Punitive Damages: A New Risk in Legal Malpractice in New York?

A Florida Court recently affirmed a significant award of punitive damages against a law firm in a legal malpractice case, raising the question: could this happen in New York? See Young v. Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., No. 4D09-4869 (Fla. 4th DCA May 23, 2012). In the Young case, the plaintiff brought a legal malpractice action against a law firm that handled her federal employment discrimination lawsuit. An associate of the law firm failed to attach the correct EEOC right-to-sue letter to the Complaint, and the plaintiff’s case was dismissed. The plaintiff successfully alleged that the law firm intentionally delayed telling her about the dismissal of her case in an effort to settle a related case in which they would receive over $2.9 million in fees. The jury awarded the plaintiff $394,000 in compensatory damages, including $144,000 in past lost wages and $250,000 in damages for “pain and suffering, mental anguish, or loss of dignity,” and $4.5 million in punitive damages, which was reduced by the trial court to $2 million. The Court of Appeals upheld this award finding that “the punitive damages in this case were properly assessed to further the State’s legitimate interests in punishing reprehensible conduct and deterring its repetition.” Young, supra.

In New York, a Plaintiff in a legal malpractice action may recover “actual and ascertainable damages” that were proximately caused by a defendant’s negligence. M & R Ginsburg, LLC v. Segal, Goldman, Mazzotta & Sigel, P.C., 90 A.D.3d 1208 (3d Dep’t 2011). Unlike the Young case in Florida, New York courts have consistently rejected awards for emotional distress in legal malpractice actions. Epifano v. Schwartz, 279 A.D.2d 501 (2d Dep’t 2001); Dirito v. Stanley, 203 A.D.2d 903 (4th Dep’t 1994); Andrewski v. Devine, 280 A.D.2d 992 (4th Dep’t 2001); Kaiser v. Van Houten, 12 A.D.3d 1012 (3d Dep’t 2004).

Moreover, New York’s First Department (which handles New York City) has rejected a punitive damages award where plaintiff failed to establish that defendant’s conduct “was so outrageous as to evince a high degree of moral turpitude and showing such wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations.” Zarin v. Reid & Priest, 184 A.D.2d 385 (1992). However, the court’s limited basis for rejecting a punitive damages claim in such a legal malpractice case seems to leave the door open for an award of punitive damages under the right facts – a scary thought for legal practitioners, particularly in light of the exclusion for punitive damages under most professional liability policies.

Bottom line: The potential exists that significant punitive damages like those awarded in the Young case could be upheld by New York courts, but each and every case stands and falls on the nature of the conduct and the verdict of the jury.