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Segall v. Berkson

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 30, 1985.

MORT A. SEGALL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

JEROME BERKSON ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. George S. Miller, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE TRAPP DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal from an order dismissing appellant Mort Segall's fifth amended complaint alleging legal malpractice and breach of a contract to provide legal services on the part of defendant Jerome Berkson, individually, and Miles Beerman, Nathan Swerdlove, William Woloshin, Lawrence Barezky, and Berkson, "d/b/a a partnership." The gravamen of Segall's contentions is alleged deficiencies in defendant Berkson's representation of Segall in a dissolution of marriage case.

The salient allegations of the first count of Segall's complaint are that (1) at the relevant times, defendant James Berkson was a licensed, practicing attorney who represented himself as "possessing special expertise in the handling of divorce, custody and related domestic relations cases"; (2) on or about July 23, 1980, Segall employed Berkson to represent him in Champaign County cause No. 78-C-826 wherein Segall was a named respondent, which relationship continued until October 28, 1981, at which time Berkson withdrew as Segall's attorney; (3) in representing Segall, it was Berkson's duty to possess and apply the knowledge and use the skill and care that was ordinarily used by lawyers holding themselves out as possessing special expertise in the handling of divorce, custody, and related domestic relations cases "in like or similar cases and in like or similar localities"; and (4) in representing Segall, Berkson was negligent in various respects, which resulted in Segall sustaining damages. The paragraph containing the allegations of negligence consists of 30 separately lettered subparagraphs, one of which comprises a list of 25 documents which Berkson allegedly failed to file with respect to the dissolution of marriage action. A recitation of all of the alleged acts of negligence would at this point serve no useful purpose; reference will later be made to those which we deem most relevant to our decision.

In the second count, Segall repeated the allegations of the first count that Berkson held himself out as an attorney skilled in the domestic relations field and that Segall employed Berkson to represent him in Champaign County cause No. 78-C-826. Segall further alleged that (1) he paid Berkson a $6,000 retainer to be applied toward Berkson's fees and costs incurred in representing Segall; (2) the alleged contract imposed upon Berkson duties to do all those things normally associated with the representation of a client in ongoing litigation (these duties are described in great detail); (3) Berkson breached this agreement; and (4) Segall is entitled to various damages as a result of Berkson's breaches of contract. The breaches of contract alleged in this count are the same acts which form the basis for the negligence allegations contained in count I; Segall incorporated them into count II by reference to count I.

Following a hearing, the circuit court dismissed with prejudice Segall's fifth amended complaint. As the basis for its decision, the court stated that it regarded the allegations of the complaint, "if not evidentiary, as simply mere conclusions"; that "the Complaint lacks, in other words, the basic premises which are necessary to state a good cause of action"; and that the court "looks for a plain and concise statement of a cause of action." In the view of the trial court, the defendants "raised the objections that are cognizable by the Court in testing a Complaint." Segall appeals.

I

The defendants assert that we should affirm the trial court's decision as to count I of Segall's fifth amended complaint for most of the same reasons stated in their motion to strike and dismiss that complaint filed in the circuit court. The portions of this motion relevant to the points which defendants argue on appeal allege that count I generally does not state a cause of action, is argumentative, and contains conclusions of fact. The defendants specifically allege: (1) Count I does not contain the appropriate "standard of care for a purported legal malpractice action"; (2) the paragraphs alleging breaches of duty on the part of Berkson, and Segall's damages, are "replete with argumentative statements and conclusions of fact"; (3) the paragraph alleging Berkson's acts of negligence contains conclusions of law; (4) Segall did not allege that his damages would not have been sustained "but for" Berkson's negligence; and (5) the count contains an impermissible claim for damages premised on Segall's alleged emotional distress resulting from Berkson's alleged negligence.

• 1 A cause of action should not be dismissed on the pleadings unless it clearly appears that no set of facts can be proved which will entitle the plaintiff to recover. (Ogle v. Fuiten (1984), 102 Ill.2d 356, 466 N.E.2d 224; Fitzgerald v. Chicago Title & Trust Co. (1978), 72 Ill.2d 179, 380 N.E.2d 790.) In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege facts which, when considered together, establish and substantiate the cause of action which the plaintiff seeks to state. Factual conclusions based on previously alleged facts may be considered in determining whether a proper factual basis for a cause of action is alleged, but conclusions of fact unsupported by allegations of the specific facts on which they rest, as well as conclusions of law and argumentative matter, are irrelevant in making that determination. Knox College v. Celotex Corp. (1981), 88 Ill.2d 407, 430 N.E.2d 976; Richardson v. Eichhorn (1958), 18 Ill. App.2d 273, 151 N.E.2d 819.

• 2 In order to state a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must allege a duty, a breach of that duty, and proximate causation of compensable injury. (Ogle v. Fuiten (1983), 112 Ill. App.3d 1048, 445 N.E.2d 1344, aff'd (1984), 102 Ill.2d 356, 466 N.E.2d 224.) Attorneys have a duty to exercise a reasonable degree of care and skill in representing their clients. In determining whether specific conduct amounts to a breach of that duty, due regard must be accorded the distinction between negligence and mere errors of judgment. Schmidt v. Hinshaw, Culbertson, Moelmann, Hoban & Fuller (1979), 75 Ill. App.3d 516, 394 N.E.2d 559.

• 3 We first consider whether count I alleges the proper standard of care. We believe that it does. To be sure, Segall alleged that Berkson had a duty to use the degree of skill and care ordinarily used in like or similar cases and localities by attorneys holding themselves out as domestic relations experts, and neither an area of specialization nor a locality rule is presently included in the Illinois standard of care applicable to attorneys. However, the standard of care stated necessarily encompasses a duty on the part of Berkson to exercise a reasonable degree of care and skill on Segall's behalf. (Schmidt v. Hinshaw, Culbertson, Moelmann, Hoban & Fuller (1979), 75 Ill. App.3d 516, 394 N.E.2d 559.) The allegations of a higher standard of care are mere surplusage, and the inclusion of surplusage does not provide a basis for dismissal of a complaint containing all of the factual allegations necessary to state a cause of action. (In re Estate of Lipchik (1975), 27 Ill. App.3d 331, 326 N.E.2d 464.) Although count I refers to the applicable standard of care as the "skill and care that is ordinarily used by lawyers," we deem this language the practical equivalent of the standard of "a reasonable degree of care and skill" set out in Schmidt.

Bearing in mind the principle that no cause should be dismissed on the pleadings unless it clearly appears that no set of facts allowing the plaintiff to recover can be established (Ogle v. Fuiten (1983), 112 Ill. App.3d 1048, 445 N.E.2d 1344, aff'd (1984), 102 Ill.2d 356, 466 N.E.2d 224), we are of the opinion that there is no basis for saying that Segall's complaint does not properly allege negligent actions on the part of Berkson in representing Segall in his dissolution of marriage case. In our view, the following factual allegations, if proved at trial, would be sufficient to establish that in representing Segall, Berkson did not exercise a reasonable degree of care and skill:

(1) failure to file a motion, emergency motion and supplemental motion to modify temporary custody orders, as well as a request for the names of experts and other witnesses (subparagraph 6(a), items (1), (2), (17), and (18)),

(2) failure to depose various named and unnamed witnesses, which resulted in Berkson's being "unprepared for trial on the issues presented" (subparagraph 6(b)),

(3) failure to conduct appropriate and necessary research on subjects such as "child custody, visitation, support" and "marital and ...


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