Woman may sue divorce lawyer for "glaring" failure to provide minimal legal representationVallory Bunday appealed the dismissal of her malpractice claim against Freeman Haehnel. Bunday alleges that Haehnel was selected to represent her by her husband of 31 years, that he charged her $500.00 and gave her only minimal advice, and that as a result, she stumbled into a property settlement that was grossly inadequate and unjust. Among other claims, she argued that the $1.7 million dollar inheritance received by her ex- had been commingled during the marriage and should have been included in the marital estate. Haehnel argued that Bunday's claims against him had already been litigated and rejected when a successor attorney attempted to gain relief from the divorce judgment by alleging mutual mistake or fraud by the ex-husband and lost.
The trial court threw out Bunday's claims at the request of Haehnel, however, the Court of Appeals reinstated it. The court unanimously concluded that "the absence of any documentation, evidence of work performed or counseling by defendants to plaintiff in an effort to provide meaningful, or at least minimal, legal representation in the underlying divorce action is glaring." Since the actual value of the marital estate was never litigated in that proceeding, and since the question of commingling was not actually decided, Bunday was not bound by the divorce judge's refusal to re-examine the underlying divorce. If she can prove that Haehnel caused her financial injury by failing to provide her with at least minimal advice consistent with the fiduciary duty he assumed, she can recover for professional negligence.
Her claim may be somewhat difficult, given that the lower court expressly found her testimony about her emotional state and factual misrepresentations to be less credible than was her ex-husband's. On the other hand, the fact that the lawyers appear to have done nothing for her and have no file to document that appropriate advice was given, certainly opens the door to corroborate Bunday's claim that the attorneys were selected by her ex- because they would not "zealously" represent her interests.