Lawyers and Breach of Fiduciary Duty
In addition to malpractice (professional negligence) lawyers can be held liable to clients for “breach of fiduciary duty,” which is a separate (but often related) cause of action.
The elements of the action for breach of fiduciary duty are:
1. The lawyer must owe (or have owed) a fiduciary duty to the plaintiff.
2. The lawyer must have breached that duty.
3. The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the breach. (This requires proof of “proximate causation.”)
ATTORNEYS AND FIDUCIARY DUTY
Whether or not an attorney owes a client a fiduciary duty is considered a matter of law (which is decided by the court, not the jury). The court determines whether or not such a duty exists with reference to the governing rules — in California, that’s generally California’s Rules of Professional Conduct, applicable statutes, and “general principles” governing fiduciary relationships in this state.
The lawyer’s duty of loyalty to his or her clients can qualify as a fiduciary duty for this purpose. The obligation to charge only fair and reasonable fees can also constitute a fiduciary duty, in proper circumstances (for example, when the lawyer attempts to charge for work (s)he did not perform).
BREACH OF THE FIDUCIARY DUTY TO A CLIENT
Whether or not the lawyer breached the fiduciary duty is normally considered a question of fact (and thus, decided by the jury, if a jury is hearing the case–or by the judge in cases where there is no jury). Expert testimony is admissible to help establish breach (and is often a good idea, especially where the nature of the breach goes beyond what ordinary people might easily understand).
CAUSATION AND DAMAGES
The rules governing proof and the existence of causation and damages in a case for breach of fiduciary duty are substantially the same as those which govern attorney malpractice actions. For this reason, clients who believe an attorney may have breached his or her fiduciary duty should consult an experienced malpractice litigator without delay.
The statute of limitations which governs attorney malpractice also applies to actions for breach of fiduciary duty, so plaintiffs must not delay in seeking counsel and commencing an action against the attorney (if appropriate).
Disclaimer: Like legal malpractice, breach of a fiduciary duty is a complicated topic, and articles like this touch only on basic issues. The details of a legal claim for breach of fiduciary duty 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.