Disgruntled Client Free to Disparage Attorney?

By letter, Gutterman fired Attorney Frechtman, alleging a “belief” that Frechtman had failed to act in Gutterman’s best interest and had committed legal malpractice.  Frechtman, a 60 year practitioner, took offense and sued Gutterman for defamation.  The trial court dismissed the complaint of the unhappy lawyer.  But Frechtman, pro se, appealed the dismissal to the First Department.

Parsing the dismissal letter, the First Department found the alleged defamatory statements constituted “opinions.”  But the challenged statements, the Court found, were also protected by a qualified privilege (i.e. the right of a client to communicate freely with counsel about matter of common interest).  See, Frechtman v. Gutterman (1st Dept., January 23, 2014).

Recently, in Roth v. Tarter Krinsky et al, WCM beat back an attorney’s defamation claim against his former law firm.  Roth alleged that certain defamatory statements had been made about him to attorneys within the firm.  New York City’s Civil Court found that Roth’s pleadings were not sufficiently specific and that the statements were protected by the common interest privilege. Attorneys and partners, the court reasoned, are free to discuss the conduct of lawyers at the firm – – unless the discussion is motivated by pure malice.  The court found that Roth’s sweeping allegation of malice were insufficient to overcome the qualified privilege. Roth’s complaint was dismissed without leave to replead.

Thanks to Alison Weintraub for her contribution to this post.  If you have any questions about defamation and slander lawsuits, please email Dennis Wade at dwade@wcmlaw.com.