Suing someone else’s attorney for legal malpractice: what’s aggrievement got to do with it?

I recently read an interesting case that applied the concept of “aggrievement” to a legal malpractice matter. It was interesting because “aggrievement” primarily is mentioned in cases having to do with challenges to administrative agency decision or governmental actions. 

What is aggrievement? It is a legal term that basically means that you have a right to bring a claim for a particular issue. It is usually brought up  in the context of challenging administrative agencies, and it is not generally used in legal malpractice cases.

Sometimes standing can be established by statute where a law specifically gives a certain group of people a right to bring a lawsuit. Not surprisingly that is known as statutory aggrievement, that is, your right to sue is established by law. For example, there may be a statute giving schools a right to challenge the installation of power lines within a certain distance of the school. Others not mentioned in the statute would not have that right.

In New York, there actually is a statute related to attorneys that gives parties to litigation the right to sue an attorney who deceives the court, even if the attorney is not your attorney. (Judiciary Law §487). In essence, someone suing under that statute would be claiming statutory aggrievement (although you would not normally use the term “aggrievement” to describe the situation).  See blog post here.

 As I have also previously written here, Connecticut does not have an equivalent statute and in fact does not permit the bringing of a lawsuit against an attorney who did not represent you for deceptive acts in court.

But there is another way to create standing through something called “classical aggrievement”. You don’t need a particular law to have a right to sue but you do need to prove two things: first, “the party claiming aggrievement must successfully demonstrate a specific personal and legal interest in the subject matter of the decision, as distinguished from a general interest, such as is the concern of all the members of the community as a whole. Second, the party claiming aggrievement must successfully establish that the specific personal and legal interest has been specially and injuriously affected by the decision.

In other words, you have to prove that the decision impacts you personally or legally, and you also have to show that the decision of the organization or governmental body that you are challenging has the potential of causing you this direct harm. For example, if your local zoning board permitted a law office to be constructed next your business and you don’t particularly like lawyers, you probably won’t be considered aggrieved. On the other hand, if the administrative agency overseeing power companies permitted the construction of additional poles and lines on your property, requiring the clearing of income producing trees, you probably would have aggrievement.

The other thing to keep in mind about aggrievement is that the issue is usually brought up at the very beginning stage of litigation. At that point you purportedly only have to show that there is “a possibility, as distinguished from a certainty, that some legally protected interest… has been adversely affected.”  For example in one case aggrievement was found because there was the possibility that a particular decision would increase traffic in front of someone’s house. On the other hand, there are other cases that courts seem to bend over backwards to ignore what most people would consider actual injuries so that the court can dismiss the case for lack of standing.

However, in legal malpractice cases, “As a general rule, attorneys are not liable to persons other than their clients for the negligent rendering of services.” That means you generally can’t sue attorneys who did not represent you. Sometimes you might have a claim against an attorney who did not represent “if the primary or direct purpose of the transaction was to benefit” you. That is where the issue of aggrievement might be applied in a legal malpractice or breach of fiduciary claim.

For example, in one case, the Connecticut Supreme Court permitted someone to sue the attorney who drafted his mother’s will incorrectly. However, that has been interpreted very narrowly with few if any other exceptions.

One take away from this is that you cannot assume an attorney representing someone else is going to be looking out for your interests. You can’t necessarily assume that about your own attorney (which is partly what legal malpractice is about), but if your attorney does do something below the standard of care and causes you financial harm, you may have an avenue of redress through a legal malpractice claim.

It is important to be aware of this issue because there may be times an attorney representing someone else is actually doing something that will impact you. For example, you might be investing in a business and rely on the other attorney’ s opinion, or you might be the beneficiary of the trust. You probably won’t have standing (aggrievement) to sue. However, there may be other claims where you might be able to establish standing (for example, negligent misrepresentation, or fraud).

Of course, like most areas of law, is very dependent on the facts of your case, in which jurisdiction you are in, which is why you should seek the advice of an attorney in your jurisdiction regarding your case.

Howard Altschuler

 (Click here for a brief summary of my other blog posts on various legal malpractice related issues)

(Disclaimer: Please note that nothing in this blog or website is legal advice, and this post does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult with an attorney for any legal malpractice issues, fee dispute, or ethical concerns that you may have. Thanks!)

Copyright (c) 2014 by Howard Altschuler, All Rights Reserved