Schulte Roth & Zabel has beat a legal malpractice lawsuit stemming from a wealthy couple’s 2015 agreement written by a top Schulte estate planning partner.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Kalish dismissed Jordan Seaman’s legal malpractice complaint, which alleged he incurred millions of dollars in damages as result of being misled by Schulte partner Susan Frunzi about a 2015 agreement with his then-wife. The judge found that there was no attorney-client relationship and Seaman was repeatedly advised to review the agreement with his own counsel.
When he filed the malpractice lawsuit last March, Seaman, represented by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, said Frunzi had regularly advised him on a variety of personal legal matters over the course of a decade, including estate planning.
Seaman, whose family is tied to the now-defunct Seaman Furniture Co., claimed he and his then-wife approached Frunzi around 2014 to prepare an agreement in which he would contribute to the cost of a new house for his wife. Schulte represented the husband and wife as their attorneys in drafting the document, he claimed. At the time, Seaman was living separately from his wife, Rebecca Colin, the daughter of real estate developer Fred Colin.
Seaman signed the agreement in March 2015, believing his financial obligations under it would terminate in the event of a divorce, his complaint said, adding he told Frunzi he didn’t want to change an existing prenuptial agreement. But he said he was informed by Frunzi, after he signed it, that the agreement actually imposed a lifetime financial obligation on him that survived the divorce.
He said he also learned during divorce proceedings that Frunzi failed to disclose she personally was an active trustee “of two extremely valuable trusts” for his wife’s benefit.
Kalish dismissed the case from the bench after hearing oral arguments, according to an Oct. 23 posted transcript. The judge said he was relying on an Appellate Division, First Department, decision, Barrett v. Goldstein, issued shortly after Seaman filed his malpractice suit. In that case, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a malpractice case in which an attorney drafted a postnuptial agreement and the spouses’ separate counsel were to review it before signing.
In Seaman’s case, the March 2015 agreement provided that it was prepared by Schulte, at the request of the parties, but Schulte did not represent either of them with the negotiation or preparation of the agreement and each of the parties was informed of the right to obtain legal counsel, Kalish noted. The agreement also said Schulte has represented the husband and wife independently in the past and will continue to do so, as they may choose, and each party has waived conflicts.
Seaman “was repeatedly advised on approximately 11 separate occasions to review the agreement with his own attorney,” Kalish said.
Kalish said Seaman retained his own counsel, “who happened to be his cousin, who advised him on his signing the agreement, although [Seaman] did not have his attorney review the most recent draft of the agreements before signing it.”
The judge further found the March 2015 agreement was not within the scope of Seaman’s attorney-client relationship with Schulte and Frunzi. Although Schulte and Frunzi had previously represented Seaman in estate planning matters, “the words and actions of the parties made clear here that it was plaintiff’s responsibility to retain counsel for the purpose of advising and representing his interest and the drafting negotiation” of the March agreement, Kalish said.
In a statement Friday, Emery Celli partner Ilann Maazel, who represented Seaman, said, “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering our options.” He said his client is currently a “stay-at-home dad and part-time investor in startup enterprises.”
In a statement, Schulte partner Robert Abrahams, who defended the firm in the malpractice case, said while the Barrett case was useful, “even if Barrett had not been decided, the waiver, in this case, was perfectly drafted.” He added, “This was a frivolous lawsuit and Justice Kalish correctly dismissed it with prejudice.”