In New Jersey, the statute of limitations for a legal malpractice claim is six years from the accrual of the cause of action. However, the cause of action does not accrue until the client suffers actual damage, and discovers or should have discovered the basis for a legal malpractice claim. Applying thesecriteria, the New Jersey Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion, Marybeth Jones v. Andrew Viola, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A1810-18T4, Decided February 27, 2020, permitted a plaintiff to pursue a claim against her former matrimonial attorney based on a 2003 Divorce and Settlement Agreement where the Plaintiff alleged that she did not sustain actual damage until 2012.
In 2003, Plaintiff Marybeth Jones entered into a settlement agreement with her then husband, where she was to receive “limited duration alimony” (LDA) for nine years. She claimed that her attorney incorrectly advised her that the Family Part would extend the nine years if she demonstrated a continued need for support. After the expiration of the nine year period, Ms. Jones unsuccessfully tried to extend her LDA.
Plaintiff thereafter filed a legal malpractice claim against her former attorney which was dismissed by the trial court because: 1) it was time-barred; 2) plaintiff had agreed to the settlement agreement; and because 3) Ms. Jones was unable to demonstrate proximate cause. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s summary judgment order by initially finding when her cause of action accrued.
Based on our objective review of the record, appellant’s cause of action for legal malpractice did not accrue until 2012 when the Family Part denied her motion to extend the LDA alimony period beyond the nine years specified in the divorce judgment. Appellant did not sustain “actual damage” until those motion proceedings in the Family Part made clear that she would not be able to have the alimony extended simply because she “continued” to need that financial support. Instead, at the very least, a change in circumstances (or, as the statute prescribes, “unusual” circumstances) had to be proven. Op. at p.23
The Appellate Division further held that Plaintiff was not equitably estopped from pursuing her legal malpractice claim because she was not aware at the time of the settlement agreement that her attorney had been negligent.
The panel found that Ms. Jones had presented a “more than plausible case,” supported by two experts, that she received inadequate advice and representation in her divorce action. Her claim was suitable for a jury’s determination and not on motion for summary judgment. The panel also noted that there were “genuine and triable issues of proximate causation.” The trial court on remand was directed to allow the parties to use expert testimony to present as a matter of reasonable probability what would have transpired at the original trial.
Even though there is a six year statute of limitations for legal malpractice claims, the mere passage of time following the completion of legal work may not suffice to bar the claim, where the plaintiff suffers actual damage beyond the limitation period supported by expert testimony. For further information, contact Joe Gallo in our Florham Park office at (973) 822-1110 or at email@example.com.