New Jersey’s Supreme Court has reinstated the matter of Gilbert v. Stewart, 2021 N.J. LEXIS 773 (July 21, 2021), in which the plaintiff had filed suit against the defendant, attorney Kenyatta K. Stewart, alleging professional negligence in the practice of law. The trial court had earlier dismissed the lawsuit, finding that there were no damages proximately caused by defendant Stewart’s alleged legal malpractice, and the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
The underlying facts were largely undisputed. The plaintiff was, at all relevant times, employed by the State of New Jersey Judiciary, within the Passaic Vicinage’s Probation Department. In 2014, the plaintiff learned from her ex-husband that numerous citations had been issued to her, requiring an appearance at Woodland Park Municipal Court, through her ex-husband’s use of a vehicle which was registered in the name of the plaintiff. Plaintiff’s ex-husband had retained the defendant as his attorney. During a court appearance, the defendant appeared simultaneously for both plaintiff and her ex-husband. He persuaded plaintiff to accept a guilty plea, with the rationale being that the sentence would be far less severe for her, than for her ex-husband. The plaintiff agreed to plead guilty, despite the fact that she had not committed the traffic infractions alleged. The plea resulted in a sentence that included community service obligations to the plaintiff.
Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a form with her employer entitled, “Personal or Family Member Involvement with the Courts.” This form disclosed some of the pertinent details of the court appearance in Woodland Park Municipal Court. Ultimately, the Human Resources Department of the Passaic Vicinage investigated Ms. Gilbert based on her submission of the relevant form, and found that the plaintiff had failed to disclose earlier interactions with the courts, and had failed to disclose a motor vehicle license suspension during a period of time when she had requested and driven state vehicles. Disciplinary action was taken and was resolved by way of the plaintiff receiving a demotion and a suspension without pay for a period of fifty days, among other penalties. Plaintiff ultimately had the underlying municipal court conviction vacated, and grieved the defendant via formal ethics complaint, resulting in an admonition of the defendant. This was based upon the simultaneous representation of plaintiff and her ex-husband without a written waiver conflict, among other infractions.
Plaintiff then filed the instant suit, alleging, inter alia, legal malpractice on the part of the defendant in his representation of her. Plaintiff contended that she had not been aware of the possibility that she would face a sanction of community service, or that this would adversely affect her public employment. The defendant conceded in the suit that he had never provided advice to the plaintiff regarding a possible consequence to her employment, but insisted that they had discussed the prospect of community service being sentenced. Deposition testimony taken from the plaintiff’s employer indicated that it was not the underlying municipal convictions themselves which resulted in the adverse employment action being taken, but rather the employer’s concern that there was a lack of candor in her reporting, or failing to report, her involvements with the courts prior to defendant representing her.
Relying on the argument that plaintiff’s discipline at work was caused by her own lack of truthfulness, and not by any of the alleged legal malpractice of the defendant, defendant’s attorneys moved for summary judgment, and prevailed. As noted, the Appellate Division affirmed, finding that causation had not been demonstrated. In a decision authored by Justice Fernandez-Vina, the Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the issue of causation was ordinarily left to the factfinder except in the “highly extraordinary case in which reasonable minds could not differ on whether that issue has been established.” Fleuhr v. City of Cape May, 159 N.J. 532, 543 (1999). In legal malpractice cases, as well as in any case “when there are concurrent causes potentially capable of producing the harm or injury,” New Jersey applies the “substantial factor” test to evaluate proximate cause. Komlodi v. Picciano, 217 N.J. 387, 417 (2014). “The substantial factor test accounts for the fact that there can be any number of intervening causes between the initial wrongful act and the final injurious consequence does not require an unsevered connecting link between the negligent conduct and the ultimate harm.” Conklin v. Hannoch Weisman, 145 N.J. 395, 420 (1996). New Jersey recognizes this test as well-suited “for legal malpractice cases in which inadequate or inaccurate legal advice is alleged to be a concurrent cause of harm.” Ibid.
Applying these standards of law to the plaintiff’s claim against defendant Stewart, the Court determined that “a reasonable jury could find that defendant was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s demotion and suspension.” Plaintiff had argued that the defendant’s professional negligence created a “domino effect,” resulting in her demotion and suspension. If the defendant had “not purported to represent her, not violated conflict of interest rules, not misadvised her about the consequences, etc.”, the plaintiff contended she would never have pleaded guilty to the municipal violations in Woodland Park Municipal Court. If that had not occurred, plaintiff contended, that she would never have had convictions to report, and thus no investigation would have been initiated resulting in discipline. The Court reasoned that this chain of events was one on which reasonable minds could differ, and not one which resulted solely from the client’s actions taken against legal advice – and as such, summary judgment was entered improperly.
For more information on this decision, or on this topic generally, please contact Tom Emala in MKCI’s Florham Park, New Jersey office.