Hand on bible, swearing in (Brand X Pictures)
A Passaic County jury has awarded $850,000 to the plaintiff in a legal malpractice case in which the defendant attorney’s failure to obtain expert reports spelled defeat for his client.
The malpractice suit was brought on behalf of a man who hired Thomas Doerr of Berman Sauter Record & Jardim in Cedar Knolls to represent him in connection with defective construction work on his property. The case was dismissed on summary judgment due to Doerr’s failure to obtain an expert report by an agreed-on deadline.
Plaintiff Aref Abuhadba hired Doerr in December 2010 to sue various parties that designed and built a retaining wall that cracked and bulged immediately on completion and had to be shored up. The wall was intended to facilitate construction of a residence on a mountaintop lot located in Totowa. Doerr filed the suit in March 2011 but he failed to take any steps to secure expert reports by an agreed-on deadline, or for months afterward, prompting the dismissal, the plaintiff claimed. An effort to vacate the summary judgment failed, said Patrick Collins, the attorney who represented Abuhadba in the legal malpractice suit.
Abuhadba then filed the malpractice suit against Doerr and Berman Sauter, which was by then defunct. The defendants asserted that an expert repeatedly promised to produce his report but failed to come through, said Collins. But the defense had no correspondence to back up those claims, and Doerr claimed all his interactions with the expert were by phone, said Collins, of Franzblau Dratch in Livingston.
The jury’s $850,000 verdict, returned on Thursday, represents the amount Abuhadba stood to recover in the legal malpractice case, said Collins. The plaintiff will be applying to the court for interest and for a fee award pursuant to Saffer v. Willoughby, which permits fee shifting in legal malpractice cases, said Collins. The award is covered by the defunct firm’s insurance, Collins said.
Berman Sauter’s lawyer in the case, Gregg Kahn of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker in Florham Park, did not return a call. Doerr could not be located.
When Berman Sauter closed its doors, two of its attorneys, Kenneth Sauter and Caroline Record, joined Hill Wallack. Two others—Richard Meisner and Jessica Battaglia—went to Jardim, Meisner & Susser, and name partner Edward Berman went to Stark & Stark.
Berman Sauter is still party to another long-running legal malpractice suit—Berman, Sauter, Record & Jardim v. Robinson. The suit began as a dispute over fees, but a defendant in that case filed a counterclaim seeking compensation for the alleged negligence of Sauter in handling a real estate matter. That case was notable for its controversy over whether one judge, Donald Coburn, could preside over it at both the trial court and appellate levels. The Supreme Court ruled in March 2016 that Coburn was not precluded from hearing the case at both levels. The case is scheduled for a retrial on May 1, said attorney Kenneth Thyne, who represents defendant DTH15 LLC.
Sauter was not involved in the Abuhadba case. Record, Meisner, Battaglia and Berman were not involved in the Abuhadba or Robinson cases.