ILNews

Legal malpractice claims not assignable

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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In an Indiana Supreme Court ruling, the majority of justices held that legal malpractice claims are not assignable and courts cannot require a person to assign his or her chose in action.

In State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Ruth Estep, Personal Representative of the Estate of Ewing Dan Estep, and Assignee of Rights of James D. Perkins, the high court yesterday reversed the trial court's order during proceedings supplemental forcing James Perkins' assignment of any potential chose in action against State Farm and held invalid any assignment by Perkins against his attorneys.

James Perkins had been ordered by the trial court to assign any cause of action he may have against his insurer, State Farm, to Ruth Estep, the personal representative of the estate of Ewing Dan Estep, who died as a result of injuries suffered from a motorcycle crash caused by Perkins. The estate was trying to recover $615,000 still owed from a judgment against Perkins in a personal injury action initiated before Estep's death.

In the original suit, Perkins retained his personal attorney, Jerry Susong, as co-counsel to Michael Stephenson, who was retained by State Farm. In March 2002, the jury awarded Estep's estate $675,000. The day after the verdict, State Farm paid Perkins' full policy limit of $50,000 to the estate, and the estate initiated proceedings supplemental a month later pursuant to Trial Rule 69(E) against Perkins for the unpaid amount.

Stephenson withdrew that July, concluding he completed his defense obligations under Perkins' insurance policy. Susong continued to represent Perkins. After Stephenson withdrew, the estate sought an order to have Perkins assign to it any cause of action Perkins may have against State Farm. Perkins refused and denied there was basis for any bad faith claims, but the court ordered him to assign to the estate any potential bad faith claims he may have against State Farm.

Perkins assigned to the estate all potential claims, demands, and causes of actions arising from the estate's personal injury claim against him. As a result, the estate sued State Farm in an Illinois court for the uncollected $615,000, alleging State Farm breached its duty of good faith owed to Perkins by not providing a conflict-free defense because Stephenson tried to withdraw his representation of Perkins but was denied. The estate also sued Susong, claming he should have told Perkins that Stephenson had a conflict of interest.

State Farm moved to intervene in the Indiana proceedings supplemental and asked the order compelling Perkins' assignment be vacated. The trial court denied both motions.

The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, concluded just as the court held under Picadilly Inc. v. Raikos, 582 N.E.2d 338, 341 (Ind. 1991), that legal malpractice claims are not assignable. Perkins could file a suit against Susong directly, but he cannot assign this to a third party because such assignments would be harmful to the lawyer-client relationship.

The majority also found the trial court ordering Perkins' forced assignment of his chose in action against State Farm was an error. Perkins can directly sue State Farm or voluntarily assign his chose in action, but he cannot be forced to assign it. Indiana follows the Direct Action Rule that prohibits a third party or judgment creditor from directly suing a judgment debtor's insurance carrier to recover an excess judgment.

In a separate opinion, Justices Ted Boehm and Brent Dickson dissented, noting State Farm should have been allowed to intervene in the proceedings supplemental and that the trial court erred in ordering assignment of Perkins' claims against State Farm.

Justice Boehm wrote that State Farm did not show a cognizable interest under Trial Rule 24(A) to intervene in the proceedings supplemental and does not satisfy all of the requirements under the rule.

Also in his dissent, Justice Boehm wrote that proceedings supplemental courts have a power to compel a judgment debtor to assign the debtor's potential causes of actions against third parties, just as other assets may be compelled to be transferred, so the assignment by the proceedings supplemental court was appropriate even though it was over Perkins' objection. 
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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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