Texas has a two-year statute of limitations for negligence claims, whereas the limitations period for breach of contract, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty is four years. Thus, when a legal malpractice action is brought on multiple alternative theories, which should control? Should a tardy aggrieved client be able to pursue suit against the wayward attorney relying on the cause of action with the longer limitations period, or should the action be barred in its entirety after two years based on the rule that a single claim ought not to be split up into different causes of action?
In a recent Harris County case a majority of the appellate panel agrees with the plaintiff that her claims for breach of fiduciary duties are separate and independent from her legal malpractice claims, and that they were (unlike the negligence claim) timely filed. One Justice, however, wrote separately in dissent, expressing the view that the plaintiff's suits was essentially a malpractice negligence suit (which was time-barred) and that the plaintiff should not be allowed to pursue a claim based on violation of fiduciary duties separately.
(Tex.App.- Houston [14th Dist.] June 24, 2008)(Fowler) (Justices split in appeal from legal malpractice suit) (legal malpractice, claim splitting, applicable statute of limitations, proper characterization of claim brought against lawyer by client, fractioning of claim into different legal causes of action)
Opinion by Justice Wanda Fowler
Panel membership: Justices Brock Yates, Fowler, and Guzman (dissenting)
Full appellate case style: Lenieta Wylene Trousdale v. Annette M. Henry, R. Christopher Bell and Bell & Henry, L.L.P.
Appeal from 129th District Court of Harris County
Trial Court Judge: Samuel Grant Dorfman
Disposition by panel majority: Affirmed in part, reversed & remanded in part.
M A J O R I T Y O P I N I O N (summary)
Lenieta Wylene Trousdale ("Trousdale") appeals from the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of appellees, Annette M. Henry, R. Christopher Bell, and Bell & Henry, L.L.P. In three issues, Trousdale contends the trial court erred in its grant of summary judgment and its dismissal of her claims with prejudice, because (1) certain of appellees' actions constitute a breach of fiduciary duty, to which a four-year statute of limitations applies; (2) the non-fracturing rule does not apply to the facts of this case, as claims for breach of fiduciary duty are not limited to instances of self-dealing by attorneys; and (3) the fraudulent concealment doctrine tolled the commencement of the two-year statute of limitations on her legal malpractice claims until August or September 2005, when appellees returned her file to her.
We conclude that the trial court erred in applying the two-year statute of limitations to Trousdale's breach of fiduciary duty claims. However, we also conclude that neither the discovery rule nor the fraudulent concealment doctrine tolled the running of the statute of limitations on Trousdale's legal malpractice claims until August or September 2005. As a result of these holdings, we reverse that portion of the trial court's order granting summary judgment on Trousdale's breach of fiduciary duty claims and affirm the summary judgment as to the legal malpractice claims.
Concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Justice Guzman (claim-splitting in attorney malpractice context; different legal causes of action with different statutes of limitations not viable as separate claims).
C O N C U R R I N G A N D D I S S E N T I N G O P I N I O N (summary)
I concur in the majority's holding that Lenieta Trousdale's legal malpractice claim is time-barred; however, I respectfully dissent from the majority's conclusion that Trousdale's claim for breach of fiduciary duty is separate and independent from her legal malpractice claim. Applying the parties' arguments to the record before us, I would conclude that Trousdale's claim of legal malpractice encompasses her claim of breach of fiduciary duty. Although none of the considerations discussed below is individually dispositive, they collectively demonstrate that the gist of Trousdale's complaint is her contention that she lost her underlying claims through appellees' professional negligence. See Deutsch v. Hoover, Bax & Slovacek, L.L.P., 97 S.W.3d 179, 189 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, no pet.).