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Scott v. Burgin

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

August 14, 2014

NIGEL L. SCOTT, et al., APPELLANTS,
v.
JANICE BURGIN, APPELLEE

Argued November 22, 2013

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAM-8295-09). (Hon. Gregory E. Jackson, Trial Judge).

Donald M. Temple for appellants.

Kenneth H. Rosenau, with whom Kimberly K. Fahrenholz was on the brief, for appellee.

Before GLICKMAN and FISHER, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Steadman, Senior Judge :

Appellants Nigel L. Scott and the Yallery and Scott Law Firm (collectively, " Scott" ) appeal from a jury malpractice award in favor of appellee Janice Burgin, who was not a client of the firm. We hold that, as a matter of law, appellants' duty of care did not extend to Burgin and, accordingly, reverse the judgment.

I. Factual Background

Kenneth Woodruff (" Woodruff" or the " decedent" ) was married to, but separated from, Patricia Woodruff when he met Burgin in 1983. He proposed to her in that year and again in 1996. In 1986 Burgin moved in with Woodruff, and they carried on a long-standing close relationship. In January 2006, Burgin had a meeting with Scott in which she asked if Scott would help Woodruff obtain a divorce. Scott's brief handwritten jottings from the meeting contain the notation " (Pension?)" . Scott told Burgin that he would help Woodruff obtain a divorce if Woodruff chose to retain him. Woodruff did not attend the meeting because he was in failing health with terminal bone cancer. In her complaint, Burgin asserts: " Woodruff wished to obtain a divorce so that he may

Page 565

marry Plaintiff. Although he had previously designated Plaintiff as the beneficiary of his federal benefits, he was aware that Plaintiff may not receive them unless their union was made official."

Woodruff did not meet with Scott until one year later in January 2007. Burgin escorted Woodruff to the meeting, and she filled out a divorce questionnaire on his behalf while Woodruff and Scott spoke alone. Shortly thereafter, Woodruff signed a retainer agreement for Scott's representation in his " Divorce Proceedings." Burgin later contacted Scott on six occasions to ask whether the complaint had been served on Patricia Woodruff. Scott did not serve Patricia Woodruff with the complaint until November 2007. Woodruff died in April 2008, and a divorce was never secured prior to his death.

Woodruff had been employed by the United States Postal Service. His retirement benefits were administered by the Civil Service Retirement System. On a " Designation of Beneficiary" form dated January 15, 2007, Woodruff designated Burgin as his beneficiary for any lump-sum payout of his retirement benefits, indicating that Burgin was his " fiancé e." [1] Woodruff also designated Burgin as his beneficiary for his Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance on a form dated December 21, 2007. After Woodruff's death, Burgin filed a claim with United States Office of Personnel Management (" OPM" ) for Woodruff's " survivor benefits." OPM denied Burgin's claim for survivor benefits on May 4, 2009, " based on evidence provided by another claimant showing that an earlier marriage between the claimant and the deceased was never terminated."

Burgin subsequently brought this suit against Scott for legal malpractice and the related breach of contract as a third-party beneficiary. The jury awarded her damages of $249,600, the amount she assertedly would have received had she been the survivor annuity beneficiary of his pension, plus $5,000 for malpractice damages and $275 in punitive damages. At this point, Scott no longer contests that Woodruff's divorce action was ...


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