Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether Interest and Fees are Available on Legal Malpractice Claim

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Our previews of the latest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court’s civil docket continue with Goldfine v. Barack, Ferrazzano, Kirschbaum and Perlman, a case from the First District Appellate Court. Goldfine poses a number of questions about malpractice actions arising from lawsuits under the Illinois Securities Law, most prominently: are interest and attorneys’ fees available as damages?

The plaintiffs made twelve separate purchases between 1987 and 1990 of a certain company’s stock from a broker who was also a close personal friend. In the spring of 1991, the company filed for bankruptcy and the stock became worthless. The plaintiff retained the defendant law firm to identify possible claims, negotiate a settlement and – if no settlement was possible – preserve the claims until plaintiffs could find a contingency-fee lawyer to bring the suit.

Plaintiffs’ theory was that at the time they retained the defendant firm, they had a viable claim against the defendants for rescission under the Illinois Securities Law. The problem was, to bring such a claim, the purchaser has to serve a notice of rescission within six months of learning of his or her right to the remedy. The defendants did not do so. Thus, when plaintiffs hired new counsel in 1992 who filed the Securities Law claim, it was dismissed as time-barred. The plaintiffs filed their malpractice claims two years later. The plaintiffs’ merits claim arising from the stock purchases themselves was settled in 2007 for $3.2 million.

The malpractice claim proceeded to a bench trial. Ultimately, the court held that the final eleven stock purchases had violated the Illinois Securities Law. The trial court awarded damages based on the following formula – total price paid, minus the $3.2 million settlement, plus 10% interest, beginning on each stock purchase on the day it was made. After further arguments and motion practice, the court awarded attorneys’ fees and costs, calculating the fee at 40% of the award. Plaintiffs appealed, challenging both the calculation of damages and the attorneys’ fees award; defendants cross-appealed, contending that the fee-shifting and interest awards were punitive and therefore impermissible in a legal malpractice action, and that the plaintiffs had failed to prove they would have prevailed on their securities claim.

The Appellate Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The damages issues turn on the interpretation of section 13(A) of the Securities Law, 815 ILCS 5/13(A). The majority chose to follow the decision in Kugler v. Southmark Realty Partners III, which held that interest should be calculated on the full amount paid for the stock, rather than offsetting the payment with any settlements first. The Court held that there was no basis in the statute for the trial court’s decision to reduce the value of each stock purchase by a proportionate share of the ultimate settlement before calculating interest. Therefore, the judgment was reversed with respect to this element of compensatory damages.

The Court then turned to the issue of punitive damages. According to Section 2-1115 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/2-1115, punitive damages are not available in an action for medical or legal malpractice. According to the majority, the statutory interest, fees and costs award did not amount to punitive damages. There was no provision in the Securities Law for a punitive damages award, the Court pointed out; interest, fees and costs were all elements intended to fully compensate the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the Court declined to assume that the trial court would have found a 40% contingent fee to be reasonable with respect to the recalculated – and much larger – damages award, so the Court remanded the attorneys’ fees award for reconsideration.

Finally, the Appellate Court addressed defendants’ cross-appeal. The majority held that the trial court’s conclusion that plaintiff had reasonably relied on the securities representative’s representations was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. The court also rejected defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs had merely sought the reduced settlement value of their claim as damages, rather than the full value of the claim.

Justice Robert E. Gordon dissented in part, arguing that the Securities Law does not allow interest to be charged against the portion of the securities purchase price which the plaintiffs had already recovered.

We expect Goldfine to be decided in six to eight months.

 

Topics:  Attorney Malpractice, Attorney's Fees, Fees, Interest Rates, Punitive Damages

Published In: Civil Remedies Updates, Professional Malpractice Updates, Securities Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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