Legal Malpractice Case Sends Dismissed Appeal Back To Appellate Court To Say What It Would Have Done

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Here’s how it starts:

Nancy Kanter, Esquire ("Kanter") referred a case to Alan B. Epstein, Esquire ("Epstein"). The case involved a claim by a child in the foster system who was abused by her prospective adoptive foster parents (the "Tara M. case"). Kanter had served as a guardian ad litem for the child. When Kanter referred the case to Epstein, he agreed to pay her a referral fee. However, this agreement was not reduced to writing. Subsequently, Epstein joined the firm of Spector Gadon and Rosen, P.C. ("SGR") while he was handling the Tara M. case. Eventually, the Tara M. case was settled for $ 4,310,000. From that amount, Epstein realized attorney’s fees of $ 1,293,000. Kanter claimed that she was entitled to a referral fee of $ 431,000. However, Epstein and SGR refused to pay Kanter a referral fee.

Kanter v. Epstein, 2004 PA Super 470, 866 A.2d 394, 395–96 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2004).

Kanter sued and won $215,500 at trial, exactly half what she claimed. The jury then considered, and declined, punitive damages.

Then things got ugly:

On August 16, 2002, counsel for SGR informed the court that she would be taking a pre-paid vacation and requested that the briefing schedule be adjusted to accommodate her vacation. … Following on-the-record discussions, the trial court summarized the agreement of all parties that the Rule 227.4 deadline [the time at which judgment can be entered and appeals taken] would be extended until March 14, 2003. …

Despite the fact that they had executed a written agreement and had agreed on the record to extend the Rule 227.4 deadline until March 14, 2003, the Defendants filed a praecipe to enter judgment on January 8, 2003, and judgment was entered that same day.

Why did defendants’ counsel jump the gun on their own extension? Who knows. Either way, after filing the judgment, defendants filed two appeals.

Bad idea. The Superior Court later knocked out these first two appeals because:

Accordingly, the judgment entered on January 9, 2003 was improvidently entered as a result of the Defendants’ breach of their agreement to extend the Rule 227.4 deadline. As a result, Defendants’ appeal of the trial court’s December 30, 2002 contempt Order was interlocutory and not appealable at the time that the Defendants filed their appeals at 186 and 187 EDA 2003. Accordingly, the appeals filed at Nos. 186 and 187 EDA 2003 are quashed.

Back at the trial court, after the premature appeal things got uglier:

The trial court ultimately issued an Order dated March 10, 2003, in which the trial court denied the Defendants’ post-trial Motions and granted Kanter’s post-trial Motion, in part. Essentially, the trial court granted: (1) Kanter’s request for additur, increasing the award to $ 431,000; (2) pre-and post-judgment interest; (3) Kanter’s request for punitive damages; and (4) Kanter’s Motion for sanctions.

Let me fill in the amounts. Interest bumped the compensatory award to $461,429, then punitive damages added another $ 645,000, and then sanctions (for attorney’s fees) topped it off with another $124,219.86, bringing Kanter’s total to $1,230,648.86, about $60,000 less than the total fee collected by Epstein in the first place.

Defendants appealed that, too.

In the Pennsylvania Superior Court, things got even uglier:

In this case, the trial court ordered the Defendants to file concise statements of the issues to be raised on appeal. However, the Rule 1925(b) Statements filed by the Defendants were anything but concise. SGR’s fifteen-page Rule 1925(b) Statement included fifty-five issues that it purportedly sought to raise on appeal and also incorporated by reference the forty-nine issues raised by Epstein in his Rule 1925(b) Statement. Likewise, Epstein filed a fifteen-page Rule 1925(b) Statement that raised the forty- nine issues, and also incorporated by reference the fifty-five issues raised by SGR. 7 In total, the Defendants identified 104 issues in their Rule 1925(b) Statements. Furthermore, we note that many of the issues identified by each of the Defendants also included multiple sub-issues.

Kanter v. Epstein, 2004 PA Super 470, 866 A.2d 394, 400–401 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2004).

The Superior Court dismissed that appeal as well, leaving defendants with nothing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court both denied certiorari.

So defendants sued their appellate lawyers.

There’s an old saying that legal malpractice cases are hard to win because they require the plaintiff prove a "case within the case;" i.e., the plaintiff have to prove they would have won the original case in order to prove the malpractice case.

How do you do that for a bungled appeal? Do you try to convince a jury of non-lawyers what an appellate court would have done with 104 distinct legal issues?

My preferred quote for describing legal malpractice cases is, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

As the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County held last winter:

Whereas, the Kanter action appeal was quashed by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania without reaching a decision on the merits of the appeal;

Whereas, this action is based on the contention the Kanter action appeal was quashed due to the alleged malpractice by defendant, Saul Ewing;

Whereas, the existence of actual loss sustained by plaintiffs to the malpractice by defendant depends on the outcome of the “case within the case” and whether plaintiffs would have received appellate relief and the extent of appellate relief in the Kanter action if plaintiffs’ appeal had not been quashed by the Superior Court;

Whereas, the parties agree that the “case within the case” presents questions of law for the Court to decide and not a jury trial issue;

Whereas, the parties agree to bifurcate the proceedings to present the “case within the case” to the court for decision prior to a trial (if necessary) on the remaining issues for plaintiffs’ malpractice claim and defendant’s counterclaim. …

It is hereby ordered that … the “case within the case” is bifurcated from the other issues in this action and the Court will decide whether and the extent to which plaintiffs would have received appellate relief if their appeals had not been quashed in the Kanter Action … Following the Court’s decision of the “case within the case,” the court will entertain a request for immediate appeal of the decision of the “case within the case” if the decision is not a final order and no party shall oppose the request of another party to immediately appeal the court’s decision of the “case within the case” even if not a final order to resolve the “case within the case” prior to trial of other issues.

Good idea! Three weeks ago, the trial court issued its full order for the inevitable appeal:

A reading of the Trial Judge’s Opinion, dated February 26, 2004, reflects his disappointment with the persistently adversarial, over-zealous, and non-cooperative posturing among all trial counsel for more than two years under his jurisdiction, and in his courtroom. As a result, this distinguished jurist may have inadvertently ordered overlapping financial sanctions for punitive damages, additur, Contempt and attorneys fees. An objective review brings a different result. With that in mind, the Superior Court most probably would be constrained to reverse.

This Reviewing Court believes that the Superior Court would be unable to find support in this record for the sua sponte alternative. Delaying tactics during trial, including objections and side bar conferences are annoying, but not the sort of wanton or reckless conduct that meet the criteria for a punitive damage award. …

Ms. Kanter’s request for additur was premised on her belief that the triers of fact were required to award her the full amount of her claim. The Superior Court would have reviewed the record and determined that the triers of fact are free to believe all or part or none of the testimony. …

The Trial Court ordered attorneys fees and contempt as sanctions "relating to punitive damages only" (emphasis in original), however, for all the reasons set forth above finding that conversion and punitive damages should not have been part of this case, the Superior Court would not have remanded the record to the Trial Court for a hearing.

Epstein v. Saul Ewing, LLP, 2009 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 83 (Pa. C.P. 2009).

And so back they go to the Superior Court, to rule on what it would have done had it considered the original appeal.

The weird have definitely gone pro.

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