Nichols, Felder’s former lawyer, obtained a $345 judgment against Felder for unpaid legal fees. Felder then filed a complaint against Nichols forlegal malpractice, arising out of the same legal services that gave rise to the judgment. Nichols moved for summary judgment, asserting that Felder’s legal malpractice action was barred by res judicata.
The doctrine of res judicata encompasses (1) direct estoppel by judgment, in which a prior judgment on the merits is an absolute bar to a subsequent action by the same parties on the same cause of action as to all matters which were or could have been litigated, and (2) collateral estoppel by judgment, in which a subsequent action that involves a different cause of action is barred only as to matters actually litigated in the prior action.
Nichols, Felder’s former lawyer in connection with divorce proceedings, sued Felder for unpaid legal fees in Maryland state court. Nichols was awarded a $345 judgment. Thereafter, Felder then filed a complaint against Nichols for legal malpractice. Felder’s complaint was based on the same legal services that gave rise to the $345 judgment against him. Nichols moved for summary judgment, asserting that Felder’s legal malpractice action was barred by res judicata.
Did res judicata bar a legal malpractice action that arose out of the same legal representation that was the subject of a fee dispute in which a former lawyer recovered a judgment from his former client?
Yes. Res judicata barred the subsequent legal malpractice action.
In this case, it was unnecessary to decide whether the action for legal fees and the legal malpractice action involved the same or different causes of action because the same result would be reached applying either the doctrine of direct estoppel by judgment or collateral estoppel by judgment. In this case, the determination that the lawyer was entitled to a fee was made after the client produced evidence intended to show that the lawyer’s services were inadequate. Under either direct estoppel by judgment or collateral estoppel by judgment, the subsequent action would be barred.