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04/05/90 JAMES LEWIS BROWN v. DONALD WHEELER JONZ

COURT OF APPEALS OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


April 5, 1990

JAMES LEWIS BROWN, JR., APPELLANT
v.
DONALD WHEELER JONZ, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Margaret A. Haywood, Trial Judge

Before Newman, Belson, and Steadman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Belson

BELSON, Associate Judge: James Lewis Brown brought an action against Donald Wheeler Jonz for legal malpractice allegedly committed during the course of Jonz's unsuccessful representation of Brown in a criminal matter. The trial court granted Jonz's motion for dismissal on the basis that the statute of limitations on the claim had expired. *fn1 Because the statute of limitations governing Brown's claim for legal malpractice was tolled pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-302 (a)(3) (1989 Repl.) due to his imprisonment at the time his cause of action accrued, the trial court erred in dismissing Brown's claim. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this matter to the trial court.

I.

On December 20, 1983, the Superior Court entered an order adjudicating appellant guilty of robbery and sentencing him to a lengthy term of imprisonment. On May 25, 1988, Brown filed a pro se complaint alleging contractual and constitutional claims against Jonz asserting, inter alia, that Jonz, his attorney in the criminal proceeding, had prejudiced Brown's defense by failing to investigate fully his alibi defense, interview alibi witnesses, conduct proper discovery, and have a bullet analyzed in a crime laboratory and introduced at trial to corroborate his alibi. Brown asserts that he was in the emergency room of a hospital being treated for an accidental self-inflicted gunshot injury during the time of the robbery of which he was convicted, but that Jonz failed to interview many witnesses, including hospital personnel, who could have confirmed this.

Jonz filed a motion to dismiss Brown's complaint on the ground that the three-year statute of limitations for breach of contract actions for professional services under D.C. Code § 12-301 (1989 Repl.) had run. The trial court granted the motion. This appeal followed.

II.

Brown argues that the trial court erroneously dismissed his complaint because the statute of limitations on Brown's claim for legal malpractice was tolled until the time Brown filed his complaint pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-302 (a)(3) (1989 Repl.). *fn2 While the record on appeal is sparse, Jonz conceded at oral argument that Brown was imprisoned during his criminal trial, and that the imprisonment continued from the time of his conviction on July 20, 1983, through his sentencing on December 20, 1983, *fn3 It appears that Brown was returned to confinement upon being sentenced and remained in prison at least until he filed suit against Jonz. *fn4 Accordingly, the record shows that Brown was disabled due to his imprisonment *fn5 under D.C. Code § 12-302(a)(3) at all times that his cause of action for legal malpractice against Jonz could have accrued.

A cause of action for legal malpractice normally accrues on the date the client suffers actual injury. Weisberg v. Williams, Connolly & Califano, 390 A.2d 992, 994 (D.C. 1978). See also Fort Myers Seafood Packers, Inc. v. Steptoe and Johnson, 127 U.S. App. D.C. 93, 94, 381 F.2d 261, 262 (1967), cert. denied, 390 U.S. 946, 19 L. Ed. 2d 1135, 88 S. Ct. 1033 (1968). Therefore, a cause of action for malpractice in a criminal proceeding ordinarily would accrue upon the date of judgment when sentence is imposed, although there may be circumstances when it would accrue sooner. In a case similar to the one at bar, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that a person's cause of action for malpractice against his criminal defense counsel accrued no later than on the date he was "sentenced to prison and immediately incarcerated." Hunt v. Bittman, 482 F. Supp. 1017, 1022 (D.D.C.), aff'd, 209 U.S. App. D.C. 203, 652 F.2d 196 (1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 860, 70 L. Ed. 2d 158, 102 S. Ct. 315 (1981). Because Brown's conviction was not final until the day he was sentenced, see West v. United States, 346 A.2d 504, 505 (D.C. 1975), it is unlikely that he suffered any actual injury until that day. Under the circumstances of this case, the earliest possible time Brown's cause of action could have accrued would have been at the time of his conviction. Because this record clearly demonstrates that Brown was imprisoned at all relevant times, his cause of action for legal malpractice was tolled until he filed his pro se complaint in May 1988.

It follows then that the three-year statute of limitations *fn6 applicable to Brown's claim for legal malpractice against Jonz was tolled until the time Brown filed his law suit. Accordingly, the trial court's decision dismissing Brown's complaint must be reversed and this case remanded to the trial court for the reinstatement of Brown's complaint. *fn7

It is so ordered.


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