professional negligence

A New Jersey appeals court ruled that a Riverdale law firm and one of its partners cannot be sued for malpractice based on a former client’s claim that she was shortchanged in a divorce settlement because of mental incapacity.

The Appellate Division agreed with a Passaic County trial judge that plaintiff Lynda Dillman could not demonstrate that she was suffering from mental instability at the time she signed the property settlement agreement with her husband, Scott, and did not fully understand its implications.

The ruling, by Appellate Division Judges Hany Mawla and Patrick DeAlmeida, affirms the dismissal of Lynda Dillman’s action against her former attorney, Kenneth Petrie of Petrie, Cotroneo & Gossner, on summary judgment.

“Self-serving assertions that are unsupported by evidence are insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact,” the panel said in the per curiam ruling on Aug. 30.

Petrie has since retired and could not be reached for comment. He and his former firm were represented by John Gonzo, of East Hanover’s L’Abbatte, Balkan, Colavita & Contini. Gonzo did not return a call seeking comment.

Lynda Dillman’s attorney, Kenneth Thyne of Roper & Thyne in Totowa, declined to comment.

According to the court, Lynda and Scott were married in 1980. They had two children, but split up in June 2006. Lynda retained Petrie.

In June 2008, the couple reached a property settlement agreement, in which the couple agreed to limited duration alimony paid by Scott until Jan. 31, 2017; a $150,000 credit to Scott toward his share in the marital home; Lynda would buy out Scott’s remaining interest in the home; Scott would pay off a home equity loan; Scott would pay $27,000 to pay off Lynda’s credit card debt; Scott would pay child care expenses; Lynda would be the primary parental custodian of the couple’s one minor child still living at home; Scott would pay 85 percent of the younger child’s remaining college debt; Scott agreed to a split of his as-yet-not-vested retirement plan.

The couple appeared at a settlement conference on Jan. 25, 2008. According to the decision, Lynda said the ruling was a compromise that was “fair and equitable,” and that the two were “cutting  our losses.” The PSA was approved in court.

Nearly a year later, Lynda filed a motion to reopen the PSA, claiming she needed additional alimony because her mental health issues affected her financial condition. That motion was denied in March 2009. In November 2012, Lynda hired a new attorney and again sought to reopen the case, saying that when she signed the original PSA, she was suffering from mental impairment and did not fully understand the terms.

Again her efforts failed, and another appeals court affirmed that ruling.

Lynda filed her malpractice lawsuit against Petrie Cotroneo on Jan. 22, 2014. She again alleged that when she signed the PSA she was suffering from a mental impairment and didn’t understand its terms. She also alleged that there had been some effort to conceal Scott’s true potential recovery from his retirement plan: While the divorce was pending, Scott had become a partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Another motion judge dismissed the complaint on summary judgment, and Lynda appealed.

The Appellate Division panel said a malpractice complaint could not be supported, and deemed Lynda’s expert opinions—on what share of marital assets Lynda was entitled to, and on any hidden value to Scott’s retirements assets—net opinions.