Brief Fact Summary.
A lawyer sued his client for legal fees, and the client argued that the legal services were unsatisfactory. The client subsequently sued the lawyer for malpractice, which turns on the same issue of the quality of the lawyer’s services.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A person may not assert an issue in a lawsuit that has been previously litigated in another lawsuit under the doctrine of issue preclusion.
Zane G. Nichols (Defendant) was the lawyer for Milton R. Felger (Plaintiff) in a divorce case. Plaintiff refused to pay $345 in legal fees to Defendant. As a result, Defendant filed suit against Plaintiff in the District Court of Maryland to recover the legal fees. Plaintiff claimed that the fees were unreasonable because Defendant was unsatisfactory as a lawyer. The court ruled in favor of Defendant. Subsequently, Plaintiff sued Defendant for malpractice. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on issue preclusion, claiming that the previous lawsuit decided the issue of Defendant’s malpractice in his favor. The court ruled in favor of Defendant, and Plaintiff appealed to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
May a person assert an issue in a lawsuit that has been previously litigated in another lawsuit?
No. A person may not assert an issue in a lawsuit that has been previously litigated in another lawsuit. In this case, a lawsuit for legal fees and a lawsuit for legal malpractice for the same services bring up the same issue on the quality of the lawyer’s services. Since Plaintiff raised the issue of Defendant’s unsatisfactory legal services in the trial to recover legal fees, Plaintiff is precluded from relitigating the issue in her action for legal malpractice. Therefore, Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Issue preclusion prevents an issue from being litigated more than once, even if the issue is raised based on a different cause of action. On the other hand, claim preclusion prevents a claim from being litigated more than once. Determining whether issue preclusion or claim preclusion applies depends on whether the cause of action in the second lawsuit is the same as the previous one. In this case, since the cause of action in the second lawsuit was different than the cause of action in the first lawsuit, issue preclusion applied. Since the issue of Defendant’s quality of legal services was addressed in the first lawsuit, Plaintiff was barred from having the issue be relitigated in the second lawsuit.