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Spotlight: California legal malpractice and statute of limitations

Imagine your feelings of woe and consternation if, as a California resident who sought to file a legal complaint against your attorney for wrongdoing, you discover that your claim has no merit because it missed a filing deadline imposed by state law.

There is in fact a statutory provision that summarily cuts off a plaintiff's legal malpractice claim against an attorney in connection with professional services rendered if the complainant's lawsuit is late by even a second.

That law is fully set forth in California Civil Procedure Section 340.6, establishing a time bar on legal malpractice lawsuits brought against attorneys for dereliction in their representation.

As noted above, that statutory cut-off period for bringing an action applies only to cases where an attorney's "professional services" are at issue.

That obviously begs this question: Are all actions taken -- or omitted to be taken -- by an attorney in the course of his or her client representation legally deemed to be professional services? If every action is so construed, the statutory time bar would be operative in every case brought by a plaintiff.

In other words: Are there exceptions that would render the statute of limitations inoperative?

It turns out there are, as noted by the California Supreme Court in an appellate ruling issued just last week. In that matter, a claimant brought a claim against an attorney for malpractice. In the first instance, the trial court determined that the matter involved the delivery of professional services and dismissed the case by invoking the above-noted statutory provision.

The state's highest tribunal ruled otherwise, finding that not every claim brought by a plaintiff alleging attorney malpractice involved the provision of professional services. In the instant case, the plaintiff was seeking to compel her attorney to return money that he had allegedly converted to his personal use. The court found that a claim for conversion "may not depend on the assertion that [the attorney] violated a professional obligation."

The bottom line regarding the ruling: In some instances, a claim against an attorney for wrongdoing might survive the statute of limitations relevant to the provision of professional services.

Any person with questions or concerns regarding legal malpractice and deadlines relevant to filing a legal malpractice claim might reasonably want to confer in timely fashion with an experienced plaintiffs' malpractice attorney.

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