Legal Malpractice Case Dismissed – No Causation As A Matter of Law

Where a legal malpractice plaintiff could not “prove that he would have obtained relief in the underlying lawsuit but for the attorney’s malpractice,” summary judgment was affirmed.

In Marble v. Underwood, No. M2017-02040-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 24, 2019), plaintiff filed a legal malpractice action against the attorney who had initially been appointed to represent him in a case with the Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) regarding the custody of his minor child. While defendant attorney was representing him, the plaintiff/father agreed to two different parenting plans with many requirements, which were eventually ratified by the trial court. During the time father was represented by defendant, DCS filed a dependency and neglect petition as to the minor. Defendant attorney “advised Father to stipulate that the Child was dependent and neglected,” father did so, and the “child was adjudicated as dependent and neglected.”

After this, father retained different counsel. He appealed the dependent and neglected finding to circuit court, and after a somewhat convoluted procedural process, “the trial court ultimately ruled that the Child was dependent and neglected as a result of Father’s inability to care for her and based upon his severe abuse for his knowing failure to protect her.” The ruling was affirmed on appeal.

Father filed this legal malpractice action against his original attorney, alleging that “attorney’s negligent representation directly contributed to the loss of his parental rights.” Father specifically alleged that the attorney “failed to acknowledge his limitations and to advocate for him against the imposition of undue and burdensome permanency plans requirements[.]” The trial court granted summary judgment for defendant attorney, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

A legal malpractice plaintiff “must prove that he would have obtained relief in the underlying lawsuit, but for the attorney’s malpractice.” (internal citation omitted). Here, defendant argued that “Father cannot prove that her actions or inactions caused his loss of parental rights when the reasonableness of the permanency plan requirements and his ability to remit support were upheld on appeal,” and the Court agreed. The Court stated:

Father can prove no set of facts establishing that he would have obtained relief in the underlying lawsuit but for Attorney’s alleged malpractice. This court specifically held that the requirements contained in the permanency plan were reasonable and that Father was capable of remitting child support but that Father failed to evidence substantial compliance with the permanency plan requirements… Further, we also upheld the circuit court’s determination that Father was not a disabled individual within the meaning of the ADA and that he was not denied benefits or services based upon any alleged disability.

Summary judgment was thus affirmed.

Legal malpractice cases require a plaintiff to show that he or she was injured by the attorney’s alleged negligence. When a plaintiff cannot make that showing, as was the case here, summary judgment will be granted.