In our last “Check the Rules” post back in December, we noted the recent additions to the Manhattan Commercial Division bench, Justices Andrew Borrok and Joel M. Cohen, and promised to report back in early 2019 on any notable practice rules in their respective Parts.

My colleague Viktoriya Liberchuk’s perceptive post last week on the recent trend in the Commercial Division (and beyond) to formally encourage in-court “at bats” for young lawyers cited two specific rules from the newly-published “Practices and Procedures” for both Justice Borrok and Justice Cohen, both of whom encourage and even incentivize the “less senior attorney” or the “lawyer out of law school for five years or less” to argue motions before them.

In addition to advocating for the development of junior associates, Justice Borrok’s individual practice rules also suggest that he’s an advocate for the use of technology in the practice of law, or at least in his Part.  In his one and only published decision in 2019 thus far, Ostro v Ostro, Justice Borrok twice ordered the parties to comply with the court’s e-filing procedures, which is the subject of an entire section of his practice rules entitled “Electronic Filing.”

Justice Borrok has a handful of other techie practice rules worthy of note:

Be sure to “bookmark” your briefs and “hyperlink” your references to case law, etc.  Justice Borrok requires strict adherence to the requirement in Commercial Division Rule 6 that all briefs “shall include bookmarks providing a listing of the document’s contents and facilitating easy navigation by the reader within the document.”  He also “strongly encourages” the use of hyperlinks within documents submitted to the court.

Make sure you’re registered for “eTrack.”  As noted in Justice Borrok’s practice rules, as well as in the New York State Unified Court System’s description of the service, “eTrack is a case tracking service which enables you to track active Civil Supreme Court cases from all 62 counties of New York State.”  Justice Borrok requires that “parties and/or their counsel” litigating in his Part be registered for eTrack.

Check in at the “kiosk” outside the courtroom before appearing for a conference.  There’s a kiosk located near the courtroom entrance of Part 53.  Counsel are required to check in by entering the index number of their case, select and print the appropriate conference form(s), and fill them out before entering the courtroom.  By the way, be sure to set specific discovery dates in your proposed conference orders.  Open-ended “within 45 days”-type deadlines won’t cut it.

Submit your trial documents on a “flash drive.”  If you’re headed to trial before Justice Borrok, be sure to submit all your trial documents — including marked pleadings, prior decisions, notices to admit, deposition transcripts, and the like — “via flash drive prior to the hearings or start of trial.”

Be sure to check back with us in the coming months for notable decisions coming out of the newly-constituted Parts 3 and 53 in the Manhattan Commercial Division.

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Tired of printing hundreds of thousands of documents and carrying numerous boxes of documents to court? The New York Commercial Division has heard your cry.  The New York Law Journal  reported that the Commercial Division courts are committed to utilizing technology to help make litigation efficient and more user friendly. The Commercial Division hopes to utilize innovative and advanced technology to efficiently adjudicate, among others, complex commercial matters. The benefits are bountiful as they will be valuable to lawyers, judges, and jurors.

In October, innovative technology made its debut in Justice Saliann Scarpulla’s courtroom in the New York County Commercial Division. In addition to Justice Scarpulla’s Part Rules, which require all cases be electronically filed and all documents text-searchable, Justice Scarpulla’s courtroom now contains an “86-inch screen to display documents, a podium with a document viewer and a USB port and small screens for attorneys and the judge.”   The new 86-inch screen permits attorneys to highlight and mark up documents. It also allows attorneys to scan documents while at the podium during trial, which helps to avoid unnecessary emergencies and courtroom delays.  Additionally, in an effort to protect client confidentiality, the courtroom contains a separate USB port for attorneys to use if their documents are highly sensitive so that they cannot be accessed through the court’s Wi-Fi. This new technology also permits attorneys to attend conferences via Skype, thus conserving time and expense.

In addition to the 86-inch display screen, the jury box in the courtroom was expanded and is now wheelchair accessible and offers technological assistance to jurors who are hearing or vision impaired. Similarly, jurors will no longer be inundated with reams of documents, as this new technology permits attorneys to provide jurors with a flash drive to access and review the documents in a more efficient matter.  In that regard, Justice Scarpulla stated that “we can promise a juror that they’re not going to be here for six months looking through documents.”  All of these technological improvements will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the willingness of people to serve as jurors and significantly impact efficiency in the courtroom.

“We think it’s important to have the right technology to give the business community in New York the sense that we could compete with the best courts in the world,” Justice Scarpulla opined.  Justice Scarpulla’s courtroom is the first, of what will hopefully be many New York courtrooms, to utilize this innovative technology that will make New York courts a much more desirable venue to handle complex commercial disputes.

The Commercial Division has initiated other changes that reflect its efforts to increase efficiency through technology.  For example, the Commercial Division promulgated Rule 11-e(f), which went into effect on October 1, 2018, encouraging parties to “use the most efficient means to review documents, including electronically stored information.” This new Rule, which addresses the use of technology-assisted review in the discovery process was discussed at length in Kathryn Cole’s blog, titled Important Update for Those Who Practice in the Commercial Division of the NYS Supreme Courts.

As technology pervades the legal profession, it is crucial that practitioners stay current with the changing technological landscape moving forward. Make sure you stay up-to-date with judge’s part rules and changes in the Commercial Division that we are certain to see in the future.

For more practice tips in New York Courts, subscribe to the New York Commercial Division Practice Blog.

As we approach the 30th Anniversary of New York’s Commercial Division, it’s fair to say that over those 30 years, the Commercial Division has held true to its aim of improving the efficiency and judicial treatment of complex commercial matters.  One of the primary ways it does so is through its commitment to continually review and revise its Commercial Division Rules to better meet the needs of the parties and cases appearing before it.  Implementing and enforcing rules developed with efficiency in mind and after careful consultation with Judges and practitioners alike is no small contributor to the success of the Commercial Division.

The latest advancement of the Commercial Division Rules concerns the phase of litigation that has recently exploded in its importance and cost: the collection, review, and production of electronically stored information (“ESI”).

On March 7, 2022, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks signed an administrative order amending Rules 1, 8, 9, 11-c, 11-e 11-g and Appendices of section 202.7(g) of the uniform rules of practices for the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court and county courts.  These changes took effect on April 11, 2022.

The majority of these amendments to the Commercial Division Rules are aimed at modernizing and streamlining the rules concerning ESI.  Here are some notable highlights:

Continue Reading Updates to Commercial Division Rules Concerning Discovery of ESI

Much ink has been spilled over the last couple of years, including here at New York Commercial Division Practice, on the topic of practicing law remotely in the COVID (and likely post-COVID) era.  As we all brace for the coming wave of Omicron, which may well be the fastest spreading virus in human history, let’s take a quick look at the newest ComDiv rule on the topic — Rule 37 Remote Depositions — which went into effect on December 15, 2021.

We’ve reported on the recent trend of remote depositions on at least three occasions over the last year or so, including the ComDiv Advisory Council’s September 2020 proposal for, and request for public comment on, the new rule.  As noted in the memo supporting the recommendation, in light of COVID, whereas “remote depositions were previously the exception, they are now the rule.”

But more than that, “[t]here is good reason . . . to encourage their continued use . . . after the pandemic is brought under control.”  Why?  Because, as we all have learned from experience over the last couple years, “remote depositions can be quicker, easier, less costly, and more efficient than in-person depositions.”

New ComDiv Rule 37 — which generally permits courts, “upon the consent of the parties or upon a motion showing good cause, [to] order oral depositions by remote electronic means — is accompanied at new Appendix G by a fulsome template stipulation setting forth a remote depo protocol that addresses common practical concerns regarding technology, security, private communications, and the use of exhibits.  Some key excerpts:

  • Administration of Remote Depo Services.  “An employee . . . of the [court reporting] service provider shall . . . be available at each remote deposition to record the deposition, troubleshoot any technological issues that may arise, and administer the virtual breakout rooms.”
  • Audio and Video Clarity.  “Each person attending a deposition shall be clearly visible to all other participants, their statements shall be audible to all participants, and they should each use best efforts to ensure their environment is free from noise and distractions.”
  • Communications During Questioning.  “Deponents shall shut off electronic devices . . . and shall refrain from all private communication during questioning on the record.”
  • Use of Virtual Breakout Rooms.  “Parties may use a breakout-room feature, which simulates a live breakout room through videoconference[, but c]onversations in the breakout rooms shall not be recorded . . . [and] shall be established by . . . and controlled by the [court reporting] service provider.”
  • Collaboration and Advance Troubleshooting.  “The parties agree to work collaboratively and in good faith with the court reporting [service provider] to assess each deponent’s technological abilities and to troubleshoot any issues at least 48 hours in advance of the deposition . . . [and] also agree to work collaboratively to address and troubleshoot technological issues  that arise during a deposition.”
  • Sufficient Technology.  “Counsel shall use best efforts to ensure that they have sufficient technology to participate in a [remote] deposition . . . [and] shall likewise use best efforts to ensure that the deponent has such sufficient technology.”

To be sure, given the ominosity of Omicron, the new ComDiv rule concerning remote depositions comes to us at an appropriate time.  But given the efficiencies associated with the practice that we all have discovered along the way, and with essential safeguards now in place at Appendix G, one can expect frequent and ongoing invocation of Rule 37 long after the infection curve has flattened.

 

As we all are acutely aware, during the last 21+ months, the normally slow-to-change practice of law has been thrust into overdrive, forcing lawyers and courts to quickly pivot from a largely in-person practice to virtual.

New York courts in particular have done an incredible job expanding access to litigants online by, among other things, expanding e-filing capabilities, conducting virtual appearances for conferences and oral arguments, encouraging remote depositions, and even conducting trials online. I’ve discussed with colleagues and adversaries alike the newfound efficiencies that have emerged out of the necessity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York’s Commercial Division, ever the agent of progress, keeps a good thing going with respect to virtual access. Just last week, on October 19, 2021, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks promulgated new Commercial Division Rule 36 (Administrative Order 299/2021), which will allow Commercial Division judges to conduct virtual evidentiary hearings and non-jury trials on consent of the parties.

In a memo published by the Commercial Division Advisory Council last June 2020, the Advisory Council advocated for this new rule (adopted in large part by AO/299/21). Among the benefits cited are the cost and time savings that virtual conference technology would bring. A global business hub, New York is the venue of choice for much commercial litigation around the country and around the world. Rule 36 will remove many of the obstacles in coordinating party, witness, lawyer, and court scheduling by largely reducing or eliminating the time and cost of necessary travel.

The public’s collective comfort with using video conferencing technology has only increased since the Advisory Council’s June 2020 memo. Having already incorporated such technologies into many other facets of the legal practice (i.e. “Zoom meetings”, remote depositions, etc.), expanding its use to evidentiary hearings and bench trials is not much of a stretch. Video conferencing technologies have only improved in efficiency and security after months of rapid development necessitated by stay-at-home orders, travel bans, and quarantine mandates from earlier in the pandemic (some of which still apply in certain jurisdictions).

It is important to note that Rule 36 requires the consent of all parties. Additionally, the Rule is permissive, not mandatory, meaning that even if all parties consent, ultimately the availability of virtual evidentiary hearings and non-jury trials lies within the Court’s discretion. This flexibility allows for the tailored application of video conferencing technologies to evidentiary hearings and/or bench trials where a virtual appearance would be appropriate.

Given the technological developments in this area over the past 21+ months, and given the encouragement by the judiciary, cost-savings to the client, and overall efficiencies promoted, I have no doubt that Rule 36 will be a welcome addition to practitioners who find themselves regularly practicing in the Commercial Division.

So, without further ado, we give you Commercial Division Rule 36:

Rule 36. Virtual Evidentiary Hearing or Non-jury Trial.

(a)        If the requirements of paragraph (c) of this Rule are met, the court may, with the consent of the parties, conduct an evidentiary hearing or a non-jury trial utilizing video technology.

(b)       If the requirements of paragraph (c) of this Rule are met, the court may, with the consent of the parties, permit a witness or party to participate in an evidentiary hearing or a non-jury trial utilizing video technology.

(c)        The video technology used must enable:

(i)        a party and the party’s counsel to communicate confidentially;

(ii)       documents, photos and other things that are delivered to the court to be delivered to the remote participants;

(iii)      interpretation for a person of limited English proficiency;

(iv)      a verbatim record of the trial; and

(v)       public access to remote proceedings.

(d)      This Rule does not address the issue of when all parties do not consent.

Rule 36 becomes effective as of December 13, 2021.

As we’ve mentioned time and again on this blog, since its inception in 1995, New York’s Commercial Division has continued to not only be a leader in developing and shaping commercial law, but it is also on the forefront of instituting rules with the goals of fostering litigation efficiency, cost reduction, and implementation of technology in the courtroom. The Commercial Division Advisory Council, which is tasked with keeping abreast of new developments relating to commercial litigation in New York and providing advice concerning important and cutting-edge issues of interest to practitioners, is instrumental in maintaining the Commercial Division’s national (and even international) reputation as a leading business court.

On September 14, 2021, the New York State Office of Court Administration issued a request for public comment by the Advisory Council to amend Commercial Division Rule 11 to include a preamble about proportionality and reasonableness and to add provisions allowing the Court to direct early case assessment disclosures and analysis prior to and after the Preliminary Conference. This recent request piggybacks off another, lengthier and robust set of proposed modifications to Rule 11, as recently reported by my colleague, James Maguire.

The preamble to Commercial Division Rule 11 proposed by the Advisory Council provides the following:

Acknowledging that discovery is one of the most expensive, time-consuming aspects of litigating a commercial case, the Commercial Division aims to provide practitioners with a mechanism for streamlining the discovery process to lessen the amount of time required to complete discovery and to reduce the cost of conducting discovery. It is important that counsel’s discovery requests are both proportional and reasonable in light of the complexity of the case and the amount of proof that is required for the cause of action.

The stated rationale behind the proposed preamble is to reaffirm or re-emphasize the guiding principles of proportionality and reasonableness in the pursuit of discovery in the Commercial Division which two concepts “must govern discovery in all cases, including the most intricate, difficult and complex Commercial Division case.” As further noted by the Advisory Council, proportionality and reasonableness are specifically included in the proposed preamble to Rule 11 so that “no party or counsel may argue that these concepts are modifying any legal standards or Rules that apply to the scope of discovery.”

The Advisory Council also recommended the inclusion of several additional provisions allowing the Court to direct early case assessment disclosures and analysis prior to and after the Preliminary Conference. One such proposed provision affords the Court the ability to direct the plaintiff to produce a document “stating clearly and concisely the issues in the case prior to the preliminary conference,” and to the extent that there are any counterclaims, to direct the counterclaimant to produce a document stating clearly and concisely the issues asserted in the counterclaims. The proposal also provides the Court with the discretion to direct both of the parties to produce a document stating each of the elements in the causes of action at issue and the facts needed to establish their case. The stated goal for this recommendation is to “streamline” the discovery process “so that that discovery is aligned with the needs of a case and not a search for each and every possible fact in the case.”

Although the suggested proposals are not earth-shattering, any proposal that purports to “streamline” the discovery process is welcome.

Persons wishing to comment on the proposal should e-mail their submissions to rulecomments@nycourts.gov or write to: Eileen D. Millett, Esq., Counsel, Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, 11th Fl., New York, New York, 10004. Comments must be received no later than November 15, 2021.

In March 2020, the New York State Courts and attorneys’ offices all over the state shut down as part of the public’s broad effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, and the legal profession quickly transitioned to remote operations.  Remote team meetings, court appearances, arbitration hearings, networking events, and depositions were all borne from the necessity imposed by closed offices and social distancing.

Despite the sometimes steep learning curve associated with the remote conferencing technology and systems, remote proceedings became surprisingly effective.  Lawyers who once swore that there was nothing like being in the same room as their adversary found that, in many cases, the Zoom or Teams suite works just fine.  As a consequence, one need not look beyond the pages of this blog to see that for many, remote practices are here to stay.  Commercial Division Rule 1 now allows attorneys to request to appear remotely, saving client costs and avoiding the unnecessary risk of infection.  In February, we wrote about the Commercial Division Advisory Committee’s proposed rule authorizing and regulating the use of remote depositions.  The proposed rule has received favorable comment.

Continue Reading Even as Pandemic Wanes, Remote Depositions Remain the New Normal

New York’s Commercial Division has continuously taken the lead as an innovative forum, proposing rule changes that are aimed at increasing efficiency and overall effectiveness of the litigation process.  In the past several years, discovery challenges surrounding electronically stored information (“ESI”) have taken center stage in a majority of cases before the Commercial Division. Understanding these challenges, on September 7, 2021, the Commercial Division Advisory Council (“CDAC”) published a proposal, that includes several new amendments to the current e-discovery rules.  Specifically, the CDAC advised that “[t]he goal of the revisions is to address e-discovery in a more consolidated way, modify the rules for clarity and consistency, expand the rules to address important ESI topics consistent with the CPLR and caselaw, and to provide further detail in Appendix A – Proposed ESI Guidelines than is practical in the Commercial Division Rules.”

One significant modification by the CDAC’s proposal revolves around several distinct changes to Rule 11-c concerning discovery of ESI.  First, the proposal seeks to consolidate all ESI discussion from the current version of Rule 8 into Rule 11-c, including directing parties to confer on electronic discovery topics prior to the Preliminary Conference.  Second, the proposed revisions entirely remove Rule 11-e(f), which discusses using efficient means to identify ESI for production, including technology-assisted review (“TAR”), and move the substance of the rule into Rule 11-c(e). Third, the proposal includes noteworthy additions to Rule 11-c on the issue of cost efficiency for parties and non-parties in producing ESI.  The proposed changes include cost-sharing directives requiring that (a) “[t]he costs and burdens of ESI shall not be disproportionate to its benefits;” and (b) “[t]he requesting party shall defray the reasonable expenses associated with a non-party’s production of ESI, in accordance with Rules 3111 and 3122 (d) of the CPLR.”  Fourth, the proposed revisions draw on rules / topics from the Nassau County Commercial Division ESI Guidelines, such as the inadvertent or unintentional production of ESI documents that are subject to attorney-client privilege, and a requirement that a party take reasonable steps to preserve ESI documents that it has a duty to preserve.

In addition, the CDAC’s proposal includes material changes to Appendix A to Commercial Division Rule 11-c.  For starters, the revised Appendix A would substitute the current non-party ESI Guidelines with “new guidelines to cover all aspects of ESI, from parties and non-parties alike.”  Further, the proposed ESI Guidelines, which the CDAC acknowledges are advisory rather than mandatory, include a comprehensive list of e-discovery topics that are not addressed by the current non-party ESI Guidelines, including but not limited to:

  • Reminding counsel of the importance of technical competence in handling e-discovery;
  • Guidance on the defensible preservation and collection of ESI sources;
  • Information on the selection of appropriate procedures and technologies for producing ESI, including TAR;
  • Setting forth a process for parties to address ESI that is not reasonably accessible due to undue burden or cost; and
  • Protection against waiver for privileged ESI that is inadvertently produced.

Recognizing that e-discovery law is constantly changing, the CDAC believes that the proposed ESI Guidelines can be updated on a continuing basis without requiring any amendments to the Commercial Division Rules themselves.  Persons who wish to comment on this proposal should e-mail their submissions to rulecomments@nycourts.gov or write to: Eileen D. Millett, Esq., Counsel, Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10004.  Comments must be received no later than November 8, 2021.

[I] irrevocably release and forever discharge [the Company] . . . from any and all actions, causes of action, suits, debts, claims, complaints, liabilities, obligations, charges, contracts, controversies, agreements, promises, damages, expenses, counterclaims, cross-claims, [etc.] whatsoever, in law or equity, known or unknown, [I] ever had, now have, or may have against the [Company] from the beginning of time to the date hereof.

When someone releases another from claims, he is relinquishing his right to sue in connection with the subject of the release.  So long as it is not procured by fraud, New York courts will generally enforce broad general releases, such as the one above, as a party’s waiver of future fraud and fiduciary duty claims even when such claims are not foreseeable at the time of contract execution.  In Chadha v Wahedna, 2021 NY Slip Op 50509(U), a June 2, 2021, decision by New York Commercial Division Justice Barry Ostrager, the plaintiff learned this lesson the hard way when his pleading was dismissed in its entirety due to his execution of a general release covering his claims.

Underlying Facts and the Amended Complaint

The dispute in Chadha involves a financial technology and services company that offers investment opportunities compliant with Islamic law (the “Company”) and its controlling shareholder, director, and CEO (“Wahedna,” together “Defendants”).

In his Amended Complaint, Nilish Chadha (“Chadha”), the former COO, board member, and shareholder of the Company, alleged that from October 2016 through January 2017, Defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme to purchase 530 of Plaintiff’s shares in the Company at deeply discounted values by inducing Plaintiff to enter into a series of three Common Stock Repurchase Agreements (“CSRAs”). Plaintiff claimed that Defendants fraudulently misrepresented to Plaintiff the value of his shares, and, in breach of fiduciary duties owed to him, failed to disclose higher share prices that were being negotiated with third-party investors in order to buy out Plaintiff’s shares in the Company at lower prices.

In June 2020, more than three years after the sale of all his shares in the Company, Plaintiff filed this action seeking to recover damages arising from the alleged “surreptitious” purchase by Defendants of Plaintiff’s 530 shares through alleged fraud and failure to disclose the existence of the potential equity investors. Plaintiff asserted that knowledge of these discussions would have impacted his opinion of the value of his stock in the Company.

The Motion to Dismiss

Defendants pointed to a Settlement Agreement and Release (the “Settlement Agreement”), entered into between Plaintiff and Defendants in connection with the CSRAs, which included the general release language referenced above.  Relying on the Settlement Agreement, Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint on the basis that all of the causes of action were barred by the release, arguing that it broadly released all claims, whether known or unknown, and, as a consequence, the Settlement Agreement extinguished all of the Amended Complaint’s claims.  Defendants also argued that Plaintiff did not negotiate any specific limitations to the release that might preserve any of the claims, a fact which Plaintiff fully understood when he executed the Settlement Agreement.

The Court’s Analysis and Decision

In considering whether the general release at issue barred Plaintiff’s claims, the Court looked to guidance from the New York Court of Appeals.  In Centro Empresarial Cempresa S.A. v America Movil, S.A.B. de C.V., 17 NY3d 269 (2011), cited throughout the decision, the Court affirmed the First Department’s dismissal of a case brought by former owners of shares in a telecommunications company because the general release plaintiffs granted to defendants in connection with the sale of plaintiffs’ ownership interests encompassed unknown fraud claims, regardless of the fiduciary relationship between the parties.  The Court of Appeals held that, as sophisticated parties, plaintiffs negotiated and executed an “extraordinary release . . . [and] cannot now invalidate that release by claiming ignorance of the depth of their fiduciary’s misconduct.”

In Chadha, the Court held that Defendants met their burden of providing a release that encompassed unknown future fraud claims because the release unequivocally referred to “any and all actions” “whatsoever” “known or unknown,” thereby shifting the burden to Plaintiff to establish that the release was invalid due to contract defenses, such as fraud. Under the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint, however, the Court held that Plaintiff could not avoid dismissal for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the Court found dispositive the fact that Plaintiff did not allege a fraud separate from the subject of the release, stating that the allegation that Wahedna allegedly concealed the existence of a future investment by a third-party that would have been favorable to the Company was not “separate from the broad cover of the release which is ‘any and all claims [ ] the Investor Released Parties ever had, now have, or may have against the Company Released Parties from the beginning of time to the date hereof.’”

Next, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the fiduciary relationship between Plaintiff and Wahedna prevented the parties from being able to release fraud claims because Plaintiff signed the release after selling all his shares in the Company, so that a fiduciary relationship between the two of them no longer existed.  The Court also found that Plaintiff, as the COO of the Company at that time, had access to information relevant to the Company and did not exercise his own diligence in evaluating the value of his shares. The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that he lacked sophistication to understand that he was releasing all future and unknown claims inasmuch as Plaintiff had “an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from The American University in Dubai and was sophisticated enough to serve as the Company’s COO which inherently involved an understanding of the Company’s financial status.”

In the end, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint with prejudice.

Takeaway

The Court’s recent holding in Chadha reinforces the fact that parties can contract away fraud and fiduciary duty claims with general releases. If a party wants to ensure that it is not waiving its right to bring such claims, then it should make sure to negotiate disclaimer language specifically indicating that it does not intend to waive such a claim. By including targeted and specific language, a party can rest easy that a court will enforce a disclaimer in the way in which it intended.

For more case law analysis concerning general releases, look to Peter A. Mahler’s post from the other week in Farrell Fritz’s New York Business Divorce blog.

 

Pursuant to Part 130 , attorneys are obligated to undertake an investigation of a case.  But is an attorney responsible for ignorance of facts which the client neglected to disclose?  “No,” says the Commercial Division.

In a recent decision by Justice Andrew Borrok, the Commercial Division discussed this very issue. In Morgan and Mendel Genomics v Amster Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (“Einstein”) hired the law firm of Amster Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP (“Defendant”) to assist Einstein in obtaining a patent for its new genetic testing technology, invented by Einstein employees, Dr. Ostrer and Mr. Loke.  By way of background, the publication date of the technology is critical because it starts the one-year clock for filing a patent application.

In Morgan and Mendel Genomics, Einstein advised Defendant that it first published an article (the “Article”) about its technology in March 2012—which would start the one-year timeframe by which Defendant would have to file a patent application.  In addition, Einstein submitted to Defendant an Invention Disclosure Form, which confirmed in writing that the technology was first published in March 2012.  However, Defendant learned, on its own, that the Article appeared online on January 11, 2012 and communicated that fact to Einstein. And so, Defendant filed a provisional patent application on January 8, 2013 and a non-provisional application on January 8, 2014.

On September 14, 2016, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the “USPTO”) rejected the application as untimely because the Article was available online on December 15, 2011, more than a year before the provisional patent application was filed with the USPTO.

On November 22, 2019, plaintiff Morgan and Mendel Genomics (“Plaintiff”), who purports to have entered into an agreement with Einstein wherein Einstein assigned to Plaintiff its claim against Defendant, commenced an action for legal malpractice.

Defendant moved to dismiss the motion under CPLR § 3211(a)(7) arguing , among other things, that the law firm was retained solely to file a patent application – not to investigate whether the information provided to it by its client was not false. Justice Borrok concluded that “[a]lthough an attorney is responsible for investigating and preparing a client’s case, the attorney ‘should not be held liable for ignorance of facts which the client neglected to tell him or her.'”  To that end, the Court determined that “Plaintiff’s claim is doomed by the fact that the claim is premised on false information which the Defendant’s lawyers were allowed to rely on and for which they were not hired to investigate (i.e. that the article had in face been published earlier).”  

The Second Department in Green v Conciatori similarly dismissed a legal malpractice claim against attorneys who represented plaintiff in a personal injury action.  In Green,  plaintiff alleged that his lawyers were negligent in failing to discover certain facts about the plaintiff’s accident, which differed from the facts disclosed to them by their client, i.e., the plaintiff.  The Second Department held that “[w]hile an attorney has a responsibility to investigate and prepare every phase of a client’s case, an attorney should not be held liable for ignorance of facts which the client neglected to tell him or her.” In Green, the court further determined that plaintiff did not show that counsel “failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge possessed by a member of the legal profession” in relying on the information provided by the client.

The Third Department in Parksville Mobile Modular, Inc. v Fabricant  also determined that although an attorney “has the responsibility to ‘investigate and prepare every phase’ of his client’s case,” “an attorney should not be held liable for his ignorance of facts which his client neglected to tell him” (73 AD2d 595, 598 [3d Dept 1979] [holding that the fact that the attorney did not develop as full record as was developed following a trial cannot be grounds for a legal malpractice claim]). In Thompson v Seligman, however, the Third Department denied defendant law firm’s motion for summary judgment on a legal malpractice claim where the plaintiff was under a mistaken belief as to an important fact regarding its worker’s compensation claim, and the attorney failed to review the record evidence, which would have shown plaintiff’s mistaken belief (Thompson vSeligman, 53 A.D.3d 1019 [3d Dept 2008]).  There, the court stated that the question becomes “whether, in the performance of that duty [to investigate and prepare for his client’s case], defendants “ ‘exercise[d] that degree of care, skill, and diligence commonly possessed and exercised by a member of the legal community’ ” (see id.).

Takeaway: 

Can you safely rely on facts provided to you by your clients? It depends.  The Commercial Division says: yes, you can and a client’s failure to provide his or her counsel with correct information is not a basis for a legal malpractice claim. However, the steps one takes to investigate will always, of course, be judged by whether they were consistent with the  care and diligence exercised by others in the field.