Walker v. Burnett,  241 Ga. App. 105,526 S.E.2d 109 (1999)

Underlying Action: Discrimination Action (Georgia)

Student Contributor: Candice L. Deaner

Facts:  Legal malpractice action against attorney who represented Plaintiff in federal employment discrimination action, in which summary judgment was entered in favor of Plaintiff’s employer. The Superior Court, granted summary judgment for Defendant attorney. Client appealed.

Issue: Whether an Attorney is permitted to pursue a claim of malicious prosecution against a former client who brought a legal malpractice case against them?

Ruling: The Court of Appeals held that client failed to present any evidence to raise jury issue on element of proximate causation.
1) Plaintiff failed to show that he would have prevailed in underlying racial discrimination action against his employer but for Defendant’s alleged negligence.
2) The order granting summary judgment for employer was based not on counsel’s legal representation or alleged lack thereof, but rather, on client’s failure to show that any discrimination had occurred.
3) Plaintiff failed to present any specific evidence to rebut Defendant attorney’s assertion that there was no deposition testimony that court could consider due to attorney’s failure to ensure that such depositions had been filed in record; plaintiff’s few references to allegedly favorable evidence were vague and unsupported by specific evidence in record.

Lesson: When clients sue their attorneys for legal malpractice, courts require them to prove that, but for their attorneys’ negligence, their claims would have been resolved more favorably. This standard has come to be known as the ‘case within a case.’ When a showing cannot be made that the client’s attorney ruined an otherwise successful claim, the courts will grant summary judgment on the issue of causation. If a Plaintiff had lost their case due to the merits (or lack thereof) of the cause of action and not due to the actions of the attorney, then a subsequent legal malpractice action will be dismissed. Only if the Plaintiff lost their case based on the attorney’s actions would the Plaintiff have been successful.