Client Can't Recoup Fees From Lawyer Who Spoiled Plea Deal

, The Legal Intelligencer

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Although a federal court determined an attorney rendered ineffective assistance to his client by not fully explaining a plea bargain to him in a federal criminal case, a Philadelphia judge overseeing a subsequent legal malpractice action ruled the client cannot recover attorney fees paid to his lawyer.

In an opinion issued Monday, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Lisa M. Rau detailed the rulings of retired Judges Sandra Mazer Moss and Joseph Papalini in Stein v. Magarity.

The malpractice case originally went before Papalini, who granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, attorney Gregory Magarity. After Papalini's retirement, Moss took over the case and denied the plaintiff's motion for reconsideration of Papalini's summary judgment order. Rau's opinion is in response to an appeal made by plaintiff Melvin Stein to the state Superior Court.

In her opinion, Rau explained Papalini's rationale for granting summary judgment and his reasoning in denying Stein's claims that he would have received a shorter sentence had Magarity not breached his contract with Stein by failing to advise him properly.

"Judge Papalini reasoned that damages must be proven in order to satisfy a breach of contract," Rau said, noting that Papalini determined there was "'no evidence of measurable loss' because 'the damages [Stein] alleges are speculative. It is uncertain what [Stein's] sentence would have been if a plea agreement had been accepted and [Stein] continued to cooperate with the government.'"

Papalini added that "'far too many factors, beyond [Magarity's] alleged breach, could have impacted the length of [Stein's] sentence,'" according to Rau.

In 2006, Stein was sentenced to 10 years in prison for offenses related to laundering drug-trafficking money. According to Rau, Stein claimed that Magarity spoiled a plea bargain started by Stein's previous lawyer and did not advise him properly on a subsequent plea offer.

Stein filed suit against Magarity in 2010 seeking recovery of fees paid to Magarity in the amount of $885,000, with Papalini granting summary judgment in favor of Magarity in August of that year. The case was dismissed without prejudice and, according to Rau, Papalini stipulated that the action could restart once the underlying criminal case in federal court had concluded.

In May 2012, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined that Magarity ineffectively represented his client and reduced Stein's sentence from 10 years to 87 months, Rau said.

Stein's case against Magarity was reactivated after the federal court's decision and Stein filed a motion to reconsider Papalini's ruling before Moss.

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