NJSBA Successfully Argued as Amicus in NJ Supreme Court Legal Malpractice Case

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April 21, 2020
Contact: Kate Coscarelli

NEW BRUNSWICK - The New Jersey Supreme Court decided whether the Tort Claims Act (TCA) applied against a public defender for legal malpractice case last week, where a defendant was granted post-conviction relief dismissing an indictment against him and he was released from prison for a crime he did not commit.
In Nieves v. Office of the Public Defender, the Court decided that the TCA applied to Antonio Chaparro Nieves’s legal malpractice action and his claims for loss of liberty damages failed to vault the verbal threshold for a pain and suffering damaged claim under the strictures of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). The defendants were entitled to summary judgment. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court, Justice Barry T. Albin dissented in part.
The Court’s decision is consistent with the New Jersey State Bar Association’s (NJSBA) amicus curiae argument urging the court to affirm the Appellate Division’s decision to apply the TCA to legal malpractice claims. The NJSBA did not comment on damages or the verbal threshold. The Court declined to hear the NJSBA’s argument extending the TCA to cover attorneys enlisted for mandatory pro bono assignments. George Conk argued the matter on behalf of the NJSBA.
Antonio Chaparro Nieves was represented by a public defender when he was convicted of several crimes for which he served 12 years and four months. He was ultimately released, the charges were dismissed on his petition for post-conviction relief, and he has recovered under the Mistaken Imprisonment Act. The trial court ruled that the procedural requirements of the TCA do not apply to legal malpractice claims. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the Office of the Public Defender is a public entity and that public defenders are public employees who fall within TCA’s immunities and defenses.
The Court held that while the professional representational duty owed by a public defender is to his or her individual client, public defenders perform a public function of ensuring representation for indigent defendants in criminal matters brought by the State. The TCA contains no exemption for public defenders and public defenders are therefore cloaked with the immunities, defenses and limitation on tort claims filed against public entities and their employees. As such, where liability is permitted, the verbal threshold provides relief for pain and suffering – here emotional distress. Nieves’ claim of loss of liberty damages or quality of life damages failed to vault the verbal threshold because these are not claims of pain and suffering.
Dissenting in part, Justice Albin agreed that the TCA applies, but interprets the recovery under the verbal threshold as not limiting the recovery of loss and liberty. He pointed out that while damages for pain and suffering and loss of liberty are subsets of non-pecuniary damages, loss of liberty damages are not a subset of pain and suffering, but another form of damages that is not limited by the TCA.