The Break-Up: Knowing When the Professional Relationship is Over

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All good things must come to an end…and most bad things too.  The same must be true with a professional’s engagement.  Professional Liability Matters has previously warned of the importance of clear engagement letters to set reasonable expectations regarding the scope of the relationship. But many professionals may take for granted the importance of clarifying when that relationship has come to an end.  This is a key risk-management pointer to avoid malpractice.

A recent New York case provides clarity on the otherwise murky issue of defining the end of the attorney-client relationship.  The main issue in Aseel v. Jonathan E. Kroll & Associates PLLC, 2013 NY Slip Op. 03806 (May 29, 2013) which was an appeal from a dismissal of a legal malpractice suit, was whether the trial court correctly concluded that the statute of limitations was not tolled by the continuous representation doctrine.  Central to the court’s decision was exactly when the relationship concluded.

The lower court granted the attorney defendant’s motion to dismiss the malpractice action finding that the claims were barred by the statute of limitations.  On appeal, the plaintiff contended that the action was timely because the firm continued to represent him after the allegedly culpable conduct. The Appellate Court rejected the plaintiff’s contention of a continuous relationship and held that the trial court correctly concluded that the relationship clearly ended when the plaintiff surreptitiously removed his file from his attorney’s offices.  The court reasoned that the removal of the file evidenced the plaintiff’s lack of trust and confidence in the relationship and his intention to discharge his attorneys.  Thus, the court refused to extend the statute of limitations pursuant to the continuous representation doctrine and upheld the dismissal of the malpractice suit.

Although not always the case, this decision demonstrates that sometimes there is a bright line triggering the end of the relationship between professional and client.  Often, this line is not clear and therefore must be explicitly defined by the professional. Just as important as setting the scope of the relationship via an engagement letter, professionals should consider a disengagement letter when applicable, or another form of correspondence notifying the client that the professional relationship (and hence the majority of the professional’s obligations) has come to an end.