An Idaho women can sue her divorce attorney for breach of fiduciary duty after the attorney allegedly shared an email she sent him with counsel for her then-husband, the state’s highest court ruled Sept. 10.
The Idaho Supreme Court joined a number of states that have held that legal malpractice actions based on breach of fiduciary duty that seek only an equitable remedy are acceptable to deter disloyalty to clients.
Rebecca Parkinson sued attorney James Bevis, seeking the fees she paid him for his work, an equitable remedy. The email at issue accused Bevis of failing to represent her adequately at a mediation conference.
Bevis argued that she was trying to recharacterize her cause of action as a breach of fiduciary duty instead of legal malpractice to avoid having to prove damages. The district court agreed with Bevis and dismissed the case.
Not so, the state supreme court said. Breach of fiduciary duty “when the client seeks only equitable remedies, is an equitable claim that a client may state independently from a claim for malpractice, even when the breach was accomplished by potentially negligent acts,” it said.
A lawyer can violate his fiduciary duty and cause damage to his client, resulting in a legal malpractice claim, the court said. But if there’s no damage, an equitable remedy like what Parkinson seeks may be recoverable as well to deter such behavior, the court pointed out.
Factors to determine whether an attorney has to return fees include:
- the extent of the misconduct;
- whether the breach involved knowing violation or conscious disloyalty to a client;
- whether forfeiture is proportionate to the seriousness of the offense; and
- the adequacy of other remedies.
The holding is narrow and only applies to cases where a client is seeking a return of fees, the court noted, vacating the lower court’s dismissal and sending the case back for further consideration.
The case is Parkinson v. Bevis, 2019 BL 338312, Idaho, No. 46269, 9/10/19.