Wednesday, May 28, 2008
C.A. Upholds Dismissal of Suit Against Law Firm by Ex-Client
Prior Ruling on Attorneys’ Withdrawal Motion Given Collateral Estoppel Effect
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A prior decision to permit an attorney to withdraw from representing a client can be the basis of a collateral estoppel defense to the client’s subsequent suit charging that the attorney’s withdrawal breached their retainer agreement, this district’s Court of Appeal has held.
In affirming the dismissal of David Fink’s state law contract claim, Div. Three Friday concluded that a federal district judge’s ruling allowing his attorneys to withdraw because Fink’s conduct made it unreasonably difficult for them to continue to represent him effectively was the type of issue to which collateral estoppel can reasonably be applied.
Fink, a prison inmate, retained the law firm of Moreno, Becerra & Guerrero, Inc., and attorneys Danilo J. Becerra, Gregory W. Moreno, and Michael A. Guerrero to represent him in a claim against the federal government arising out of an altercation between Fink and several prison guards that left Fink severely and permanently disabled.
The case, Fink v. Ylst, was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.
Fink’s attorneys later moved to withdraw from their representation, claiming that Fink had rendered it unreasonably difficult for them to carry out their employment effectively pursuant to Rule 3‑700(C)(1)(d) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The federal court granted the motion.
Fink later filed a contract action against his former attorneys in the state court, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John P. Shook sustained the attorneys’ demurrer.
In an unpublished opinion for the appellate court, Justice H. Walter Croskey noted that Fink’s conduct was discussed at great length at a status conference held prior to the filing of defendants’ motion to withdraw. Although the federal district judge did not specify the grounds for granting the lawyers’ motion to withdraw, Croskey explained, it was reasonable to infer that the stated basis for the motion was the actual basis on which it was granted.
Thus, Croskey reasoned, the issue of whether Fink’s conduct had made it unreasonably difficult for his attorneys to represent him was actually litigated and necessarily decided in the former proceeding.
Because the district court decision was a final decision on the merits and Fink was a party to that decision, Croskey concluded, the elements of collateral estoppel were met and that the defendants could employ the theory as a defense.
Justices Patti S. Kitching and Richard D. Aldrich joined Croskey in his opinion.
The case is Fink v. Moreno, Becerra & Guerrero, Inc., B196118.
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