O'Brien and Ryan, LLP - Attorneys at Law
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UPDATE: Summary Judgment Upheld for Attorney & Firm in Legal Malpractice Action

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Anthony P. DeMichele and Jeffrey P. Brien recently obtained summary judgment for an attorney and law firm in a legal malpractice action venued in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.  The Order dismissing all claims against the Firm's clients was entered by the Honorable John M. Younge.

The plaintiff was injured when a crane fell on him at work.  He retained the Firm's clients to represent him in a Workers' Compensation Action.  After a period of time in which the plaintiff received significant medical treatment which was paid for by his employer's Workers' Compensation insurance carrier, the plaintiff was no longer receiving medical treatment.  His employer offered him a light duty position.  The plaintiff refused and his employer filed a petition to suspend his wage benefits. 

While the petition was pending, the Firm's clients negotiated a settlement for the plaintiff wherein he would receive three additional years worth of wage benefits in addition to the two years that he had already received.  The plaintiff agreed to the settlement and it was approved by the Workers' Compensation Judge after the plaintiff was colloquyed under oath.

Meanwhile, the plaintiff also settled his third party action for a significant sum.  However, this sum was apparently less than the plaintiff was expecting.  The plaintiff initiated a legal malpractice action against the Firm's clients as well as the attorneys who represented him in the third party action.  These attorneys entered into a joint-tortfeasor agreement with the plaintiff during the pendancy of the legal malpractice action.

The plaintiff alleged that the Firm's clients breached their agreement with the plaintiff by advising him to settle the Workers' Compensation action.  Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that, had he known that his third party action would be settled for an "inadequate" amount, he would not have agreed to settle the Workers' Compensation action. 

In the motion for summary judgment, Mr. DeMichele and Mr. Brien argued that plaintiff's cause of action was barred because he was merely a dissatisfied litigant who was now seeking a larger monetary settlement.  As the plaintiff's cause of action would require an impermissible degree of speculation, it could not go forward.  In addition, they argued that there was no evidence that the Firm's client had breached their agreement with the plaintiff.


UPDATE:

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the entry of summary judgment for the Firm's clients.  In a published opinion, the Honorable Anne E. Lazarus, joined by the Honorable Jack A. Panella and the Honorable David N. Wecht, found that the plaintiff's claim that he did not voluntarily enter into the workers' compensation settlement was not supported by the record.  In particular, the court noted that the plaintiff underwent a thorough colloquy prior to the approval of his workers' compensation settlement.  He stated under oath that he understood the effects of the settlement, that he had enough time to think about his decision to enter the settlement, and that he wanted the settlement to be approved.

Since there was no evidence that the plaintiff's assent to the settlement was involuntary, the Superior Court held that his legal malpractice action was barred under Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod and Gutnick, 587 A.2d 1346 (Pa. 1991).  Unless the plaintiff had pled and could prove that he was fraudulently induced to settle the workers' compensation action, or he could prove that defendants failed to explain the effect of that settlement to him, or that the settlement was somehow legally deficient, he did not have a viable cause of action for negligence.

The court held that it was clear that the Firm's clients were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

 


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