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T&E Litigation Newsletter - 4/26/13

April 2013Advisories

In Yeomans v. Stackpole, Docket No. MICV2011-01702-F, 2013 Mass. LEXIS 237 (April 13, 2013), the Middlesex Superior Court addressed the question of whether a law firm could be held vicariously liable for legal malpractice based on the alleged breach of fiduciary duty of one of its lawyers as a trustee.

Attorney John Roche served as a trustee of a trust since 1999. In 2001, Attorney Roche joined a law firm (“TG&P”) as a “contract partner.” Under the terms of his contract, Attorney Roche was entitled to keep the trustee fees he earned on trusts that pre-dated his association with TG&P. After Attorney Roche died in 2007, a successor trustee was appointed, and he and a beneficiary then brought suit against Attorney Roche’s estate, TG&P and another law firm with which he had been associated for his allegedly imprudent management of the trust.

The claim against TG&P was that it should be held vicariously liable for Attorney Roche’s alleged negligence. The plaintiffs based this claim on their argument that the beneficiaries had an attorney-client relationship with Attorney Roche. TG&P moved for summary judgment, arguing in part that the firm cannot be held vicariously liable because a viable claim for legal malpractice against Attorney Roche as a partner in the firm does not exist.

The Court granted TG&P’s motion. The Court explained that for a viable legal malpractice claim to exist, there must be an attorney-client relationship, either express or implied, between one of the plaintiffs and Attorney Roche, and that this relationship must exist in the context of his allegedly improper investment and disbursement decisions. The Court held that there was no evidence of such a relationship. All of the interactions with Attorney Roche were as a trustee, not as an attorney. There were no bills for “legal” services, and there was no correspondence on TG&P letterhead that purported to show Attorney Roche giving “legal” advice.

The Court also noted that the trust was not a client of TG&P and that Attorney Roche did not bill for his trustee fees on TG&P letterhead. The only connections between Attorney Roche and TG&P were letters relating to trust management on TG&P letterhead and a meeting at TG&P between Attorney Roche and the beneficiaries. As the Court found, these connections were simply not enough to create an attorney-client relationship between TG&P and the trust.

“Ultimately, there is no record evidence that the law firm . . . had an attorney-client relationship with either plaintiff. Because no attorney-client relationship existed . . . , no duty ran between the law firm and the plaintiffs. Without a duty, the plaintiffs’ legal malpractice claim against [TG&P] must be dismissed.”

In a separate decision pursuant to Rule 1:28 that warrants only passing mention, Asfawossen v. Stahlin, Case No. 12-P-645, 2013 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 464 (April 23, 2013), the Appeals Court held that a party cannot collaterally attack a Probate Court judgment by suing the Probate Court judge in Superior Court. Needless to say, even if the Probate Court judge were not judicially immune from such a suit, the Superior Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear this kind of pseudo-appeal from a Probate Court judgment. Let the world take notice.

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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