When is a Lawyer Liable for Breach of Fiduciary Duty to a Client?
IS BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY THE SAME AS LEGAL MALPRACTICE?
Breach of fiduciary duty is not the same as legal malpractice or professional negligence. While both are legally recognized wrongs that fall within the scope of tort law, breach of fiduciary duty is a separate tort, with separate remedies, than those available for professional negligence.
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF A CLAIM FOR BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY?
In order to prove that an attorney has breached a fiduciary duty owed to his or her client, the plaintiff client must prove:
1. The attorney had a legally-recognized fiduciary duty to the client;
2. The attorney breached (violated) that duty;
3. The client suffered legally recognized damages; and
4. The attorney’s breach of duty was the legally-recognized cause of the client’s damages.
WHAT FIDUCIARY DUTIES DOES A LAWYER OWE TO A CLIENT?
Fiduciary duties to clients are established by law, under the California Rules of Professional Conduct and the general California (and, if applicable, federal) statutes governing the creation and scope of fiduciary relationships.
Some of the duties owed to clients which may (in proper circumstances) give rise to fiduciary duties on the part of the lawyer include:
1. The duty of loyalty to the client.
2. The duty to charge reasonable, fair, and conscionable fees.
3. The duty to charge clients only for services actually rendered or work actually performed.
4. Situations where the attorney handles or escrows a client’s money or certain types of legal documents.
5. Any other situation where a legally-recognized fiduciary relationship is created.
If you believe an attorney owes (or owed) you a fiduciary duty, and breached that duty, consult an experienced lawyer promptly for an evaluation of your legal rights.
HOW CAN A CLIENT TELL IF A LAWYER HAS BREACHED A FIDUCIARY DUTY?
Breach of a fiduciary duty is normally evaluated as a question of fact–meaning the analysis (and ultimate legal decision) will depend on the facts and circumstances of each situation. Proving breach of a fiduciary duty may require expert testimony (but experts are not necessarily required in all cases).
Cases involving a lawyer’s actual or alleged breach of a fiduciary duty to a client are generally governed by the same statute of limitations that applies to legal malpractice. This means you must not delay in seeking advice or filing a legal action against an attorney if you have a claim. Delay can cost you the right to recover, even if you have an otherwise valid legal claim.
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. 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. Legal claims against lawyers or other third parties are a complicated topic. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who failed to provide you with competent representation, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.