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COA dismisses appeal of summary judgment to law firm on legal malpractice claim

October 6, 2017

After finding an order granting summary judgment to an Indianapolis law firm facing a legal malpractice claim was not a final order, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed an appeal challenging the summary judgment ruling.

After Indy Auto Man LLC was sued by two of its customers, the auto company hired Dustin Stohler, who was of counsel with Keown & Kratz LLC at the time. However, Stohler stopped showing up for work at the firm, which let his mail pile up on his desk unopened. Stohler also did not respond to discovery requests or the plaintiff’s motion for default judgment in one of the cases against IAM.

When IAM was notified that a default judgment of $60,000 had been entered against it, the company hired another attorney, who was successful in settling both cases. IAM then brought a legal malpractice claim against both Stohler and Keown & Kratz, though the chronological case summary does not indicate that Stohler ever responded. Stohler has been suspended since July 2014, according to the Roll of Attorneys.

The firm, however, did respond with a counter-claim for attorney fees and a motion for summary judgment, arguing it did not owe a duty of care to IAM because the company was not the firm’s client and because the firm’s limited agency relationship with Stohler did not extend to clients, like IAM, who hired Stohler. IAM responded with a cross-motion for summary judgment, but the Hamilton Superior Court granted summary judgment to the firm on IAM’s claims. The court then granted summary judgment in favor of IAM on the firm’s claim for attorney fees, finding the IAM’s claims were not frivolous.

However, the trial court’s order did not grant summary judgment in favor of Stohler or include the “magic language” of Indiana Trial Rule 56(C) – “that there was no just reason for delay and expressly directing entry of judgment as to less than all parties.” Because of that missing language, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed IAM’s appeal in the case of Indy Auto Man, LLC v. Keown & Kratz, LLC, and Dustin Stohler, 29A02-1703-PL-551.

In a unanimous Friday opinion, Judge Paul Mathias wrote that because judgment was granted for only one of the two parties subject to the malpractice claim, the trial court’s order cannot be considered final “because it did not ‘dispose() of all claims as to all parties.’” Though language in Trial Rule 56(C) provides an option for a non-final judgment to be deemed final, the trial court did not use that rule’s “magic language” in its order, Mathias wrote.

“Generally, a non-final order is not appealable unless it is an interlocutory order that is appealable as of right under Appellate Rule 14(A), or the appellant has sought and gained permission for a discretionary interlocutory appeal from the trial court and this court under Apple Rule 14(B),” Mathias wrote. “Neither of these provisions is applicable here, where the appeal is not interlocutory as of right, nor have the parties sought permission to file an interlocutory appeal.”

Thus, IAM’s appeal was dismissed without prejudice.

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