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Law School Case Brief

Ziegelheim v. Apollo - 128 N.J. 250, 607 A.2d 1298 (1992)

Rule:

Like most professionals, lawyers owe a duty to their clients to provide their services with reasonable knowledge, skill, and diligence. Lawyers' duties in specific cases vary with the circumstances presented. What constitutes a reasonable degree of care is not to be considered in a vacuum but with reference to the type of service the attorney undertakes to perform. The lawyer must take any steps necessary in the proper handling of the case. Those steps will include, among other things, a careful investigation of the facts of the matter, the formulation of a legal strategy, the filing of appropriate papers, and the maintenance of communication with the client. 

Facts:

Plaintiff client brought a malpractice action against defendant attorney, claiming that her attorney had been negligent in handling her divorce. Upon the attorney's motion, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the attorney on all of plaintiff's malpractice claims except the claim that defendant was negligent in handling her case because he convinced her to accept a settlement agreement. The Superior Court, Appellate Division (New Jersey) affirmed the judgment as to all the claims. Both parties sought further review.

Issue:

Did the trial court err when it dismissed plaintiff’s malpractice claims on summary judgment?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The court affirmed in part and reversed in part. With regard to plaintiff's claim that defendant negligently advised her with respect to her chances of winning a greater proportion of the marital estate if she proceeded to trial, the court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact where, for summary judgment purposes, defendant admitted to advising plaintiff that she had little chance of winning a greater proportion at trial. Plaintiff's other claims, all relating to defendant's negligent handling of her case, also presented genuine issues of material fact and should not have been dismissed on summary judgment. The family court's determination that prohibited plaintiff from reopening her divorce case should not have barred plaintiff from litigating her claim.

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