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July 22, 2014

Moua v. Pittulo, Howington, Barker & Abernathy, LLP (2014) 174 Cal.Rptr.3d 662

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The Second District holds that a client cannot establish causation when, against her attorney’s advice, she rejects a settlement offer.  

Although Lilas Moua and Alex Ng participated in a traditional Hmong marriage ceremony; lived together as husband and wife; had two children; and created and filed numerous documents and tax returns as a married couple, they never obtained a marriage license. Moua retained Timothy Pittullo, Jonathon Zitney, and their firm to negotiate her divorce.

Ng agreed to a one-time substantial payment to Moua, and offered to enter into a stipulated judgment for this amount. Pittulo strongly recommended Moua accept the settlement, opining she had a fifty percent chance of losing and receiving nothing.  Moua rejected this advice. 

Moua then retained a second attorney who advised her to accept an increased settlement offer, believing Moua’s chances of prevailing as a putative spouse were far lower than fifty percent. After Moua did not accept the offer, the trial court granted Ng’s motion to dismiss, and Moua received nothing.

Moua sued Pittulo for legal malpractice. The Court granted Pittulo’s motion for summary judgment, finding there was no proof of causation because Pitullo recommended Moua accept the settlement offer.

The Court of Appeal agreed Moua could not establish the causation because she disregarded Pittulo’s advice to accept a settlement. Moua also rejected the advice of her subsequent counsel to accept Ng’s increased offer.  It was her own decision, against the advice of both her attorneys, not to accept the settlement.  She could not establish a causal connection between the alleged malpractice and her loss.

Comment: Attorneys are not insurers of their client’s success.  A client who rejects an attorney’s advice to accept a settlement offer should not look to the attorney if dissatisfied with the subsequent result.

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