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There are three elements to a legal malpractice claim: (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship, (2) negligent representation by the attorney, and (3) loss to the client caused by that negligence. The existence of an attorney-client relationship turns largely on the client's subjective belief that it exists. The absence of a signed employment agreement, alone, is insufficient to defeat a claim that the relationship exists.
Mr. Francois allegedly sustained personal injury and property damage as a result of an automobile accident which occurred on March 29, 1989. He retained an attorney, who filed a petition for damages on his behalf on March 29, 1990. (Apparently, other than the original petition, no action was taken on Francois' behalf in furtherance of that action.) Approximately five years later, in February, 1995, Francois contacted the defendant, Cynthia Reed, a personal friend of his, and asked her to find out for him the current status of the lawsuit which had been filed on his behalf by another attorney. Ms. Reed agreed to make the inquiry. On February 6, 1995, she sent a letter to LIGA stating that she was representing Francois and asked LIGA to send the status of Francois' personal injury lawsuit as well as advise her if that action was still pending. By way of letter dated April 27, 1995, LIGA informed Ms. Reed that Francois' personal injury action had been deemed abandoned (based on the absence of any act in furtherance of the lawsuit over a period of five years). Ms. Reed then contacted Francois and informed him that LIGA considered his claim abandoned.
Approximately one year later, the legal malpractice action at issue herein was filed by Francois, naming as defendants Cynthia Reed, individually, her law corporation, the principals in that corporation, as well as the law firm of Nunnery, Reed and Associates, and the principals in that law firm as well. Francois' petition alleges that he retained the defendants to represent him in the prosecution of the personal injury suit which had been filed by other counsel and that defendants had failed to take any action in furtherance of that lawsuit causing it to be deemed abandoned. The defendants responded to the suit with peremptory exceptions raising the objections of no cause of action and nonjoinder of an indispensable party and a motion for summary judgment. Without stating reasons, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment; implicit in this decision is the finding that no attorney-client relationship was established between the plaintiff and the defendants.
Did the trial court err in granting the motion for summary judgment in favor of defendants?
In support of his claim, Francois relies on a copy of a letter written on February 6, 1995, by Cynthia Reed to Charlotte Celestin at LIGA, which was attached to and identified as Exhibit A to his petition. This letter references a claim number, the claimant (Mark Francois) and the date of the automobile accident. The letter states as follows: “This letter is to advise you that I represent the above named claimant in connection with his claim for damages as a result of personal injuries that he sustained due to an accident that occurred on March 29, 1989. (Emphasis supplied.) x x x” Francois also presented evidence that on or about March 14, 1995, he hand-delivered his legal file (which he had obtained from the previous attorney) to the mailbox at Cynthia Reed's law firm; later that day, he telephoned the law office and instructed Ms. Reed's secretary to retrieve his file from the mailbox and give it to Ms. Reed. In light of the foregoing, the court finds, very clearly, the existence of a genuine issue regarding material facts in this matter. Ms. Reed's language in her own letter defies her denial of having been retained to represent Francois. The letter, written on Ms. Reed's professional letterhead reads, "I represent the above named claimant …," and is signed by Ms. Reed. It does not indicate that the request is being made as a personal favor or even that she is inquiring on behalf of a friend; rather it very clearly indicates, at least to LIGA, her legal representation of the claimant (Francois) and asks that a response be made to her, at her office. Furthermore, the record supports Francois' claim that he subjectively believed that Ms. Reed had agreed to represent him. After his initial conversation with Ms. Reed, he obtained a copy of his legal file from his previous attorney and hand-delivered it to Ms. Reed's office.