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Court of Appeals allows legal malpractice case to continue

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The legal malpractice action filed by a man who pleaded guilty to money laundering – when he had the possibility to plead guilty to a misdemeanor if not for his attorney’s actions – will proceed after the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the attorney’s motion for summary judgment.

Edward Blinn Jr. filed the legal malpractice complaint against Marion attorney Shane Beal in 2007. Blinn was being investigated by the FBI and hired Beal as his attorney. Beal allowed Blinn to enter into a proffer agreement with the government. In exchange for his truthful cooperation, the government would allow Blinn to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to not use Blinn’s statements against him if the government later decided to file more serious charges.

But Blinn only participated in one proffer session; Beal did not respond to federal agents’ attempts to contact him for months. When he was finally cornered in the courthouse by the agents, Beal said Blinn was no longer interested in cooperating. Beal did not inform Blinn that the FBI wanted to continue speaking with him. Blinn was later indicted on a federal felony money laundering charge, to which he later agreed to plead guilty.

This case led to a malpractice complaint by Blinn against Richard Kammen, who represented Blinn after he was indicted. That complaint was dismissed. Robert Hammerle, who also represented Blinn in the matter and negotiated the plea agreement, received a public reprimand in 2011 over his fee arrangement with Blinn.

In Shane Beal and The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company v. Edwin Blinn, Jr., 27A03-1306-PL-235 , Beal is seeking summary judgment in the legal malpractice complaint, which the trial court denied based on a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Beal’s conduct during the federal investigation resulted in a harsher sentence for Blinn.  

“Beal represented Blinn in a federal criminal action, despite Beal’s limited experience with federal litigation, his unfamiliarity with the legal construction of a federal proffer session, its purpose and its consequences, and his failure to convey a request for further interviews as part of the proffer session to Blinn. Designated evidence reflects that a completed proffer session might have resulted in a reduced sentence. As such, there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Beal’s conduct resulted in a harsher sentence and even jail time for Blinn,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

The judges rejected Beal’s argument that public policy bars a person convicted of a crime from imposing liability on others through a civil action for the results of his or her own criminal conduct. Under his theory, a criminal defendant, once convicted, could never pursue a legal malpractice claim.

“[T]he determination that, based on the evidence and argument at trial, a criminal defendant is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is not the same as the issue of whether the lawyer’s negligent representation contributed to or caused the resulting conviction. Beal’s argument, however, allows criminal defense attorneys to hide behind their own negligence by asserting the client’s conviction—albeit caused by the lawyer’s negligence—as a defense to a claim of legal malpractice,” Riley wrote. “The public not only has an interest in encouraging the representation of criminal defendants, but it also has an interest in making sure that the representation is, at the very least, not negligent.”

Beal resigned from the Indiana bar in August 2013.

 

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