Professional negligence claims against tax advisors do not age well.

I literally cannot wait

In J.A. Green Development Corp. v. Grant Thornton, LLP, et al., the Dallas Court of Appeals held that limitations begin to run for claims arising from professional negligence in an IRS administrative proceeding as soon as the client learns the IRS disagrees with the advice.

The allegations were that Green hired Grant Thornton and Akin Gump in an IRS audit concerning Green’s participation in a “distressed debt strategy” that was sold to Green by prior advisors. Green alleged that Grant Thornton and Akin Gump told Green that the strategy was likely to be upheld as legal, causing Green to reject a settlement offer by the IRS. In December 2008, the IRS disagreed and issued a report disallowing the loss and imposing substantial penalties. Green alleged that Grant Thornton and Akin Gump then backed away from their prior advice. Six months later, Green sued the original advisors who sold it the tax strategy, but Green continued to retain Grant Thornton and Akin Gump to handle the appeal of the IRS decision. When it later became clear the appeal of the IRS decision would go poorly, Green settled with the IRS for more than the offer it rejected. It then sued Grant Thornton and Akin Gump.

The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The question was whether limitations started running in December 2008, when the IRS issued its first report indicating that the loss would be disallowed, or in November 2009, when it became clear the appeal of the IRS decision would fail. “[A] cause of action accrues when a wrongful act causes some legal injury, even if the fact of injury is not discovered until later, and even if all resulting damages have not yet occurred.” Green had to concede that it was first injured when it was sold the tax strategy because it had sued the promoters of the strategy before the administrative appeal failed. Green claimed the injury caused by Grant Thornton and Akin Gump was distinct from that caused by the original advisors, but the Court of Appeals held that Green suffered a single continuous injury that Green knew of when it received the IRS report disallowing the claimed loss. The Court of Appeals also held that the Hughes Tolling Rule, which tolls limitations in legal malpractice cases arising from litigation until the litigation is resolved, does not apply to administrative proceedings.

Congratulations to 600commerce’s own David S. Coale, who argued the case on appeal for Akin Gump, and to Trey Cox and Chris Patton, who were trial counsel.

JA Green Development v Grant Thornton

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No Causation, No Malpractice

After a jury awarded millions of dollars in damages and the Court of Appeals affirmed, the defendants in that case decided to become plaintiffs by suing their lawyers at Andrews Kurth. The county court at law granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed. In a malpractice case based on an attorney’s conduct in connection with litigation, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that it would have prevailed in the prior case but for the lawyer’s negligence. Concluding that the plaintiffs’ proof on that point was conclusory and speculative, the Court held that there was no evidence in the summary judgment record to establish causation of any injury to the plaintiffs.

Rogers v. Zanetti, No. 05-14-00733-CV

Excluded Expert Opinion Could Not Serve as Basis for Establishing Proximate Cause

In this legal malpractice claim, the plaintiff argued that his expert opinion as to proximate causation were sufficient to establish that element of his claim.  But the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff’s expert opinion had been excluded by the trial court as unreliable and the plaintiff did not assign error to that ruling in his appellate brief.

Kuzmin v. Schiller

Estate Planning Attorney Owes No Duty to Client’s Children

Several months before the decedent died, he had his attorney prepare an amendment to a trust he had created that would have increased the distributions to his two children.  The attorney drafted the amendment, but the decedent never signed it.  Acting in their capacity as personal representatives for their father’s estate, the children sued the attorney for negligence.  The attorney moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted based on its finding that the attorney owed no duty to them.

The children appealed, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that “an attorney owes a duty of care only to his or her client, not to third parties who may have been damaged by the attorney’s negligent representation of the client.”

Donaldson v. Mincey

Invalid Assumptions Doom Expert Damages Opinion

In this legal malpractice case, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s expert opinion as based on invalid assumptions.  The expert opined that the value of sale of an interest in certain oil and gas wells would have been $960,000 greater in April 2008, when the interest should have sold but for a law firm’s malpractice.  Among other faulty assumptions, the Court noted that the expert wrongly assumed that (1) the later sale, in September 2008, was a simple asset sale, when, in fact, it involved a partial settlement of a lawsuit; (2) the projections of actual drilling costs, as opposed to actual results, were the proper measure of costs; and (3) that wells would have been drilled at a certain specified rate.

Thompson & Knight v. Patriot Exploration LLC

Ignore a Trial Setting at Your Own Peril

In this attorney malpractice case, a client sued his lawyer for malpractice and a number of other related causes of action.  The parties settled the case at mediation and signed a settlement agreement requiring the lawyer to sign an agreed judgment to secure payment of the settlement amount.  The client’s attorney prepared the agreed judgment and sent it to the lawyer’s attorney, but, after several attempts, never received a response.  As a result, the trial court re-opened the case (which had been dismissed due to the settlement), set it for a bench trial, and sent notice of the trial setting to both parties.

At the bench trial, neither the lawyer nor his attorney showed up, and the trial court awarded the client damages in an amount that was more than three times the amount of the settlement.  The lawyer then filed a motion for a new trial.  His attorney acknowledged, however, that he had received notice of the trial but ignored it because he thought that it was an “erroneous” notice since the case had settled.  The trial court found this excuse insufficient and denied the motion.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed, and, although it reversed some of the damages awarded to the client, held that it was within the trial court’s discretion to conclude that the lawyer and his attorney “failed to appear for trial as the result of intentional conduct or conscious indifference.”

McLeod v. Gyr, No. CC-11-02708-B

Supreme Court Update: Proportionate Responsibility Trumps the Unlawful Acts Doctrine

Two years ago, the Dallas Court of Appeals held that the statutory “assumption of the risk” defense (CPRC § 93.001) superseded the common law “unlawful acts” doctrine, which provided that plaintiffs cannot recover damages if, at the time of injury, they were engaged in an illegal act that contributed to the injury. Gulf, C. & S.F. Ry. Co. v. Johnson, 9 S.W. 602, 603 (Tex. 1888). The unlawful acts doctrine is typically invoked in legal and medical malpractice cases. This morning, the Supreme Court decided the same case on different grounds, holding that the Proportionate Responsibility Act negates the common law doctrine and instead requires the finder of fact to apportion responsibility between the lawbreaking plaintiff (or, in this case, the decedent) and the defendant. The illegal activity in this instance was the consumption of marijuana and heroin, which led to the death of Joel Martinez, the son of plaintiff Mary Ann Arredondo. The mother sued the son’s friend, Geoffrey Dugger, who had failed to tell the paramedics that Martinez had snorted the heroin. Dugger initially escaped liability completely when the trial court granted summary judgment in his favor based on the unlawful acts doctrine. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that § 93.001 superseded the common law doctrine, but did not apply under the facts of the case. On petition for review, the Supreme Court has now held that the Proportionate Responsibility Act applies even where the statutory assumption of the risk defense does not apply. Thus, a jury will have to apportion responsibility between the lawbreaking decedent and his partner in recreational drug consumption. However, the court expressly limited its holding to personal injury and wrongful death cases, leaving open the question of whether a client’s illegal acts will continue to serve as a complete bar to legal malpractice claims.

Dugger v. Arredondo, No. 11-0549

Silence Implies Discovery

Rickey Wayne Tolbert sued his former attorney, George Otstott, for legal malpractice. Tolbert is a pro se prison inmate, and was incarcerated at the time Otstott settled three separate personal injury matters on Tolbert’s behalf. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant based on his limitations defense, and since the underlying lawsuits were settled between 1987 and 1991, you would think that’s probably a meritorious defense. The court of appeals agreed. As a matter of law, a reasonably diligent person, after receiving a $1,012 check from his attorney, followed by sixteen years of silence, would have investigated and discovered that the lawyer had settled all three claims. Thus, the two year limitations periods for legal malpractice expired long before the filing of Tolbert’s lawsuit in 2010.

Tolbert v. Otstott, No. 05-12-0024-CV

Legal Malpractice Claim Requires Medical Expert

Jeanette Hooper and her husband Charles sued their lawyers for legal malpractice. The underlying case had been a personal injury suit arising out of a car wreck, which was apparently dismissed after the lawyers sued the owner of the other vehicle instead of the actual driver. The jury awarded $235,000 in damages, based on the testimony of a legal expert who opined that the Hoopers should have recovered $130,000 for past medical expenses, $180,000 for lost earning capacity, $250,000 for pain and suffering, and $250,000 for damages such as loss of consortium and physical impairment. On appeal, however, the court of appeals held that the testimony did not establish a causal link between the underlying car wreck and the subsequent damages. While it was justifiable for the jury to compensate the plaintiffs for damages sustained in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, such as emergency room bills and initial pain and suffering, the “case-within-a-case” aspect of the legal malpractice claim required the plaintiffs to establish a causal connection between the accident and the health problems Charles experienced months and even years after the collision. That connection needed to be made by the testimony of a medical expert, and could not be demonstrated through bare medical records or inferred by the jury. Because some elements of the plaintiffs’ damages were valid and some were invalid, the court of appeals also sustained the defendants’ challenge to the trial court’s submission of a broad-form damages question, reversed the judgment, and remanded for further proceedings.

Kelley & Witherspoon, LLP v. Hooper, No. 05-11-01256-CV

All Independent Grounds

Attorney Robert Collins was sued by his client, Chris Green, for professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.  Green claimed that Collins had failed to serve the defendant in the underlying lawsuit, thereby allowing that case to be dismissed for want of prosecution.  As a result, Green’s claims became time-barred.  Collins filed an answer to Green’s lawsuit, but failed to appear at trial. Green testified in support of his claim, and the trial court granted a default judgment for $31,500.  The trial court subsequently denied Collins’ motion for new trial, and Collins appealed.

On appeal, Collins argued that the judgment had to be reversed because Green had failed to prove that he could have collected on any judgment in the underlying lawsuit.  But while that complaint may have been accurate, the court of appeals saw no need to reach it because Collins had failed to brief anything about Green’s breach of fiduciary duty claim.  That meant that he had failed to attack all independent grounds supporting the judgment, resulting in affirmance of the case.

Collins v. Green, No. 05-11-00893-CV