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High court rules on client-attorney relationship

January 1, 2007
The Indiana Supreme Court today ruled on a case involving an attorney-client relationship, overturning the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the attorney.

In Ronald D. Liggett, d/b/a Liggett Construction Company v. Dean A. and Elisabeth Young, No. 38S0-0703-CV-80, Liggett appealed the trial court ruling in a contract dispute with the Youngs. At the time the Youngs hired Liggett to build their home, Dean Young worked as attorney for Liggett on an unrelated matter.

Liggett initiated a third-party complaint against the Youngs when a supplier of bricks and materials sued Liggett. In turn, the Youngs brought a counterclaim against Liggett seeking damages for allegedly negligent and untimely completion of work under the building contract.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Youngs.

At a later hearing initiated by Liggett, the trial court considered a motion to reconsider the previous ruling. This time, the trial court didn't address the fact Young acted as Liggett's attorney during the drafting of the contract. Dean Young had made some changes to the contract, which was allowed as long as an attorney did the work.

The court affirmed the previous order, as did the Court of Appeals.

At issue is whether Dean Young violated Professional Conduct Rule 1.8 and the Preamble of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct by hiring Liggett as his homebuilder and making changes to the standard contract.

The evidence from the trial court doesn't show that Dean Young's transaction with Liggett was fair and honest or was a standard commercial transaction, as is required under Prof. Con. R. 1.8, wrote Justice Brent Dickson. Liggett asserted that Rule 1.8(a) rendered the contract void because Dean Young served as his attorney at the time the contract was entered into.

Of significance in this case, Justice Dickson wrote, is that Liggett's claims against the Youngs are for materials and labor not included in the original base contract but were from additional items Liggett claimed were performed at the Youngs' request. Dean Young inserted language into the contract that allowed changes to be made.

The Supreme Court concluded the evidence on the Youngs' motion for partial summary judgment did not affirmatively establish an absence of an issue of material fact that the building contract transaction was fair and honest. Also, there was nothing to show the transaction should, as a matter of law, be treated as a standard commercial transaction to which common law presumption did not apply.

The Youngs are not entitled to summary judgment on their claims or Liggett's claims against them. The court remanded the matter to the trial court to resolve the remaining claims of both parties.
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