To grant summary judgment based on judgmental immunity, the alleged error must be one of professional judgment, and the attorney must have exercised reasonable care in making his or her judgment.
This case involves a legal malpractice claim brought by Biomet, a manufacturer of orthopedic devices, against Finnegan, a law firm, alleging that Finnegan failed to preserve a constitutional challenge to excessive punitive damages resulting in waiver of the issue. Biomet was sued by Dr. Raymond Tronzo for patent infringement, misuse of confidential information, and fraud. Following a jury verdict, the district court awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Finnegan handled Biomet’s appeal. The circuit court reversed and remanded the matter for recalculation of damages. On remand, the district court reduced both the compensatory and punitive damage awards. On appeal, the circuit court held that as punitive damages were not challenged in the initial appeal, the client waived its right to seek relief from the punitive damage award on remand. Therefore, it reinstated the punitive damage award. This suit followed. The instant court held the firm's decision not to challenge the punitive damage award as unconstitutional in the first appeal was a reasonable exercise of professional judgment, and thus was protected by the judgmental immunity doctrine, which the instant court adopted. The firm did not believe a constitutional challenge alleging excessive punitive damages was viable before the reduction in compensatory damages on remand; further, before the circuit court's ruling, the law was unsettled as to whether the constitutional challenge was waived if not raised in the initial appeal.
Under District of Columbia law, does legal malpractice exist when an attorney exercises reasonable care and skill expected of lawyers acting under similar circumstances?
The judgmental immunity doctrine provides that an informed professional judgment made with reasonable care and skill cannot be the basis of a legal malpractice claim. Central to the doctrine is the understanding that an attorney's judgmental immunity and an attorney's obligation to exercise reasonable care coexist such that an attorney's non-liability for strategic decisions is conditioned upon the attorney acting in good faith and upon an informed judgment after undertaking reasonable research of the relevant legal principles and facts of the given case. To hold that an attorney may not be held liable for the choice of trial tactics and the conduct of a case based on professional judgment is not to say that an attorney may not be held liable for any of his actions in relation to a trial. He is still bound to exercise a reasonable degree of skill and care in all of his professional undertakings. As a result, the judgmental immunity doctrine is nothing more than a recognition that if an attorney's actions could under no circumstances be held to be negligent, then a court may rule as a matter of law that there is no liability.In this case, the trial court set forth two basic grounds for its grant of summary judgment: (1) that the constitutional issue that the Federal Circuit deemed waived was not preserved in the post-trial motions, and Finnegan was not responsible for the post-trial motions, and (2) that Finnegan could not be held liable for malpractice based on its reasonable, tactical litigation decision involving an unsettled point of law. Because the instant court agreed with the trial court's conclusion that Finnegan made a reasonable, tactical litigation decision involving an unsettled point of law, the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Appellee was AFFIRMED.