How to Determine When an Attorney is Responsible for a Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Breach of fiduciary duty is often confused with legal malpractice. A breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice both fall under the capacity of tort law. A breach of fiduciary duty, however, is not the same as an attorney committing a legal malpractice or other form of professional negligence. Importantly, where a claimant asserts both a breach of fiduciary duty and a legal malpractice, the breach of fiduciary duty claim may be dismissed if it is based on a breach of the duty of care which is the standard for a legal malpractice. However, a breach of fiduciary duty will carry a separate tort and will also implicate different remedies than what is typically required for legal malpractice cases so long as the claim is based on one of the fiduciary duties owing to the client beyond a breach of a duty of care.
Understanding the Elements Needed to File a Claim for a Breach of Fiduciary Duty
In effort of demonstrating that a lawyer breached a fiduciary duty that was owed to a client, the claimant will need to demonstrate the following:
- The lawyer has a lawfully recognized fiduciary duty to the claimant;
- The lawyer violated, or breached, that owed duty;
- The claimant sustained legally recognized damage or grievances; and
- The lawyer’s breach of duty was the lawfully recognized reason behind the claimant’s damage or grievances.
Identifying the Fiduciary Duties an Attorney Owes His or Her Clients
The California Rules of Professional Conduct as well as general California statutes and applicable federal laws govern and define the extent of fiduciary duties of which an attorney owes to the client. The relation between an attorney and a client is a fiduciary relation of the very highest character. A few duties owed to a client, under certain circumstances, may involve the following:
- A duty of undivided loyalty to a client
- A duty of confidentiality
- A duty to use reasonable care
- A duty to not engage in conflicts of interest
- A duty to obtain the clients informed consent
- A duty to reasonably charge the client a fair and conscionable fee
- A duty to charge the client for a service that was in fact rendered or a work that was in fact performed
- A situation where the lawyer has handled a client’s legal documents and/or money
- All other situations in which a lawfully recognized fiduciary relationship is established
If you have reason to believe that you lawyer owed you or owed you a fiduciary duty and that this duty has been violated, seek the an experienced legal professional as soon as possible in order to protect your legal rights.
The Aftermath of a Breached Fiduciary Duty Can Be Complex
A violation of a fiduciary duty is usually evaluated as a question of fact. This means that the investigation, and eventually the legal conclusion, will be contingent on the facts and circumstances of each case. In effort of demonstrating that a violation has occurred, the claimant may need to provide expert testimony.
Furthermore, a claim filed for a breach of fiduciary duty is subject to the same state’s statute of limitations applicable to all legal malpractice cases. This means that the claimant has only a small window of time to file a claim in order for the case to be heard. Failing to file the claim in a timely manner can result in a rejected case.
Remedies for Breach of Fiduciary Duty Can Be Different than Remedies for Legal Malpractice
While certain remedies are available for both a breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice, there are some distinct differences for certain remedies available. For instance, in a legal malpractice claim, emotional distress damages generally are not recoverable except in extraordinary circumstances. However, emotional distress damages may be recoverable for breach of fiduciary duty claims, such as with a claim for breach of loyalty. Additionally, punitive damages are generally not available for legal malpractice claims, however under certain circumstances punitive damages are available for breach of fiduciary duty claims.
If you or someone you know has reason to believe that there was a violation of fiduciary duty in a case, it is important to not delay in seeking professional legal support. Delaying the claim can often cause the claimant the missed opportunity to obtain compensation, even if there is a valid claim.
The attorneys at the Knez Law Group, LLP are highly skilled in the field of professional liability cases. The firm is dedicated to protecting the rights of clients who have undergone an unlawful disservice at the hands of a licensed professional.