Although a federal court determined an attorney rendered ineffective assistance to his client by not fully explaining a plea bargain to him in a federal criminal case, a Philadelphia judge overseeing a subsequent legal malpractice action ruled the client cannot recover attorney fees paid to his lawyer.
In an opinion issued Monday, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Lisa M. Rau detailed the rulings of retired Judges Sandra Mazer Moss and Joseph Papalini in Stein v. Magarity.
The malpractice case originally went before Papalini, who granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, attorney Gregory Magarity. After Papalini’s retirement, Moss took over the case and denied the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration of Papalini’s summary judgment order. Rau’s opinion is in response to an appeal made by plaintiff Melvin Stein to the state Superior Court.
In her opinion, Rau explained Papalini’s rationale for granting summary judgment and his reasoning in denying Stein’s claims that he would have received a shorter sentence had Magarity not breached his contract with Stein by failing to advise him properly.
“Judge Papalini reasoned that damages must be proven in order to satisfy a breach of contract,” Rau said, noting that Papalini determined there was “‘no evidence of measurable loss’ because ‘the damages [Stein] alleges are speculative. It is uncertain what [Stein's] sentence would have been if a plea agreement had been accepted and [Stein] continued to cooperate with the government.’”
Papalini added that “‘far too many factors, beyond [Magarity's] alleged breach, could have impacted the length of [Stein's] sentence,’” according to Rau.
In 2006, Stein was sentenced to 10 years in prison for offenses related to laundering drug-trafficking money. According to Rau, Stein claimed that Magarity spoiled a plea bargain started by Stein’s previous lawyer and did not advise him properly on a subsequent plea offer.
Stein filed suit against Magarity in 2010 seeking recovery of fees paid to Magarity in the amount of $885,000, with Papalini granting summary judgment in favor of Magarity in August of that year. The case was dismissed without prejudice and, according to Rau, Papalini stipulated that the action could restart once the underlying criminal case in federal court had concluded.
In May 2012, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined that Magarity ineffectively represented his client and reduced Stein’s sentence from 10 years to 87 months, Rau said.
Stein’s case against Magarity was reactivated after the federal court’s decision and Stein filed a motion to reconsider Papalini’s ruling before Moss.
Stein claimed that because of the federal court’s finding, the damages that he suffered were no longer “speculative,” Rau said. Magarity argued that the finding of ineffective assistance of counsel did not constitute new evidence in terms of a malpractice suit and did not provide grounds for reconsideration of Papalini’s order.
According to Rau, Moss denied the motion pursuant to the coordinate jurisdiction rule March 8, 2013.
Rau added that while there are some limited exceptions to the coordinate jurisdiction rule, such as when a judge makes an erroneous ruling, “Judge Moss found that Judge Papalini’s holding was not clearly erroneous, that there was insufficient new evidence to change his earlier ruling and that adhering to Judge Papalini’s holding would not create any manifest injustice.”
Stein later sought tort damages against Magarity and also noted in a motion to amend his complaint that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Lafler v. Cooper that the remedy for ineffective assistance of counsel via failure to advise a client of a guilty plea offer is the imposition of the sentence the defendant would have received by accepting the plea offer, according to Rau.
Magarity argued that the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Bailey v. Tucker precludes tort damages against criminal defense counsel, Rau said.
Noting that Bailey discusses tort damages in relation to wrongful convictions, Rau said that “Stein was not found to be innocent or wrongfully convicted. The federal court simply reduced his sentence due to its conclusion that his counsel had been ineffective in advising him of a guilty plea agreement.”
She added, “Judge Moss was not persuaded by [Stein's] argument, and denied the motion to amend.”
Magarity’s attorney, Arthur W. Lefco of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, declined to comment.
William Murphy represented Stein and said in an email to The Legal, “The opinion frames for the Superior Court’s review legal issues that are especially meaningful in light of the recent decision in Lafler v. Cooper … which clarified and strengthened the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance in a plea bargaining setting.”
(Copies of the 37-page opinion in Stein v. Magarity, PICS No. 14-0201, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •