COA affirms ruling for lawyer on legal malpractice claim

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a Bloomington lawyer accused of legal malpractice, finding the evidence negated the proximate cause element of the claim.

After more than four years of dissolution of marriage proceedings initiated by his wife Susan, Jerry Gates died in March 2013 after multiple strokes.  

Joseph D. O’Connor was hired in 2012 to represent Jerry Gates in the divorce case by Jerry’s son and legal guardian, Whitney Gates. O’Connor was the fourth attorney to represent Jerry in the divorce case. After Jerry Gates died, Susan moved to dismiss her petition for dissolution. O’Connor filed a counter-petition by Whitney’s instruction, and ultimately moved to dismiss the dissolution as moot upon Jerry’s death, which the Monroe Circuit Court granted.

In May 2014, Whitney filed for damages and alleged that O’Connor had committed legal malpractice when he did not secure a decree of marriage dissolution prior to Jerry’s death, which resulted in Whitney and his heirs receiving a lesser share of Jerry’s estate than they would have had the marriage been dissolved.

The trial court concluded that given that Susan would have been entitled to summary judgment in the dissolution action on her motions to dismiss both her petition and Whitney’s counter-petition, Whitney had failed to demonstrate how he would have been better off had O’Connor not breached a duty of care to Jerry. Accordingly, it found that O’Connor was entitled to summary judgment on Whitney’s legal malpractice action and related collateral claims, which the appellate court upheld in Whitney A. Gates, Jonathan W. Gates, and Jacob A. Gates v. Joseph D. O'Connor and Bunger & Robertson, LLP, 18A-CT-58.

On appeal, Whitney contested the trial’s court grant of summary judgment to O’Connor. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision that the resolution of Whitney’s legal malpractice claim resolved any other claims Whitney presented.

“Whitney must prove that O’Connor’s negligence proximately caused his alleged loss of inheritance,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the court. “Thus, it is Whitney’s burden to prove that, but for O’Connor’s alleged errors in representation, the outcome of the dissolution proceedings would have been different (meaning that the marriage would have been dissolved before Jerry’s death, presumably allowing Whitney to inherit more of Jerry’s estate). We conclude, as a matter of law, that Whitney cannot satisfy this burden.”

The appellate court found that O’Connor’s designated evidence negated the proximate cause element of the legal malpractice claim. In its determination as to whether the outcome of the dissolution action would have been different but for O’Connor’s alleged errors in representation, the appellate court resolved three legal malpractice “trial within a trial” issues.

First, it found that once Susan filed her motion to dismiss the petition for dissolution, nothing O’Connor did or failed to do would have created a different result because Susan was entitled to the dismissal of her petition as a matter of law.

“Had she moved for summary judgment in the dissolution action on this issue, as her attorney told O’Connor prior to Jerry’s death she intended to do, she would have prevailed, and the dissolution action would have been dismissed,” Crone wrote.

Second, the appellate court determined that Whitney had no authority to file a counter-petition for dissolution on Jerry’s behalf.

Lastly, the appellate court found that O’Connor could not compel Susan to settle the dissolution action before her motion to dismiss. It noted any that speculation that steps taken by O’Connor to put pressure on Susan to settle was insufficient to avoid summary judgment.

“Thus, as a matter of law, O’Connor’s representation of Jerry during the dissolution was not the proximate cause of any damages from loss of inheritance that Whitney may have incurred,” Crone concluded. “As there is no proximate cause between O’Connor’s alleged errors and Whitney’s alleged loss, we affirm the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of O’Connor.”

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