000 payment to settle the will contest, claimed in a nutshell that the attorney had failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that the testator possessed testamentary capacity and was free from undue influence.

The Court explained that “[a]n attorney owes to a client, or a potential client, for whom the drafting of a will is contemplated, a duty to be reasonably alert to indications that the client is incompetent or is subject to undue influence and, where indicated, to make reasonable inquiry and a reasonable determination in that regard[,]” and that “[a]n attorney should not prepare or process the will unless the attorney reasonably believes the testator is competent and free from undue influence.” (Citation omitted.)

Although the Court also explained that an attorney’s duty of care to a testator does not extend to the testator’s heirs and beneficiaries, the Court nevertheless denied the attorney’s motion to dismiss because the claims against him were brought by the executor of the estate, rather than by an individual heir or beneficiary. “Massachusetts courts have allowed an administrator of an estate to file an action for legal malpractice against an attorney who had prepared the will of the deceased.” (Citation omitted.) The relief, however, must be limited to the damages sustained by the estate as a result of the attorney’s alleged malpractice.

This update was authored by Mark Swirbalus, a Director in the firm's Probate & Fiduciary Litigation group. For questions or additional information on this topic, please contact Mark at [email protected] or contact any member of the Probate & Fiduciary Litigation group.

This newsletter should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer concerning your situation and any specific legal questions you may have.

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