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In re Estate of Curseen


January 12, 2006


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA8174-04) (Hon. John M. Campbell, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Associate Judge

Argued December 6, 2005

Before: REID and FISHER, Associate Judges, and NEWMAN, Senior Judge.

Appellants, the estate of Joseph P. Curseen, Jr. ("estate") and Celestine Curseen, his widow, appeal from an order of the Superior Court dismissing, with prejudice,*fn1 their complaint alleging legal malpractice. The trial court granted a defense motion which asserted that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) (2005). We conclude that the complaint contains sufficient allegations to meet the fairly minimal pleading requirements of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 8 (a). Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Superior Court and remand the case for further proceedings.


Joseph Curseen was a postal employee at the Brentwood Mail Distribution Center in Washington, D.C. In October of 2001 a letter containing anthrax spores was sent to Senator Tom Daschle and passed through the Brentwood facility. Mr. Curseen was exposed to those anthrax spores, and he soon became ill and died. In separate litigation, appellants have alleged that his death was attributable to negligent medical care and an inadequate response by postal officials.

On October 30, 2001, appellees Buchanan Ingersoll, P.C., and Steven Hilton, Esquire, agreed to represent Mrs. Curseen and the estate pro bono. In pertinent part, the retainer agreement signed by the parties reads:

Buchanan will assist [Mrs. Curseen] generally in addressing legal issues that arise from the loss of [her] husband, Joseph Curseen, Jr. These issues include, but are not limited to, general legal advice, probate and estate matters, counseling, benefits analyses, management of monetary donations, and initial counseling regarding potential claims arising from the death of [her] husband.

Appellants later retained present counsel, who filed a medical malpractice complaint. That lawsuit has been removed to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, and a Fifth Amendment claim against the United States Postal Service is now pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. In addition, new counsel has filed the instant action in the Superior Court accusing former counsel of legal malpractice.


"Because a motion to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12 (b)(6) 'presents questions of law, our standard of review . . . is de novo.'" Fraser v. Gottfried, 636 A.2d 430, 432 n.5 (D.C. 1994) (quoting Johnson-El v. District of Columbia, 579 A.2d 163, 166 (D.C. 1990)). We apply the same standard as the trial court, meaning "we accept the allegations of the complaint as true, and construe all facts and inferences in favor of the plaintiff." Atkins v. Industrial Telecommunications Ass'n, 660 A.2d 885, 887 (D.C. 1995).

To prove legal malpractice, a plaintiff must show an applicable standard of care, prove a breach of that standard, and demonstrate a causal relationship between the violation and the harms enumerated in the complaint. O'Neil v. Bergan, 452 A.2d 337, 341 (D.C. 1982). In this case appellants' ability to prove causation and damage appears to depend (at least substantially) on the outcome of the other pending litigation mentioned above. If they fail to prevail on those claims, or if they are awarded smaller amounts of damages than desired, appellants likely will attribute these shortfalls to the alleged negligence of appellees, their former counsel.

Thus, appellants seem to make an anticipatory claim of legal malpractice.*fn2 One doubts that the appellants could, if called upon to do so today, prove any damage that has yet resulted from the alleged malpractice.*fn3 Nevertheless, appellants have specifically alleged causation and damages.*fn4 The filing of a motion pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) does not call upon the plaintiff to offer his proof. All that is required when we consider the sufficiency of the complaint is "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 8 (a)(2). Such a statement must simply "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). "Indeed it may appear on the face of the pleadings that a recovery is very remote and unlikely but that is not the test." Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). See also Sarete, Inc. v. 1344 U St. Ltd. P'ship, 871 A.2d 480, 497 (D.C. 2005) ("[A] complaint [should not] be dismissed under Rule 12 (b)(6) on the ground that no evidence has been offered by Plaintiffs since we take the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and the presentation of evidence to counter a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion is not required" (internal quotations, citation, and editing omitted)); Vincent v. Anderson, 621 A.2d 367, 372 (D.C. 1993) ("The Rule is designed to test solely the legal sufficiency of the complaint.").

The complaint satisfies the requirements of Rule 8 (a) because it gives the defendant law firm fair notice of the basis for this suit. The appellants clearly assert that appellees owed them a duty of care, they allege breaches of that duty, and they claim they have been injured as a result of those breaches.*fn5 If appellees wish to test the ability of appellants to prove what they have alleged, they must present a motion for summary judgment or proceed to trial.


Appellees obviously believe that, if called upon at this moment to do so, appellants would not be able to prove damages or the other elements of their claim. Nevertheless, overcoming a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion simply requires a sufficient pleading, not actual proof. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of dismissal and remand this case for further proceedings.

So ordered.

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