Virus May Derail Trial On Buchanan Ingersoll's $1M Fee Claim

By Nathan Hale
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Law360 (May 21, 2020, 7:26 PM EDT) -- A Florida state judge set the stage Thursday for a trial on Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC's counterclaim for $1.3 million in unpaid attorney fees in a legal malpractice suit, but fallout from the coronavirus pandemic might steer the firm down a different path.

Ruling during a videoconference hearing Thursday, Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman denied the firm's motion for summary judgment on its counterclaims against Miami developer Avra Jain, who alleged the firm's mishandled defense in a lawsuit against her resulted in an $11 million judgment in favor of a former business partner.

But the judge — who previously rejected Jain's malpractice claims — threw a wrench into the case, telling the parties that the delay before the court reopens and summons potential jurors would require him to reconsider his earlier decision that Jain could not make what was, at the time, a last-minute amendment to her complaint.

Buchanan Ingersoll has until 5 p.m. Monday to decide whether it wants to proceed to trial and risk having to face a new claim from Jain or drop its counterclaims, in which case Judge Hanzman said he would enter a final judgment.

"If [the firm] really wants that finality, then speak with the client and decide on whether it wants to dismiss these counterclaims without prejudice [to refile] if, and only if, the plaintiff is successful on an expected appeal," the judge told defense counsel James N. Robinson of White & Case LLP.

Judge Hanzman noted that the timing was not the only reason he had denied Jain's request to add a claim that the firm gave her bad advice regarding the merits of the underlying case.

"That's something she could have pled from the very outset of this case three years ago," he said, adding that he was aware that Buchanan Ingersoll has likely already spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars defending itself and would likely be prejudiced if he allowed Jain to "mend her hole and start over with a new theory."

Buchanan Ingersoll declined to comment following the hearing. Jain's counsel Bruce Rogow also declined to comment and said things must be taken one step at a time when asked if they intend to appeal in the event the firm opts to end the case.

Jain sued Buchanan Ingersoll and partner Richard A. Morgan over its representation of her in a case brought by Abraham Cohen, a former business partner who claimed she failed to pay $4.5 million to complete a buyout of his interest in a Miami-area development project.

Jain, who levied several allegations of legal malpractice against Buchanan Ingersoll and Morgan, was seeking to the recover the $11 million in damages, interest and attorney fees she was ordered to pay Cohen.

Judge Hanzman slammed Jain's suit in a March order in which he rejected Jain's remaining argument that she would have prevailed in Cohen's case if her counsel at Buchanan Ingersoll had sought a verdict over Cohen's failure to put into evidence or reestablish the original promissory note that formed the basis for his claim on the debt she had admittedly guaranteed.

"[T]his bankrupt legal malpractice claim is nothing more than a misguided and desperate attempt to shift Jain's adjudicated contractual liability onto her former counsel," Judge Hanzman said in the order. "But like most 'Hail Mary's,' this throw falls far short of the end zone."

Judge Hanzman did rule in Jain's favor on one issue Thursday. Reconsidering another of his earlier rulings in the case, he granted Jain summary judgment on one of Buchanan Ingersoll's three counterclaims, finding that a retainer agreement the firm presented in support of its claim for breach of express written contract is clear and ambiguous but relates to a different matter in which it represented her.

That ruling left intact Buchanan Ingersoll's counterclaims for accounts stated and quantum meruit, a legal concept that calls for damages to be awarded based on a reasonable amount for the services rendered.

Robinson argued that Jain's "failure to object to the [firm's] invoices in real time as they came in is fatal" to her ability to contest her liability to pay them or their reasonableness, aside from proving fraud, mistake or error, which has not been claimed.

"You don't let people do $1.2 million worth of work before objecting," Robinson said, referencing the portion the firm billed for post-trial work.

But Judge Hanzman said it seemed to be imposing an "impractical and possibly impossible" burden on a client — even one as sophisticated as Jain — to make such periodic objections of legal work.

"I'm not sure the accounts stated paradigm fits the attorney-client relationship at all," he said.

Jain is represented by Bruce Alan Weil and Steven W. Davis of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and Bruce S. Rogow and Tara A. Campion of Bruce S. Rogow PA.

Buchanan Ingersoll is represented by James N. Robinson and Zachary B. Dickens of White & Case LLP.

The case is Jain v. Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC et al., case number 2017-26857-CA-01, in the Circuit Court for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida.

--Editing by Haylee Pearl.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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