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Justices rule on legal malpractice procedural issue

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An Indiana Supreme Court decision allows an Indianapolis attorney and a local law firm to raise a statute of limitations on legal malpractice claims against them.

In a nine-page ruling late Thursday in Joseph J. Reiswerg and Cohen Garelick & Glazier v. Pam Statom, 49S02-0906-CV-280, the court tackled a procedural issue that hadn’t specifically come up in Indiana before and found in favor of both the contract attorney and Indianapolis law firm.

The case stems from a medical malpractice action that Pam Statom raised following a 1998 sinus surgery at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Indianapolis. Several problems surfaced because of that procedure and Statom retained Joseph Reiswerg, who shared office space with Cohen Garelick & Glazier and worked as a contract attorney with the law firm. He filed a tort claim notice about her intent to sue for medical malpractice, but the VA determined it wasn’t received within the two-year statute of limitations period and denied the claim as untimely. Reiswerg withdrew as the woman’s attorney after filing a notice of appeal in federal court about the administrative rejection of her claim, and Statom proceeded pro se but eventually lost in April 2004 on grounds that the suit was time-barred.

In November 2005, Statom filed this legal malpractice claim in Marion Superior Court on grounds that Reiswerg failed to timely file a federal tort claims notice, as well as fraud and constructive fraud claims against both defendants. The attorney and the firm relied on the statute of limitations as affirmative defenses in the legal malpractice case.

After a year of discovery, Statom moved for partial summary judgment and sought a ruling that both Reiswerg and CG&G were “negligent as a matter of law.” Neither defendant raised the statute of limitations in response to her partial summary judgment, arguing later that it wasn’t required because of her partial motion that didn’t address their legal malpractice liability. Both the firm and attorney later moved for summary judgment because of the statute of limitations expiration, and Statom moved to strike them. Marion Superior Judge David Shaheed granted Statom’s motion to strike for both, but certified his judgment for appeal.

In a December 2008 ruling, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s striking of Reiswerg’s motion for summary judgment but reversed the order striking a summary judgment order from CG&G. The appellate panel in March 2009 reviewed its decision on rehearing but affirmed what it had previously ruled, and the Supreme Court later granted transfer on the novel issue.

Justices reversed the trial court and held that a party doesn’t waive an affirmative defense by failing to raise it in response to a partial summary judgment motion that wouldn’t dispose of the main liability issue of the case. That means both Reiswerg and CG&G can raise that defense on remand.

“No Indiana case has heretofore addressed this issue in the context of a motion for partial summary judgment on less than liability,” Justice Theodore Boehm wrote. “However, decisions from other jurisdictions are consistent with our view. Where, as here, the plaintiff moves only for partial summary judgment on an issue or an element but not as to liability, the defendant is under no obligation to present all of its affirmative defenses at the summary judgment stage.”

The court found Statom didn’t move for full or partial summary judgment on liability, and so the full liability issue wasn’t included in the judgment in her favor.

“She cannot now claim a victory greater than she sought and greater than she placed in issue,” Justice Boehm wrote.

Justice Robert D. Rucker, joined by Justice Frank Sullivan, issued a separate opinion that concurred and dissented in part, saying the trial court correctly struck Reiswerg’s motion for summary judgment. They dissented in regard to Reiswerg’s motion, but concurred in relation to the law firm motion.

Justice Rucker wrote that the majority found Reiswerg didn’t waive his affirmative defense because he wasn’t obligated to raise it at that point.

“This is so, according to the majority, because Statom’s motion sought resolution only on ‘some but not all elements of liability…’ This assertion is not an easy lift for the majority. Indeed the majority labors mightily to support its position. But this case is not complicated,” he wrote.

“Under this State’s long-standing and settled law, Reiswerg could not resurrect his statute of limitations defense in his own motion for summary judgment,” Justice Rucker continued. “The defense had been waived. Easy case. The trial court properly struck Reiswerg’s summary judgment motion, and its decision should be affirmed.”
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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