Legal malpractice in D.C.: the common knowledge exception to the requirement of expert opinion

In Carranza v. Fraas, No. 05-0117 (D.D.C. Oct. 31, 2011), Judge Urbina granted summary judgment on legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty claims, due to the plaintiffs' lack of expert testimony supporting some of their claims, and the plaintiffs' lack of admissible evidence to support their last remaining claim. The plaintiffs, who were two female farmers from Montana, brought suit against the defendant attorney for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty arising out of their underlying civil rights action against the USDA.

The plaintiffs had three claims. First, they alleged that the attorney failed to meet USDA-imposed deadlines in pursuing a settlement in the civil rights action. Second, they alleged that the attorney failed to disclose a conflict of interest arising from his work as a registered lobbyist before the USDA. Third, they alleged that the attorney failed to inform them of a settlement offer by the USDA.

Judge Urbina granted summary judgment on the first two claims in an earlier opinion, Carranza v. Fraas, 763 F.Supp.2d 113 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2011). The Court noted that to establish legal malpractice under D.C. law, the plaintiffs must demonstrate the applicable standard of care, that the attorney violated that standard and that the violation caused a legally cognizable injury. They must establish the standard of care by presenting expert testimony, unless the attorney's lack of care and skill is so obvious that the trier of fact can find negligence as a matter of common knowledge.

Here, the plaintiffs had failed to designate an expert witness, and argued that their allegations fell within the common knowledge exception. Concerning the allegation that the attorney failed to meet USDA deadlines, Judge Urbina acknowledged that failing to adhere to court filing deadlines is a type of negligence that may fall within the common knowledge exception. However, not every failure to meet a deadline falls within the common knowledge exception. The alleged deadline here was an unspecified time during which the USDA expected the defendant to file paperwork in accordance with the purported settlement offer. The Court found that "it is far from clear that a lay jury could determine the significance of the defendant's alleged failure to comply with such deadlines without the aid of expert testimony", and that the common knowledge exception did not apply to these deadlines.

The plaintiffs' second claim was based on an alleged conflict of interest. While other jurisdictions have held that no expert testimony is necessary in cases involving obvious conflicts of interest, in D.C. the Court observed that it has been held that "assessing an alleged conflict of interest is a task that falls beyond the ken of a lay juror relying on common knowledge and requires expert testimony." Thus, the Court found that the common knowledge exception did not apply to the conflict of interest claim.

The plaintiffs' third claim was that the attorney failed to inform them of the USDA's January 2001 settlement offer. The Court did find that the common knowledge exception applied to this claim:

Without question, an attorney has a duty to inform his client of meaningful settlement offers made in the course of civil litigation. See, e.g., D.C. RULES OF PROF'L CONDUCT R. 1.4(a) cmt. 1 (providing that "[a] lawyer who receives from opposing counsel an offer of settlement in a civil controversy . . . is required to inform the client promptly of its substance") . . . .

The Court reasoned that a lay juror could recognize that an attorney's failure to report a settlement offer is a breach of duty, and is a withholding of information necessary to make decisions that are at the core of the attorney-client relationship. However, the Court denied summary judgment on this claim without prejudice, to allow for further discovery as to whether the USDA had in fact ever made the alleged settlement offer.

The Court also refused plaintiffs' motion to appoint an expert under Fed. Rule of Evidence 706(A), which was a ruling that drew some scholarly attention.

In the subsequent opinion, the Court granted the renewed summary judgment motion by the defense. After discovery, it simply turned out that there was no evidence that the USDA had actually made the alleged settlement offer in January, 2001. The plaintiffs' opposition to the renewed motion for summary judgment rested only upon their own unsupported affidavit, which itself merely presented hearsay. The contemporaneous documentation of the settlement negotiations indicated that the USDA had never made the alleged settlement offer after all.

This case illustrates the need for a practitioner to document settlement negotiations carefully, in order to avoid any misunderstandings and resolve any claims expeditiously.