Attorneys’ Liability for Fraud & Intentional Torts
In addition to legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and contract-related legal claims, attorneys may also be held liable for intentional torts committed in the course of law practice (and otherwise).
WHAT IS A TORT?
A “tort” is a “civil wrong” — meaning an action which the law prohibits but which is actionable in civil court, rather than in a criminal case. Many torts are also crimes, but the tortious nature of the conduct is addressed in a civil court lawsuit, while a prosecutor may (or may not) elect to file criminal charges for the criminal aspects of the conduct. Torts are essentially the civil court “equivalent” of crimes, and though separate statutes (and courts) address each aspect of the conduct, plaintiffs should realize that criminal conduct often has a civil (tort law) counterpart, allowing them to sue and recover damages for wrongful conduct.
“Tortious” conduct is an activity (or, sometimes, an omission) which violates the law of torts and causes damage, thereby entitling the injured party to bring a lawsuit against the wrongdoer (also referred to as the “tortfeasor”).
ATTORNEY FRAUD IS AN ACTIONABLE TORT
Attorneys who intentionally commit fraud (or material misrepresentations) to clients or other third parties in the course of their legal practice may be held legally liable for damages to the injured person(s). Non-client plaintiffs may sue an attorney for fraud if the lawyer clearly intended to deceive them (assuming all of the elements of fraud or material misrepresentation exist and can be proven to the requisite legal standards).
The elements of a cause of action for fraud against an attorney are essentially the same as any other fraud case. The elements are:
1. A material misrepresentation of fact or law (provided that the misrepresentation of law generally must also implicate or include a misrepresentation of fact).
2. The misrepresentation must be made with knowledge that it is false.
3. The misrepresentation must be made with intent to defraud or deceive the listener or recipient.
4. The listener or recipient must justifiably rely on the misrepresentation. “Justifiable” reliance means reasonable reliance. (Note: a lawyer telling a client that criminal conduct, which the client knows to be criminal, is not criminal, may not create a situation where the reliance is reasonable or justifiable.)
5. The person to whom the misrepresentation was made, and who justifiably relied upon it, suffers damages as a result.
California also recognizes other types of fraud, including:
— Fraud to induce a contract
— False promises
— Fraudulent concealment (of material information)
— Negligent misrepresentation
If you believe that you are a victim of attorney fraud, seek legal advice without delay. Most fraud claims against attorneys are governed by a three year statute of limitations, but any delay may compromise your legal rights.
Fraud claims are fact-specific and can be highly technical. Seek experienced legal counsel immediately if you believe you have a claim.
Disclaimer: Like legal malpractice, fraud is a complicated topic, and articles like this touch only on basic issues. The details of a legal claim for fraud are individualized, highly fact-specific, and complicated. THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE. Your rights and experiences may vary.
Never use an article (or any online source) to evaluate your legal claims. Always speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel.