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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Facing $102M legal malpractice case, N.J. law firm permitted to represent itself

State Court

By Karen Kidd | Aug 21, 2019


TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – A New Jersey appeals court ruled earlier this month that a law firm can represent itself in a malpractice case in which a former client claims she lost a $102 million child-abuse verdict on appeal because of its allegedly bad advice.

In its 14-page decision issued Aug. 8, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division ruled that Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman attorneys can represent the firm in Noemi Escobara's malpractice case against the firm. The appeals court overturned an Essex County Superior Court decision, ruling the lower court prematurely disqualified the firm's lawyers in a misapplication of federal legal precedent.

David Mazie and his firm itself are entitled to "the same rights as other individuals in our courts" to appear on their own behalf, Judge Allison Accurso wrote in the decision.

"Mazie Slater, however, should likewise be treated as other entities appearing in our courts," Accurso wrote. "As our rules prohibit an entity, with certain exceptions not relevant here, from appearing in any action except through an attorney, Mazie Slater must likewise appear through counsel."

Escobar sued Mazie and Mazie Slater over advice she claims limited her recovery in her lawsuit against employees in the state's child welfare agency and others over her infant grandson's injuries. The ruling states she settled her claims against the private entities in her suit for $7 million and a jury found the state liable and awarded her $166 million. That amount was later knocked down to $102 million by the trial judge. 

The ruling states the State offered Escobar $10 million to settle the case, which she rejected, and a court reversed the judgment and found that the State was entitled to qualified immunity.

Escobar alleges Mazie Slater failed to advise her of the risk on appeal.

As part of her case before the appeals court, Escobar cited New Jersey's Rule of Professional Conduct 3.7, which bars attorneys from acting as their own counsel. The rule also bars attorneys, with some exceptions, from appearing as witnesses in trials in which they are a party.

The appellate division court ruled, among other things, that RPC 3.7 does not have an imputed disqualification provision that applies in Escobar's case.

"Mazie Slater will thus have no obligation to apply to have Mazie Slater lawyers, including those joining the firm after its representation of plaintiff ended, appear at trial upon a showing that such attorneys did not have a substantial role in the firm's prior representation of plaintiff, as the order we reverse currently provides," Accurso said. "The burden will instead be on plaintiff to establish disqualification of specific Mazie Slater lawyers in accordance with the standard established in RPC 3.7."

Judge Francis J. Vernoia and Judge Scott J. Moynihan concurred in the decision.

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Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Divison

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