The Supreme Court of New Jersey has granted Archer & Greiner leave to appeal a ruling subjecting it to New Jersey’s six-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice instead of Pennsylvania’s two-year limit.
The order gives the firm hope of being dismissed from the suit if Pennsylvania law is found to apply. At issue in the malpractice suit is the manner that former Archer & Greiner partner Richard Grungo Jr. handled a fire insurance claim by the owner of a diner in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Two other New Jersey firms—Robbins & Robbins of Woodbridge, New Jersey, and Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins of Springfield, New Jersey—are also defendants in the suit, as is David Wikstrom of Javerbaum Wurgaft. But Archer & Greiner brought the appeal on behalf of itself and Grungo, who is now with Grungo Colarulo in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
The Supreme Court directed the Appellate Division to hear the case in an order made public Wednesday. The appeals court previously declined Archer & Greiner’s appeal bid.
Superior Court Judge Joseph Quinn ruled in February 2015 that Pennsylvania law applied to legal malpractice claims brought against Archer & Greiner, Javerbaum Wurgaft, and Robbins & Robbins in the case of MTK Food Services v. Sirius America Insurance. Archer & Greiner says the malpractice claims against it are subject to dismissal if the two-year deadline applies.
But this May, Quinn reversed his position, finding that New Jersey’s six-year deadline applied in the case, based on a motion for reconsideration filed by MTK lawyer Wendy Crowther of Schibell & Mennie in Ocean Township, New Jersey.
The motion said the applicable law had changed, citing the Supreme Court’s January 2017 ruling in McCarrell v. Hoffmann-La Roche. In McCarrell, the court said that in a conflict-of-laws analysis involving the statute of limitations, the Restatement (Second), Conflict of Laws, Section 142, applied. Under that standard, New Jersey’s statute of limitations applies, and the malpractice claims against the firms can proceed, he ruled.
The dispute stems from a December 2002 fire that partly destroyed the diner, which is known as The Palace. Its owner, Menelaos Kontos, a New Jersey resident, retained Spencer Robbins of Robbins & Robbins to assist him with an insurance claim. Robbins had represented Kontos in other matters but was not admitted in Pennsylvania. Robbins, in turn, retained Grungo, who worked out of his firm’s Princeton, New Jersey, office but was admitted in Pennsylvania.
Grungo filed a coverage suit against the insurance carrier, Sirius America Insurance Co., in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas in 2006. But that suit was dismissed, and the insurance carrier never made a payment to Kontos. Kontos claimed in court papers that the insurance company made a $240,000 settlement offer but Robbins and Grungo never relayed it to him. Kontos said in a court document that Archer & Greiner withdrew from the case without telling him and neither Robbins nor Archer & Greiner told him his case was dismissed.
Kontos later retained Javerbaum Wurgaft to bring a malpractice claim in the case. That firm brought a suit against Robbins & Robbins but not against Archer & Greiner, with which it had a referral relationship, according to court documents.
Archer & Greiner maintained before Quinn that Pennsylvania law should apply in the case because MTK Food Services, the diner’s owner of record, is a Pennsylvania corporation, and owns and operates a diner in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Archer & Greiner maintained, Grungo is a Pennsylvania attorney, and the firm has long maintained an office in Philadelphia. What’s more, Grungo filed a suit over the case in a Pennsylvania court, and the malpractice claim concerns a Pennsylvania attorney’s handling of a Pennsylvania suit on behalf of a Pennsylvania corporation.
Crowther, the MTK lawyer, maintains that the six-year statute of limitations should apply because New Jersey has a substantial interest in the case and Archer & Greiner has not shown any extraordinary circumstances to dictate otherwise.
But Crowther said she’s “not certain it matters” if Archer is in the case or not, because she expects Javerbaum Wurgaft will remain in the case as a defendant.
Ellis Medoway, Archer & Greiner’s general counsel, who represents the firm in the case, declined to comment, citing firm policy. Grungo also did not return a call.
Patrick Galligan of Donnelly, Minter & Kelly in Morristown, who represents Javerbaum Wurgaft and Wikstrom, said his clients did not bring a suit against Archer & Greiner because they perceived a conflict, and Wikstrom notified the client of that.
“We’re confident the courts will look at the facts of the case and apply the law correctly.”