Pa. Supreme Court to Reconsider Validity of Legal Malpractice Claims Based on Settlement Advice

In 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created a bright-line rule barring certain types of legal malpractice claims. Specifically, if a client settled a lawsuit but ultimately was unhappy with the settlement, the client could only sue her lawyers for legal malpractice if the lawyers fraudulently induced her to settle. See Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod, & Gutnick, 587 A.2d 1346, 1358 (Pa. 1991). In such situations, claims based on negligence or breach of contract would not be cognizable. Id.

This bright-line rule has slowly eroded over the years. In Collas v. Garnick, 624 A.2d 117 (Pa. Super. 1993), for example, the Superior Court held that Muhammad did not bar claims based on inaccurate legal advice related to a settlement agreement. In that case, a lawyer advised that certain language in a settlement agreement would not affect the client’s ability to sue other potentially liable parties, but that advice turned out to be wrong. Id. at 119. After the plaintiff’s second lawsuit was dismissed based on the release she signed when settling the first lawsuit, the plaintiff sued her lawyer. Id. The trial court held that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by Muhammad, but the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court noted that Muhammad dealt with clients who were dissatisfied with the amount of the settlement, whereas the clients in Collas were complaining that they were misinformed as to the effect of the settlement. Id. at 121. The Superior Court held that, in such circumstances, lawyers could be liable for malpractice if they failed to exercise the necessary degree of care. Id.

The Superior Court has since clarified when Muhammad bars legal malpractice claims arising from a settlement agreement and when it does not:

[If] a dissatisfied litigant merely wishes to second guess his or her decision to settle due to speculation that he or she may have been able to secure a larger amount of money, i.e.[,] “get a better deal[,]” the Muhammad rule applies so as to bar that litigant from suing his counsel for negligence. If, however, a settlement agreement is legally deficient or if an attorney fails to explain the effect of a legal document, the client may seek redress from counsel by filing a malpractice action sounding in negligence.

Banks v. Jerome Taylor & Assocs., 700 A.2d 1329, 1332 (Pa. Super. 1997).

The Supreme Court will now consider doing away with Muhammad altogether as part of its review of the Superior Court’s decision in Khalil v. Williams, 244 A.3d 830 (Pa. Super. 2021), allocatur granted 53 EAL 2021 (Pa. Aug. 3, 2021). In Khalil, the plaintiff claimed that she only signed the settlement agreement in question after asking her lawyers to add language making clear that her claims in a related lawsuit would not be affected. Khalil, 244 A.3d at 840-41. After the plaintiff signed the revised release, her counsel allegedly doctored the signed release to remove any limiting language. Id. Her claims thus sounded in fraud and were not barred by Muhammad. Id. Yet, the plaintiff also alleged legal malpractice claims based on negligence and breach of contract. While the plaintiff claimed on appeal that she pleaded facts alleging that her counsel gave incorrect advice about the legal effect of the settlement agreement in the alternative, the Superior Court disagreed. Id. The Superior Court found that the only allegations in the complaint supported the fraud claim, not any claims sounding in negligence or breach of contract. Id. at 841. The Superior Court thus affirmed the dismissal of those claims.

The Supreme Court has now agreed to consider two issues on appeal—whether the plaintiff sufficiently pleaded negligence or breach of contract and, if so, whether Muhammad continues to be valid. Depending on the Court’s outcome and reasoning, Khalil could prove to be very important for understanding both the pleading rules for legal malpractice claims in Pennsylvania, as well as the potential liability for lawyers when advising their clients to accept a settlement offer.

Henry Schein, Inc., II: Post-Argument Analysis

The Supreme Court heard argument in the second iteration of Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., Case No. 19-963, (Henry Schein II) on December 8, 2020, which was broadcast live on CSPAN and is available here.  During the course of the argument and questioning, the Court made clear that it was only considering a narrow question:  Assume that the contract generally says that an arbitrator decides if a particular dispute must be arbitrated, rather than be litigated in a court. Also assume that the contract says claims for injunctive relief are not subject to arbitration. The parties to the contract have a dispute, and they disagree on whether the dispute seeks injunctive relief. Who decides this threshold dispute—an arbitrator or a court? (For more background on this case, see our pre-argument discussion on the issues presented.)

The question presented to the Court in Henry Schein II seems to be one of pure contract interpretation, which makes it an odd choice for the Court to hear. The Court is ostensibly deciding whether the carve-out for injunctive relief claims in this contract limits just the scope of arbitration or also limits the scope of the contract’s delegation to the arbitrator to decide the threshold issues of arbitrability. Yet, the oral argument revealed a few themes that indicate some of the broader implications of this litigation.

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Arbitrability Returns to the Supreme Court in Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., the Sequel

Arbitrability—or who decides what claims are subject to arbitration—is returning to the Supreme Court next week for the second time in as many years.  The first time the matter reached the Court, the Supreme Court  unanimously held that, where a contract clearly and unmistakably delegates questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator, a court cannot decide the issue in the first instance, even if the court thinks the argument for arbitration is “wholly groundless.”  Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019).

The issue has now returned to the Supreme Court following remand and a new decision by the Fifth Circuit.  Archer & White Sales, Inc. v. Henry Schein, Inc., 935 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 2019).  On December 8, 2020, the Court will hear the case again, this time to decide “[w]hether a provision in an arbitration agreement that exempts certain claims from arbitration negates an otherwise clear and unmistakable delegation of questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator.”

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District Courts Can Extend Time to File Notices of Appeal Beyond Time Allowed in the Federal Rules

The Supreme Court issued its first opinion of the October 2017 sitting, Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, No. 16-658, 2017 WL 5160782 (Nov. 8, 2017), early last month. We previously previewed this case when the Supreme Court first granted a writ of certiorari.[1] As expected, the Supreme Court clarified an important issue regarding time limits for filing notices of appeal in civil cases. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that district courts are allowed to extend the time for filing a notice of appeal beyond the thirty-day limit prescribed in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure because the deadline is only set by court rule, not statute, and thus is not jurisdictional.

The Supreme Court used Hamer to resolve a circuit split over whether Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C) is jurisdictional or whether it is a mandatory claim-processing rule. Jurisdictional time limits “deprive[] a court of adjudicatory authority over the case, necessitating dismissal—a ‘drastic’ result.” Hamer, slip op. at 2 (citing Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 435 (2011)). These time limits are “not subject to waiver or forfeiture and may be raised at any time in the court of first instance and on direct appeal.” Id. at 2-3 (footnote omitted) (citing Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455 (2004)). Indeed, courts are independently obligated to consider jurisdictional timeliness rules, even when not raised by either party. Id. at 3 (citing Shinseki, 562 U.S. at 434). Mandatory claim-processing rules, by contrast, can be waived or forfeited if a party fails to object to an untimely filing. Id. However, “[i]f properly invoked, mandatory claim-processing rules must be enforced.” Id. (citing Manrique v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1266, 1271-72 (2017)). Continue reading “District Courts Can Extend Time to File Notices of Appeal Beyond Time Allowed in the Federal Rules”