A Bankruptcy Court Order Permitting Creditors to Pursue Legal Malpractice Claims in State Court in the Name of a Debtor’s was an Impermissible Assignment and Violates Public Policy

Joe Garin and Jessica Green 2016By Joseph P. Garin, Esq. and Jessica A. Green, Esq., of Lipson, Neilson, Cole, Seltzer & Garin, P.C., Las Vegas, Nevada; as published in the March 2017 issue of the eAdvisory published by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability

In Tower Homes, LLC v. William H. Heaton, the Nevada Supreme Court concluded a bankruptcy court order permitting a group of creditors to pursue a legal malpractice claim in the debtor’s name constituted an impermissible assignment of the claim which, as a matter of public policy, is prohibited under Nevada law.

Tower Homes, LLC (“Tower”) retained attorney William Heaton to assist with a residential common ownership project. Various individual investors (hereinafter the “Purchasers”) made earnest money deposits before the project was complete and entered into contracts with Tower to reserve condominiums. The project failed and Tower entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Purchasers were among the many creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings. In 2008, the bankruptcy trustee created a plan of reorganization and the bankruptcy court entered a confirmation order. Per the order, the trustee and bankruptcy estate retained all legal claims. In 2010, the bankruptcy trustee entered into a stipulation and order with the Purchasers recognizing the trustee did not have sufficient funds to pursue any legal malpractice claims related to the Purchasers’ lost earnest money deposits, and instead allowed the Purchasers to pursue the claim in Tower’s name.

Pursuant to the 2010 order, in 2012, the Purchasers filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Heaton, naming Tower as plaintiff. Dissatisfied with the Purchasers’ standing to pursue the legal malpractice claim, the state trial court allowed the Purchasers to seek an amended order from the bankruptcy court. In 2013, the bankruptcy court entered an additional order authorizing the Purchasers to pursue any and all claims on behalf of Tower (specifically including the malpractice case against Heaton) and noted that the recovery “shall be for the benefit of the [P]urchasers.”

Heaton moved for summary judgment in the district court arguing the 2013 bankruptcy stipulation and order constituted an impermissible assignment of a legal malpractice claim. The Purchasers argued federal law permits a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to allow named representatives of the estate to bring legal malpractice claims on behalf of the estate, with or without an assignment. The Purchasers also contended that they were assigned only the proceeds, not the entire malpractice claim. The Nevada Supreme Court previously determined that in a personal injury context, the difference between an assignment of an entire claim and an assignment of proceeds was the retention of control; reasoning that when only proceeds are assigned, the original party maintains control over the claim, but when an entire claim is assigned, a new party gains control over it. Despite these arguments, the trial court granted summary judgment in Heaton’s favor on the basis that there was an assignment of the legal malpractice claim contrary to Nevada law. The Purchasers appealed.

The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the attorney. In its decision, the Nevada Supreme Court reinforced the traditional notion that the assignment of legal malpractice claims is generally prohibited and “[a]s a matter of public policy, [Nevada] cannot permit enforcement of a legal malpractice action which has been transferred by assignment…but which was never pursued by the original client” as “[t]he decision to bring a malpractice action against an attorney is one peculiarly vested in the client.” The Nevada Supreme Court agreed that while a bankruptcy plan may allow an estate representative to pursue the estate’s claim without an assignment so long as the representative is prosecuting the claim “on behalf of the estate,” “[i]f a party seeks to prosecute the action on its own behalf, it must do as an assignee, not a special representative.” The Court reasoned that because the bankruptcy court’s order transferred control and proceeds of the legal malpractice claim to the Purchasers, the Purchasers were not pursuing claim on behalf of the estate as permitted by federal law, but rather pursuing it for their own benefit.

Practice Note: This decision runs contrary to recent decisions in other jurisdictions that seem to relax the standard privity requirements in legal malpractice claims and permit assignments of legal malpractice claims to non-clients in a business context.