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October 23, 2006

Church v. Jamison (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1568

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The Fifth District holds an attorney may raise judicial error in the underlying action to challenge the causation element in a legal malpractice claim.

John Church retained Daniel Jamison to represent him in an employment dispute with Wilcox, Hokokian & Jackson (WHJ), an accountancy corporation.  Slightly more than two months after Jamison filed a complaint on behalf of Church, Jamison substituted out of the case.   Another attorney represented Church when the court sustained a demurrer to an amended complaint on the basis that a Labor Code cause of action based on vacation pay was barred by the applicable statute of limitations.  Church filed a complaint for legal malpractice against Jamison alleging he had failed to timely file a cause of action based on the Labor Code.

Jamison prevailed on a motion for judgment on the pleadings asserting he did not commit malpractice because the statute of limitations applicable to Church’s Labor Code claims had either expired before his representation started or, alternatively, had not yet expired before he filed the complaint against WHJ.  The trial court expressly disagreed with the Labor Code rulings made in WHJ’s favor in the employment case. 

After a lengthy analysis of the statute of limitations applicable to the Labor Code violations at issue, the Court of Appeal agreed Jamison did not commit legal malpractice, because the claims were filed within the applicable statute of limitations.

Church argued that although Jamison’s motion for judgment on the pleadings was not a collateral attack on the judgment in the underlying employment case, it was inappropriate to review and reject another superior court’s decision.   He relied on precedent analyzing intervening, superseding acts, which held there was a question of fact whether the attorney should have anticipated judicial error and taken steps to avoid it.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, noting no case precludes an attorney from arguing that a trial court’s decision in an underlying lawsuit was erroneous.  Public policy does not support a rule preventing a legal malpractice defendant from arguing the cause of a client’s loss was judicial error.  The case-within-a-case method applied in legal malpractice cases uses an objective approach to decide what should have been the result in the underlying proceeding or matter. Thus, a trial court’s ruling should come under scrutiny in the malpractice case when the issue of what should have been the result of the underlying proceeding is addressed.

Comment:  At times cases are lost because of erroneous judicial rulings.  Church clarifies that a judicial error can break the chain of causation necessary to establish legal malpractice.

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