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Gallegos v. LeHouillier

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Third Division

March 23, 2017

Della Gallegos, Plaintiff-Appellee and Cross-Appellant,
v.
Patric J. LeHouillier and LeHouillier & Associates, P.C., Defendants-Appellants and Cross-Appellees.

         El Paso County District Court No. 13CV32156 Honorable Robin L. Chittum, Judge

          Anderson Hemmat McQuinn, LLC, Julie E. Anderson, Chad P. Hemmat, Ethan A. McQuinn, Jason G. Alleman, Greenwood Village, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Malcom S. Mead, John E. Bolmer II, Andrew P. Reitman, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellants

          OPINION

          BERNARD, JUDGE

         ¶ 1 A legal malpractice case is based on a claim that an attorney breached his or her professional duty of care in a way that proximately injured a client. See Hopp & Flesch, LLC v. Backstreet, 123 P.3d 1176, 1183 (Colo. 2005). Sometimes, such as in this case, the client claims that the attorney's breach of duty denied the client success in a lawsuit against the defendant. (For the purposes of clarity, we will call such a lawsuit the "underlying case.") To prevail in this type of malpractice case, the client must prove that the attorney would have been successful in the underlying case by, for example, winning a favorable judgment against a defendant. Bebo Constr. Co. v. Mattox & O'Brien, P.C., 990 P.2d 78, 83 (Colo. 1999). Lawyers call this requirement proving the "case within a case." Id. (citation omitted).

         ¶ 2 It is clear to us that part of the case within a case may include resolving the question of whether any judgment that the attorney might have won in the underlying case would have been "collectible." Colorado law provides that, if the defendant in the underlying case was insolvent and the client would not have been able to collect on the judgment, then the client cannot prevail in the malpractice case against the attorney.

         ¶ 3 This appeal raises the issue of who bears the burden of proving that the judgment would have been collectible. Must the client prove that the judgment was collectible as part of establishing a prima facie case? Or must the attorney, as an affirmative defense, prove that the judgment was not collectible? See Welsch v. Smith, 113 P.3d 1284, 1289 (Colo.App. 2005)(In a civil case, "[o]nce a prima facie case is established, the opposing party . . . carries the burden of establishing any affirmative defenses."). We conclude that the attorney must raise the issue of collectibility as an affirmative defense, which means that he or she also bears the burden of proving that the judgment was not collectible.

         ¶ 4 In this case, the plaintiff, Della Gallegos, sued defendants Patric J. LeHouillier, an attorney, and his law firm, LeHouillier & Associates, P.C., for legal malpractice. (We shall refer to the attorney and the law firm together as "Mr. LeHouillier" because their interests are congruent in this appeal.) The jury found that Mr. LeHouillier had negligently breached his duty of professional care when handling an underlying case for Ms. Gallegos.

         ¶ 5 As part of the case within a case, the trial court decided that Ms. Gallegos bore the burden of proving that any judgment in the underlying case - a medical malpractice case against a radiologist named Dr. Steven Hughes - was collectible. But our review of the record convinces us that there is no evidence to show that the judgment was collectible. So we must reverse the judgment.

         ¶ 6 But that does not mean that we must enter judgment in favor of Mr. LeHouillier. We also conclude that the trial court erred when it placed the burden of collectibility on Ms. Gallegos because it should have placed the burden on Mr. LeHouillier to prove that a judgment against Dr. Hughes was not collectible. So we remand this case for a new trial. We additionally instruct the trial court that, at any new trial, Mr. LeHouillier must (1) raise the issue of collectibility as an affirmative defense; and (2) bear the burden of proving that any judgment against Dr. Hughes would not have been collectible.

         I. Background

         ¶ 7 Ms. Gallegos's malpractice case against Dr. Hughes stems from a 2006 MRI that he performed on Ms. Gallegos's brain. Ms. Gallegos claimed that Dr. Hughes overlooked a clearly visible meningioma. (A meningioma is a tumor that forms on the membranes that cover the brain or on the spinal cord inside the skull. Although meningiomas are frequently benign, meaning that they are not cancerous, they can nonetheless cause serious problems, or even death, as they grow.)

         ¶ 8 Three years later, a different doctor spotted the meningioma during another MRI. By this time, it had grown three times larger than it had been in 2006.

         ¶ 9 Ms. Gallegos could have undergone noninvasive radiosurgery to treat the meningioma if Dr. Hughes had diagnosed it in 2006. But, by 2009, this treatment was no longer a viable option. So surgeons performed three craniotomies, or surgical openings, of Ms. Gallegos's skull to remove as much of the tumor as possible.

         ¶ 10 Ms. Gallegos retained Mr. LeHouillier to sue Dr. Hughes. Mr. LeHouillier investigated the case, but he decided in 2010 that he would not proceed with the case because it did not make "dollars and cents sense."

         ¶ 11 Mr. LeHouillier claimed that he had informed Ms. Gallegos of his decision in a meeting, adding that he would no longer represent her. But he did not keep any written records to memorialize what had been discussed at the meeting, and he did not send Ms. Gallegos a letter to inform her that he was no longer her attorney.

         ¶ 12 The statute of limitations ran on any medical malpractice case that Ms. Gallegos might have brought against Dr. Hughes.

         ¶ 13 Ms. Gallegos then filed this legal malpractice lawsuit against Mr. LeHouillier. Among other things, the jury found that Dr. Hughes had been negligent, that Mr. LeHouillier had been negligent, that Ms. Gallegos had been partly negligent, but less negligent than either Dr. Hughes or Mr. LeHouillier, and that Ms. Gallegos was entitled to an award of damages from Mr. LeHouillier.

         ¶ 14 Turning to the issue of collectibility, during the trial and after Ms. Gallegos had rested her case-in-chief, Mr. LeHouillier moved for a directed verdict. He asserted that Ms. Gallegos bore the burden of proving that any judgment against Dr. Hughes would have been collectible, and that she had not carried her burden. The trial court agreed that Ms. Gallegos bore the burden of proving that the judgment would have been collectible, but it ruled that Ms. Gallegos had provided sufficient evidence to prove that point.

         ¶ 15 After the trial, Mr. LeHouillier raised the same point in a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). The court made the same ruling.

         II. There Was No Evidence That the Judgment Was Collectible

         ¶ 16 Mr. LeHouillier contends that we must reverse the judgment because collectibility is an element that a plaintiff must prove in a legal malpractice case, and Ms. Gallegos did not prove that any judgment that she would have received in the underlying case against Dr. Hughes would have been collectible.

         ¶ 17 Ms. Gallegos counters that the question of collectibility is an affirmative defense, and that the court should have required Mr. LeHouillier to prove that the judgment was not collectible. Ms. Gallegos does not dispute that, if a 1927 Colorado Supreme Court case is read as she suggests, a new trial would be appropriate. Even though the trial court wrongly assigned the burden to her, she continues, she shouldered the burden by providing sufficient proof that the judgment was collectible.

         ¶ 18 As we have indicated above, we agree with Mr. LeHouillier that the record does not contain sufficient evidence that the judgment was collectible. But we agree with Ms. Gallegos that (1) the trial court erroneously placed the burden on her to prove that fact; and (2) the court should have required Mr. LeHouillier to (a) raise the question of collectibility as an affirmative defense; and (b) prove that any judgment that Ms. Gallegos would have received would not have been collectible.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶ 19 We review de novo the grant or denial of a motion for directed verdict or JNOV. See Vaccaro v. Am. Family Ins. Grp., 2012 COA9M, ¶ 40. We view the evidence "in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion [was] directed, " id. at ¶ 45, and "indulge every reasonable inference that can be drawn from the evidence in that party's favor, " Hall v. Frankel, 190 P.3d 852, 862 (Colo.App. 2008).

         B. Evidence of Collectibility

         ¶ 20 Ms. Gallegos contends that she provided sufficient evidence to support an "inference" that Dr. Hughes carried professional liability insurance, which would mean that the judgment would have been collectible. She points to the following facts in the trial record that establish this inference:

. Mr. LeHouillier wrote Dr. Hughes a letter in which he explained that he was representing Ms. Gallegos in a potential medical malpractice case against the doctor. The letter encouraged Dr. Hughes to "contact [his] professional liability insurer." According to Ms. Gallegos, after Mr. LeHouillier sent this letter, "neither Dr. Hughes nor any other person ever informed [Mr.] LeHouillier that Dr. Hughes lacked insurance
. When Dr. Hughes did not diagnose Ms. Gallegos's meningioma in 2006, he was a licensed doctor who was practicing medicine at a hospital. Section 13-64-301(1)(a.5)(I), C.R.S. 2016, required all practicing doctors to maintain professional liability insurance covering each incident up to one million dollars.

         ¶ 21 We conclude, for the following reasons, that this evidence did not create the inference that Ms. Gallegos suggests. Turning first to the letter, although Dr. Hughes may not have informed Mr. LeHouillier that he did not have liability coverage, he did not inform Mr. LeHouillier that he possessed liability coverage, either. Indeed, Dr. Hughes said nothing at all. He did not respond to the letter in any way; he did not provide any other information to Mr. LeHouillier or to Ms. Gallegos; and Ms. Gallegos did not offer any proof that Dr. Hughes had even received the letter. Like Godot, Dr. Hughes's appearance in the case may have been much anticipated, but it never came to pass.

         ¶ 22 Ms. Gallegos's reliance on section 13-64-301(1)(a.5)(I) fares no better. True enough, the record supports the conclusion that Dr. Hughes was a doctor who was practicing medicine when he performed the MRI on Ms. Gallegos, so the statute may well have applied to him. But we cannot find anywhere in the record - and Ms. Gallegos does not provide us with any direction to a specific place - where the jury learned about section 13-64-301(1)(a.5)(I). And we do not know whether Dr. Hughes had complied with the statute by maintaining liability insurance. We cannot infer that the jury reached its verdict based on the requirements of a statute that it never heard anything about.

         ¶ 23 We recognize that we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Gallegos and draw every reasonable inference in her favor. See Hall, 190 P.3d at 862. But the record contains no evidence on collectibility at all. So we conclude that the "record is devoid of any proof" that any judgment against Dr. Hughes in the underlying case would have been collectible. Green v. Castle Concrete Co., 181 Colo. 309, 314, 509 P.2d 588, 591 (1973).

         ¶ 24 But our job is not yet over. In other situations, we would simply enter judgment in Mr. LeHouillier's favor because Ms. Gallegos did not satisfy her burden of proof. But, in this case, we must next decide whether the trial court erred when it allocated that burden of proof by requiring Ms. Gallegos to prove that any judgment against Dr. Hughes in the underlying case would have been collectible.

         III. The Attorney Bears the Burden of Proving That a Judgment Would Not Be Collectible as an Affirmative Defense in a Legal Malpractice Case

         A. The Strange Case of Lawson v. Sigfrid

         ¶ 25 We encountered a mystery on the road to answering the central question in this case. The mystery concerns a ninety-year-old, one-and-one-quarter-page Colorado Supreme Court case, Lawson v. Sigfrid, 83 Colo. 116, 262 P. 1018 (1927). ¶ 26 Courts from other jurisdictions and some commentators have cited Lawson for the proposition that a plaintiff in a legal malpractice case bears the burden of proving that any judgment in the underlying case would have been collectible. See Beeck v. Aquaslide 'N' Dive Corp., 350 N.W.2d 149, 160 (Iowa 1984); Paterek v. Petersen & Ibold, 890 N.E.2d 316, 321 (Ohio 2008); Kituskie v. Corbman, 714 A.2d 1027, 1031 n.6 (Pa. 1998); Taylor Oil Co. v. Weisensee, 334 N.W.2d 27, 29 n.2 (S.D. 1983); see also, e.g., 4 Ronald E. Mallen, Legal Malpractice § 33:32, at 747 n.5 (2017 ed.); 7 John W. Grund, J. Kent Miller & David S. Werber, Colorado Personal Injury Practice - Torts and Insurance § 22:22, at 540 n.7 (3d ed. 2012); Elisa Recht Marlin, Recent Decision, Kituskie v. Corbman, 714 A.2d 1027 (Pa. 1998), 37 Duq. L. Rev. 521, 530, 530 n.77 (1999).

         ¶ 27 But, after studying Lawson carefully, we conclude that it does not stand for the entire proposition for which it has been cited. Although we agree that Lawson held that the collectibility of a judgment in the underlying case is pertinent to a legal malpractice case, we respectfully disagree with those who think that Lawson allocated the burden of proving collectibility to the plaintiff.

         ¶ 28 We begin our analysis by summarizing Lawson's facts. The plaintiff hired a lawyer in 1919 to sue Bessie Kennedy for an unpaid debt. Lawson, 83 Colo. at 116-17, 262 P. at 1018. The case lingered until 1923, when the plaintiff and the lawyer discovered that the trial court had dismissed the case for failure to prosecute it. Id. at 117, 262 P. at 1018.

          ¶ 29 The plaintiff then sued the lawyer for "neglect of professional duty." Id. The trial court granted the lawyer's motion for a directed verdict. Id. In doing so, it decided that the plaintiff had to prove three things:

. the lawyer had been negligent;
. the plaintiff had "a good cause of action" against Ms. Kennedy; and ...

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