A fiduciary relationship exists between an attorney and his client as a matter of law. Once established, the attorney-client relationship gives rise to certain duties owed by the attorney to the client without regard to the specific terms of any contract of engagement. Among the fiduciary duties imposed upon an attorney are those of fidelity, honesty, and good faith in both the discharge of contractual obligations to, and professional dealings with, a client. When, in the course of his professional dealings with a client, an attorney places personal interests above the interests of the client, the attorney is in breach of his fiduciary duty by reason of the conflict. Breach of fiduciary duty by an attorney gives rise to an action on behalf of the client for proximately-resulting damages.
A client filed an action against her attorney. She alleged that her attorney coerced her into a sexual relationship during her divorce proceedings. The client sought pecuniary damages as well as additional damages for severe emotional distress. The client also sought sanctions against attorney. The court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim. The client appealed contending that the court erred when it dismissed her claim against her former attorney for breach of fiduciary duty.
Was the client able to state a claim?
The Court held that the client pled sufficient facts for a court to conclude that the attorney breached his fiduciary duty when he used his position and his knowledge of her dependence upon him to gain sexual favors. Attorney should have known that the client depended upon him and that his actions would have caused emotional distress. The case was remanded. Nevertheless, the Court held that the client was not entitled to pecuniary damages because the attorney released the judgment against client and she paid him no additional money. Thus, she did not suffer an economic loss. Moreover, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it declined to grant sanctions against attorney.