Guyton v. Hunt, Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama, July 23, 2010.

Facts:  Guyton was convicted of sexually abusing a minor.  After his conviction, he retained Hunt to prepare and file a motion for new trial, and if that was denied, file an appeal.  Hunt’s motion for a new trial was denied, but he never advised Guyton or Guyton’s family members.  Shortly thereafter, Guyton filed an action against Hunt alleging fraud and legal malpractice, arguing that the delay in learning his motion had been denied caused a delay in filing his notice of appeal.  Guyton further argued that he incurred damages by paying another attorney to handle his appeal even though Hunt had already been paid to do so.  

The lower court dismissed the complaint against Hunt for failure to produce an expert report. Guyton appealed.

Issue:  

  1. Could Hunt pursue a fraud claim separate and apart from a legal malpractice claim against Guyton?
  2. Was Hunt’s negligence a blatant error, or was expert testimony necessary to establish a breach of the duty of care? 
  3. Was Hunt’s negligence the proximate cause of any damage sustained by Guyton? 

Ruling: 

Alabama’s Legal Services Liability Act provides, in pertinent part, as follows: 

(1) Legal service liability action. Any action against a legal service provider in which it is alleged that some injury or damage was caused in whole or in part by the legal service provider’s violation of the standard of care applicable to a legal service provider. A legal service liability action embraces all claims for injuries or damages or wrongful death whether in contract or in tort and whether based on an intentional or unintentional act or omission. A legal services liability action embraces any form of action in which a litigant may seek legal redress for a wrong or an injury and every legal theory of recovery, whether common law or statutory, available to a litigant in a court in the State of Alabama now or in the future.

Accordingly, Guyton’s claim for fraud was subsumed by his claim for legal malpractice.  

The Appellate Court, however, disagreed with the lower court and held that "failure to notify a client of a ruling on a motion in time for the client to timely file an appeal constitutes a breach of the standard of care that is so apparent that expert testimony is not required for a layperson to understand that breach."  Nevertheless, the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the malpractice action, since: 

Any delay, if indeed there was a delay, in filing Guyton’s notice of appeal that may have been caused by Hunt’s failure to "timely" notify Guyton of the denial of his postjudgment motion obviously did not preclude Guyton from timely filing his notice of appeal or prevent the Court of Criminal Appeals from considering his appeal. Guyton has not demonstrated that Hunt’s delay, if any, caused Guyton harm. Furthermore, we conclude that based upon the record before us, Guyton failed to demonstrate that the outcome of his criminal case, i.e., his conviction and sentence, would have been any different had Hunt notified him of the denial of his postjudgment motion.

Moreover, with regard to damages, the Appellate Court noted that there was no evidence "Guyton himself contributed to [attorneys’ fees].  Because Guyton did not pay any portion of the attorneys’ fees in the underlying criminal action, he cannot claim he was damaged as a result of any allegedly unnecessary payments incurred because of Hunt’s conduct."

Lesson:  In Alabama, multiple claims against a legal services provider will be subsumed under the "legal malpractice" umbrella.  Even where an attorney commits blatant negligence, the claim will be dismissed unless the former client is able to establish that he sustained damages as a result of the attorney’s errors and omissions.