Cook County Record

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Panel: Lawyer representing lawyer in legal malpractice suit did not commit malpractice

By Jonathan Bilyk | Mar 10, 2014

A Chicago lawyer who spent much of the last decade embroiled in a legal malpractice battle brought by a former client will not be allowed to collect damages from a La Grange attorney he claims bungled his defense in the malpractice matter, forcing him to unnecessarily spend more money and time to escape a multi-million dollar judgment.

The First District Appellate Court on March 5 upheld Cook County Circuit Court Judge Randye A. Kogan's finding that La Grange attorney Ian Brenson was not the reason John Z. Huang initially lost in the malpractice suit brought against him by a former client.

Justice Michael B. Hyman wrote the opinion, in which Justices P. Scott Neville and Aurelia Pucinski concurred.

Huang’s legal malpractice claim against Brenson traces back to 2001, when Huang was hired to represent Chinese citizen Yongping Zhou in an immigration matter.

In that case, Zhou, who had been convicted in 1998 of domestic violence, was facing deportation to China.

Huang represented Zhou over a four-month span in 2001 during proceedings before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, at which Zhou requested asylum, asserting fears of torture and persecution, should he be deported to China.

Zhou fired Huang in June 2001, and hired several more attorneys over the next two years before his domestic violence conviction was vacated and he was released from detention.

He sued Huang for legal malpractice, seeking damages for “emotional distress, physical abuse, isolation, humiliation, pain and suffering, loss of education and loss of income.”

Huang’s insurance company then hired Brenson to defend Huang against the Zhou's claim. After five years, a jury found for Zhou, awarding him $4 million.

Huang then fired Brenson, and hired two new attorneys to represent him in post-trial proceedings and appeals. Huang prevailed on appeal, as the court determined the trial court “erred in allowing Zhou to recover nonpecuniary damages.”

In December 2010, Huang sued Brenson for malpractice, asserting that, if not for Brenson’s “negligence” in the case, Huang would have prevailed at trial, and not needed to incur the additional expense and labor at appeal.

Among other potential acts of negligence, Huang alleged in his complaint that Brenson left Huang unprepared for trial; did not depose or call several key witnesses or introduce certain important pieces of evidence; and left the case pending for too long.

Huang also asserted that Brenson failed to uphold his “fiduciary duty of loyalty” to him, as his client, by failing to inform him of potential settlement offers from Zhou. Had he known of the settlement offers, Huang argued, he would have directed Brenson and the insurance company to settle to avoid trial.

Huang sought $154,855 in the attorney's fees paid to the other lawyers.

The trial judge, however, rejected those arguments and dismissed Huang’s claims. He appealed.

The appeals panel last week upheld the lower court’s decision, finding that Huang was the victim of error by the trial court in the Zhou malpractice suit, which allowed jurors to award nonpecuniary damages to Zhou, despite Brenson's opposing motions.

As such, the justices found, the lower court was right in determining that Brenson’s representation was not the reason Huang initially lost to Zhou.

Like the trial judge, the appellate justices also rejected Huang’s claims regarding the settlement offers. They noted that, even if Huang had directed the insurance company to accept a settlement offer, the insurers would not have been obligated to do so.

“Moreover it is not clear that, even if Brenson had properly informed Huang of Zhou’s demands, Huang could have convinced or forced the insurance company to settle and avoid going to trial,” Hyman wrote for the panel.

He added, “Accordingly, Huang failed to please that defendants’ breach of fiduciary duty – failing to relay Zhou’s settlement demands – proximately caused his damages.”

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