NJ: Underlying criminal investigation
Facts: The client hired the lawyer to represent him in connection with a criminal investigation. The client subsequently files a legal malpractice claim against the lawyer, for his representation during that investigation. When the client brought that claim, New Jersey courts applied a six-year statute of limitations to all legal malpractice claims. The trial court found that the client’s claim was barred by the six-year statute of limitations. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s finding, but also asserted that an applicable two-year statute of limitation also barred the client’s claim. The Appellate Division reached this conclusion based on an earlier New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282 (1993), in which the Court held that the statute of limitations applicable to a particular claim depends on the nature of the complainant’s injury. Thus, the Appellate Division determined that where a client has alleged his defense attorney in a criminal prosecution case has committed legal malpractice, the nature of the injury is such that a shorter statute of limitations period applies than in other legal malpractice cases.
Issue: Where a client brings a legal malpractice claim allegedly committed by his defense attorney in the context of a criminal prosecution, should the court apply a two-year statute of limitation instead of the six-year statute of limitation traditionally applied to legal malpractice claims?
Ruling: No. In New Jersey, a six-year statute of limitations is applied to all legal malpractice claims.
Lesson: The court reasoned that the application of a six-year statute of limitations period to all legal malpractice cases has been an “uncontested principle in New Jersey decisional law” for over twenty-five years. The court recognized that there would be significant consequences resulting from a change to the statute of limitations period, considering the fact that the six-year period had been so widely accepted and that attorneys had come to rely on that statute of limitations in conducting themselves to avoid liability. Nevertheless, the court considers, for argument’s sake, whether a shorter statute of limitations might be more appropriate. Unlike the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court states that pursuant to Montell, if a shorter statute of limitations period is appropriate, it must be appropriate for all legal malpractice cases; the “nature of the injury” analysis pertains to the type of claim, not the particular injuries alleged in a specific case. Ultimately, the court determines that the “nature of the injury” in all legal malpractice cases is the breach of the attorney’s duty to his client, manifested in his negligent performance. As such, the traditional six-year statute of limitations continues to be the appropriate period for legal malpractice claims, since that period pertains to “actions involving tortious injury to the rights of another.”