September 30, 2011
MICHAEL TAFFARO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT, AND SCOTT TAFFARO, PLAINTIFF,
JAMES R. CONNELL, ESQ., DWYER, CONNELL & LISBONA, RONALD M. FRAIOLI, ESQ., AND FRAIOLI & MOORE, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-5775-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 20, 2011
Before Judges Payne, Simonelli and Hayden.
Steven J. Tegrar argued the cause for respondents Ronald M. Fraioli and Fraioli & Moore (Law Offices of Joseph Carolan, attorneys; Mr. Tegrar and George H. Sly, Jr., on the brief).
In this legal malpractice action, plaintiff Michael Taffaro appeals from two March 8, 2010 Law Division orders, which granted summary judgment to defendants James R. Connell, Esq. and Dwyer, Connell & Lisbona (collectively "Connell"), and defendants Ronald Fraioli, Esq. and Fraioli & Moore (collectively "Fraioli"), and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.*fn1 We affirm, but for reasons other than those expressed by the trial judge. Grow Co. v. Chokshi, 403 N.J. Super. 443, 467 n.8 (App. Div. 2008).
We derive the following facts from the evidence submitted by the parties in support of, and in opposition to, the summary judgment motion, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).
Vincent Taffaro (Vincent) was the father of plaintiff and Scott Taffaro (Scott). Following the death of Vincent's wife, he married Dolores Taffaro (Dolores), and they had two children together, Susan Taffaro (Susan) and Vincent Taffaro, Jr. (Vincent Jr.). Vincent died testate on December 18, 1998, devising his house to Dolores.
In late 1999, Susan contacted Connell about drafting a will for Dolores, who had terminal cancer. Connell twice met with Dolores at her home prior to her executing the will to determine her lucidity and discuss the will. Dolores was unsure of whether to include plaintiff in the will because she believed he received disability, unemployment or welfare, and the State would take his inheritance. She also had a strained relationship with plaintiff, believed he drank too much and used drugs, and did not like the way he treated certain family members. However, she was concerned that he would "make trouble" if she disinherited him. She ultimately decided to include plaintiff in her will.
Connell drafted a will and reviewed it with Dolores at her home. She, again, pondered plaintiff's inclusion in the will, but eventually decided to include him, thinking it would be best for the family to do so.
Dolores executed the will on December 2, 1999 (the First Will). Connell believed she did so at his office because his secretaries had witnessed her signature. There is no evidence to the contrary. At the time Dolores executed the First Will, she expressed some misgivings about including plaintiff. However, the First Will named plaintiff as one of the four beneficiaries of Dolores's estate, to be shared equally with Scott, Susan and Vincent Jr.
Dolores was subsequently hospitalized until December 10, 1999. She was readmitted on December 17, 1999, and remained there until her death on December 24, 1999. She telephoned Connell around December 17, 1999, and told him she "rethought everything" and wanted to remove plaintiff from her will. According to Connell, Dolores sounded "mad" but lucid, and called plaintiff "a son of a bitch." She also mentioned that plaintiff "had problems with creditors and some state agency[,]" and she was concerned that he would use his inheritance to fund a lifestyle of substance abuse. Plaintiff also apparently wanted to avoid both any payment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on his share of the estate, and the possibility of a lien being placed on Dolores's house.
Dolores executed a new will on December 20, 1999 (the Second Will), which did not include plaintiff as a beneficiary.
According to Connell, she expressed her intention to exclude plaintiff, was clear and lucid, and acted of her own free will without any outside influence. Connell could not recall where Dolores had executed the Second Will. He believed she did so at his office because he never visited her in the hospital and his secretaries had witnessed her signature presumably at his office. However, there is no dispute that Dolores was hospitalized on December 20, 1999.
Following Dolores's death, on January 5, 2000, Letters Testamentary and Letters of Trusteeship were issued to Susan pursuant to the Second Will. Plaintiff claimed that he did not contest the Second Will because Susan promised to include him as an heir despite the fact that he had been disinherited under the Second Will.
Plaintiff eventually filed a verified complaint against Scott, Susan and Vincent Jr., seeking to establish a constructive trust over Dolores's estate and receive his one-fourth share, among other things. Plaintiff verified that he agreed to his omission from the Second Will in order to avoid paying the IRS and in return for his siblings' promise to give him his share of the estate notwithstanding the Second Will. The matter settled on December 5, 2005, with plaintiff receiving $110,000, representing his one-fourth share of Dolores's house, which was in addition to the one-fourth share he had previously received from Dolores's residual estate.
On August 2, 2007, plaintiff and Scott filed a complaint against Connell in connection with the Second Will.*fn2 Their expert opined that Connell committed legal malpractice by not having the Second Will validly witnessed, as required by N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2.
Plaintiff also asserted a legal malpractice claim against Fraioli. The expert opined that Fraioli committed malpractice by failing to advise plaintiff that he had a viable malpractice claim against Connell, and failing to preserve that claim.
Connell and Fraioli filed summary judgment motions. The motion judge granted the motions based on estoppel, unclean hands, statute of limitations, and failure to establish damages. The judge subsequently denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration. This appeal followed.
To establish legal malpractice, a plaintiff must show: "'(1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship creating a duty of care upon the attorney; (2) the breach of that duty; and (3) proximate causation.'" Fitzgerald v. Linnus, 336 N.J. Super. 458, 467 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting Conklin v. Hannoch
Weisman, 145 N.J. 395, 416 (1996)). "The determination of the existence of a duty [of care] is a question of law for the court." Petrillo v. Bachenberg, 139 N.J. 472, 479 (1995) (citations omitted). Plaintiff's expert relied on Petrillo for the proposition that an attorney owes a duty of care to third parties in some circumstances, including to the beneficiaries of a will he or she prepares. However, Petrillo did not concern will beneficiaries; rather, it concerned circumstances where the attorney prepared documents knowing that third parties would reasonably and foreseeably rely on them. See id. at 478-85. This is not the circumstance here. This case involves an attorney who prepared a will that reflected the testator's expressed intention to disinherit a potential beneficiary.
An attorney preparing a will owes a duty only to the testator, unless the attorney undertook a duty to the beneficiary. Barner v. Sheldon, 292 N.J. Super. 258, 265-66 (Law Div.), aff'd o.b. 292 N.J. Super. 157 (App. Div. 1996). Also, an attorney owes no duty of care to a potential beneficiary "if a beneficiary's interest is adversarial to the interest of the estate and contrary to the will of the testator . . . ." Id. at 266; see generally Estate of Albanese v. Lolio, 393 N.J. Super. 355 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 192 N.J. 597 (2007) (reaffirming that an attorney retained for a limited purpose owes no duty to plaintiff beneficiaries or an executrix of the estate if the attorney was carrying out the testator's wishes).
Connell owed plaintiff no duty of care because he represented Dolores with respect to preparing the Second Will, and undertook no duty to plaintiff in connection therewith. Connell only owed Dolores a duty of care to prepare a will in accordance with her expressed intention to exclude plaintiff as a beneficiary. In addition, Connell owed plaintiff no duty of care because plaintiff's interest is adversarial to the estate's interest and contrary to the Second Will. Accordingly, plaintiff cannot establish a legal malpractice claim against Connell. Because he cannot do so, his legal malpractice claim against Fraioli fails as well.