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A divorce may be the most blood-boiling experience a person can go through, but one can’t sue his attorney just because the proceedings threw his life into turmoil, California’s 1st District Court of Appeal decided Friday. The appellate justices ruled against Vincenzo Rinaldi, who claims his divorce lawyer, Joseph Pisano of San Francisco, made mistakes that turned his life upside-down and left him wondering if his new marriage was legitimate. The appeal court’s Division One ordered San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay to strike a claim for emotional distress damages from Rinaldi’s suit or argue why he shouldn’t do so. Assuming Quidachay doesn’t fight the ruling, it will limit the amount of money Rinaldi can collect if his suit is ultimately successful. Quidachay had raised eyebrows among malpractice defense attorneys by ruling in October to allow Rinaldi’s distress claim to go forward. Courts rarely allow for emotional distress damages when attorneys are only accused of negligence, according to some defense lawyers. Rinaldi accuses Pisano of giving him bad advice and failing to serve his first wife with certain papers during their divorce proceedings. On top of at least $147,000 in compensatory damages, he sought unspecified damages for emotional distress in his suit, which was filed in August. The turmoil arose, Rinaldi says, when his first wife went to court to revisit the division of property — two years after their 2001 divorce and a year after Rinaldi had remarried. He and his then-pregnant new wife “were extremely concerned that they were not legitimately married and that their baby was illegitimate,” asserted Rinaldi’s malpractice attorney, Meis & Alexander associate Quinton Cutlip, in his briefs. The plaintiff contends his home life was thrown into emotional upheaval for more than four months, until a local judge made it clear that the status of his first marriage wouldn’t be affected. Pisano’s lawyer, San Rafael, Calif., solo Ryan Kent, counters there should have been no concern about Rinaldi’s second marriage because his first wife’s request to set aside the divorce judgment specified that she wasn’t questioning the status of the divorce. Lawyers for the two sides disagree as to whether Pisano adequately explained that to his client, though. Kent fumed in his petition to the 1st District that according to Quidachay’s reasoning, “all a plaintiff needs to allege in order to seek emotional distress damages in any legal malpractice action is that their attorney failed to explain the consequences of some legal proceeding that they were extremely concerned about.” Kent further argued that a plaintiff can’t recover emotional distress damages if his primary interest was economic. He cited the 1st District’s 1996 decision in Camenisch v. Superior Court, 44 Cal.App.4th 1689. While Cutlip didn’t dispute that general rule, he argued it didn’t apply to Rinaldi’s case because he suffered emotional distress separate and distinct from his economic loss. The plaintiff, said Cutlip, hired Pisano for two reasons: to resolve property interests and to obtain a divorce from his first wife so he could remarry and “protect a non-monetary interest of special emotional, moral, spiritual and religious importance.” Cutlip said Monday that while the 1st District didn’t agree in Rinaldi’s case, its order didn’t invalidate his theory or set a precedent. And he noted that Rinaldi’s claim for compensatory damages is still intact. But taking one type of damages out of the picture, says Kent, eliminates potential liability as well as guesswork. A claim for emotional distress damages “just opens up a whole bag of worms,” he said. “It’s too open-ended. It’s not predictable.” One malpractice defense attorney said Monday that the 1st District’s order is of interest to attorneys outside the case, even without a published opinion. Such decisions “give you insight into what a court is thinking,” said Pamela Phillips, who heads the professional liability group at Rogers Joseph O’Donnell & Phillips. And they can be used to gain leverage before filing a motion to strike such as Pisano’s, by mentioning them in meet and confer letters to the opposition. The Superior Court case is Rinaldi v. Pisano, 434148.

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