UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
June 26, 2006
WARREN C. HAVENS, PLAINTIFF,
PATTON BOGGS LLP, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge
Warren C. Havens brings this action against Patton Boggs LLP and some of its named and unnamed employees, alleging that their representation of Havens in a civil action in this court, Lukas, Nace, Gutierrez & Sachs, Chartered v. Havens, Civ. No. 99-395 (D.D.C.) (Green, J.) ("the Lukas Nace litigation"), constituted breach of contract and legal malpractice. Contending that Havens's complaint is barred by the applicable statutes of limitations, defendants move for judgment on the pleadings [#8]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that the motion must be granted.
On February 17, 1999, Havens and Patton Boggs entered into a written retainer agreement, pursuant to which the firm agreed to represent Havens in his defense and countersuit in the Lukas Nace litigation. Havens alleges that, during the course of this litigation, defendants "made various mistakes, errors of judgment and/or failures to competently perform the services for which Plaintiff hired them" and "failed to keep Plaintiff reasonably informed about the progress of the litigation and/or concealed important developments and other matters in connection with their legal representation of Plaintiff." Compl. ¶ 11. As a "direct result," Havens replaced defendants with new counsel on May 8, 2000, in the midst of the litigation. Id. ¶ 12. Almost a year later, on March 28, 2001, Judge Green granted Lukas Nace's motion for partial summary judgment, dismissing two of Havens's three counterclaims. Thereafter, Havens entered into settlement discussions with Lukas Nace, eventually concluding-after a dispute about the settlement agreement's terms and a motion to enforce a handwritten draft of the agreement-with a court order on July 23, 2002, enforcing the settlement agreement. Havens asserts that, because of defendants' actions, he was forced to settled his claims for "vastly less than their actual value." Id. On July 22, 2005, he filed this case.
Defendants move for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12(c)) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,*fn1 arguing that Havens failed to bring his claims within the applicable three-year limitations period as required under D.C. Code § 12-301. The statute of limitations in the District of Columbia is three years both for breach of contract claims, D.C. Code § 12-301(7), and for professional negligence claims, id. § 12-301(8).*fn2 Because Havens filed his complaint on July 22, 2005, his claims are time-barred, absent tolling, if they accrued before July 22, 2002.
Defendants argue that Havens's complaint makes clear that his breach of contract claim accrued "on or before the date Plaintiff replaced Defendants with new counsel-May 8, 2000," Defs.' Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Defs.' Mot.") at 4, and that his legal malpractice claim accrued "not later than March 28, 2001," when "the District Court [in the Lukas Nace litigation] grant[ed] summary judgment against two of Plaintiff's three counterclaims." Id. at 6. Havens, by contrast, posits that his claims "did not accrue until-at the very earliest-July 23, 2002, when [the court in the Lukas Nace litigation] concluded that a handwritten agreement [settling that litigation] was not the product of mutual mistake and represented all material terms necessary for an enforceable agreement." Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 2. Alternatively, Havens argues that, even if his claims accrued before July 22, 2002, defendants "actively concealed their breach from him," thereby tolling the statute of limitations "until late in 2003," when "Havens discovered that defendants had 'covered-up' their breach of duty of care." Id. at 7--8. The court agrees with defendants.
A. Breach of Contract
For a breach of contract claim, the statute of limitations traditionally starts to run when the contract is breached. See Allison v. Howard Univ., 209 F. Supp. 2d 55, 59 (D.D.C. 2002); Ehrenhaft v. Malcolm Price, Inc., 483 A.2d 1192, 1198 (D.C. 1984) ("The contract is breached when the defective work is done and the statute of limitations begins to run from that time.") (alterations and internal quotations omitted). Here, Havens's complaint indicates that the "actions and inactions" constituting the alleged breach took place before he replaced defendants with substitute counsel in May 2000. See Compl. ¶ 21 ("Defendants breached the Agreement by failing [to] represent Plaintiff's interests in the Litigation competently"); id. ¶ 14 ("Defendants, while acting as Plaintiff's attorneys in connection with the Litigation, breached the standard of care applicable to attorneys in the relevant community") (emphasis added). Furthermore, by replacing defendants with new counsel, Havens terminated his contractual relationship with Patton Boggs, thereby making it impossible for defendants' alleged breach to have occurred any later than May 2000.
Havens asserts that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until more than two years later. According to Havens, "[a] breach of contract claim cannot be maintained without damages" and that he did not suffer damages until the court enforced the written settlement agreement on July 23, 2002. Pl.'s Opp'n at 8--9. This argument mistakenly conflates the existence of damages with the ease with which they can be quantified. Even though the extent of Havens's damages may not have been clear until the settlement was enforced in 2002, his claim nonetheless accrued when defendants allegedly breached their contract. See 31 RICHARD A. LORD, WILLISTON ON CONTRACTS§ 79:14 (4th ed. 1990) ("[A] cause of action in contract accrues at the time of the breach . . . irrespective of any knowledge on the part of the plaintiff or of any actual injury occasioned to him or her."); cf. Knight v. Furlow, 553 A.2d 1232, 1236 (D.C. 1989) (stating, in a legal malpractice case, that "[t]he fact that not all of a client's damages are finally ascertainable . . . does not indicate that the client has not been injured earlier.").
Moreover, Havens's argument is belied by the allegations in his complaint, which state that defendants' asserted breach "effectively required [him] to obtain substitute counsel," Compl. ¶ 21, causing him "great expense and risk." Id. ¶ 12. Therefore, even assuming arguendo that Havens is correct in contending that his contract claim accrued not when the contract was breached, but rather when quantifiable damages could first be shown, the allegations in his complaint, which the court must assume to be true, demonstrate that he had sustained quantifiable damages by the time he obtained substitute counsel on May 8, 2000. Accordingly, Havens's claim for breach of contract accrued more than three years prior to his filing suit and is therefore barred by the applicable statute of limitations unless tolled by the doctrine of concealment, discussed below.*fn3
B. Legal Malpractice
As opposed to actions in contract, which accrue at the time of the wrongful act, actions in tort do not accrue until the plaintiff suffers injury. Ehrenhaft, 483 A.2d at 1199; see also Fort Meyers Seafood Packers, Inc. v. Steptoe & Johnson, 381 F.2d 261, 262 (D.C. Cir. 1967) (adopting the rule that a legal malpractice claim accrues when the injury occurs, not when the act that causes the injury takes place). Moreover, the injury suffered must be an "actualinjury" as opposed to "merely a speculative wrong." Wagner v. Sellinger, 847 A.2d 1151, 1155 (D.C. 2004) ("If there is no injury, even the strongest belief that the defendant has caused the plaintiff real harm will not transmute that belief into a reality for limitations purposes."). That said, "the plaintiff need not be fully informed about the injury for the statute of limitations to begin running; she need only have some knowledge of some injury." Id. at 1154 (emphasis in original).
In cases "where the relationship between the fact of injury and the alleged tortious conduct is obscure" at the time the injury occurs, a three-pronged "discovery rule" is applied to determine when the action accrues. Diamond v. Davis, 680 A.2d 364, 379 (D.C. 1996); Williams v. Mordkofsky, 901 F.2d 158, 162 (D.C. Cir. 1990). Under the discovery rule, a plaintiff's claim does not accrue, and the statute of limitations does not begin to run, until the plaintiff knows (or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should know) (1) of the injury, (2) its cause in fact and (3) of some evidence of wrongdoing. Bussineau v. President & Directors of Georgetown Coll., 518 A.2d 423, 425 (D.C. 1986).
Here, Havens's complaint makes clear that he was wronged by defendants, and that he knew of such wrongdoing, by May 8, 2000. Compl. ¶¶ 11--12 (stating that Havens "was forced to engage new counsel" "[a]s a direct result" of defendants' alleged malpractice) (emphasis added); see also id. ¶ 21 (stating that defendants "effectively required Plaintiff to obtain substitute counsel by their wrongful actions and inactions complained of herein") (emphasis added). While it is unclear whether Havens had suffered an "actual injury" by this date sufficient to begin the statute of limitations,*fn4 such actual injury definitely occurred by March 28, 2001, when Judge Green dismissed two of Havens's three counterclaims. There is no dispute that this ruling was adverse and reduced the value of Havens's claims. The fact that the extent of the injury may not have been precisely calculable at that point is immaterial, for "[a]ny appreciable and actual harm flowing from the attorney's negligent conduct establishes a cause of action upon which the client may sue." Knight, 553 A.2d at 1235 (internal quotation omitted); see also 3 RONALD E. MALLEN & JEFFREY M. SMITH, LEGAL MALPRACTICE, § 22.16, at 439--40 (2006 ed.) ("Damage exists, though the sum is neither precise nor substantial. Confusion arises where the plaintiff undertakes to avoid or mitigate damages . . . . Neither activity, however, otherwise alters the present discovery of the apparent wrong.").
Havens insists that "[a]ctual cognizable injury . . . did not come into existence until at the earliest July 23, 2002." Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. He claims that, prior to this date, he was not injured because he was "not sure whether a settlement existed or what the terms might be." Id. This argument is meritless, for relevant case law makes clear that a plaintiff suffers injury in a legal malpractice case well before she settles her claims for less than she would have absent her attorney's alleged negligence. See Weisberg v. Williams, Connolly & Califano, 390 A.2d 992, 995 (D.C. 1978) ("[T]he date on which appellants finally settled the case against the government for less than they would have absent appellees' alleged negligence in handling their case . . . was well beyond the point at which appellants suffered injury.").*fn5
Having established the existence of actual injury on March 28, 2001, when Judge Green dismissed two of Havens's counterclaims, it is clear that Havens knew, or through the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, of that injury, its cause, and some evidence of wrongdoing before July 22, 2002.*fn6 Therefore, the face of Havens's complaint, combined with facts in the public record, demonstrate that his legal malpractice claim is time barred unless the statute of limitations was tolled due to defendants' alleged concealment.
When a defendant fraudulently conceals the "existence of a cause of action," the statute of limitations is tolled. Diamond, 680 A.2d at 371--72; Weisberg, 390 A.2d at 995--96 (in a legal malpractice case, "[c]oncealment will exist if the attorney had knowingly made false representations; it is only then that his conduct, by way of estoppel or otherwise, will toll the running of the statute.").*fn7 Havens asserts that defendants' motion to dismiss must be denied because his complaint "specifically alleges" that defendants "actively concealed their breach from him by feeding him bad advice and making false representations," and that "[i]t was not until late in 2003 that Warren Havens discovered that defendants had 'covered-up' their breach of care." Pl.'s Opp'n at 7--8. According to Havens, this presents an issue of triable fact sufficient to overcome a Rule 12(c)) motion for judgment on the pleadings. This argument is unavailing for, as defendants note, it contradicts Havens's "own allegations in the Complaint." Defs.' Reply at 4 n.4.
As Havens's complaint explicitly states, he replaced defendants with substitute counsel on May 8, 2000, because he believed that they had represented him poorly. See Compl. ¶ 21 ("Defendants made various mistakes, errors of judgment and/or failures to competently perform the services for which Plaintiff hired them. They effectively required Plaintiff to obtain substitute counsel by their wrongful actions and inactions complained of herein"). Consequently, any alleged concealment on the part of Patton Boggs could not have extended beyond May 8, 2000. Because the alleged concealment ceased before the statute of limitations began to run, it has no effect on the statutory deadline applicable to Havens's complaint. Cf. Weisberg, 390 A.2d at 996 ("[A] fraudulent concealment tolls a statute of limitations only for so long as the concealment endures.").*fn8
For the aforementioned reasons, the court concludes that defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings must be granted. An appropriate order accompanies this memorandum opinion.