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Nelson v. Padgitt

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division

November 1, 2016

DWIGHT NELSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 16 L 6855 The Honorable Margaret Ann Brennan, Judge, presiding.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE HYMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Neville and Mason concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 After losing a breach of contract lawsuit against his former employer, plaintiff Dwight Nelson sued his lawyers for malpractice. Nelson alleged that his lawyer and his law firm had negligently represented him when negotiating an employment agreement when he took a position with the employer. Because the trial court did not err in holding that Nelson's suit was filed outside the two-year statute of limitations, we affirm. Nelson's claim of malpractice against his lawyer is "inseparable" from his claims against his employer, and his legal malpractice claim accrued at least by the time he filed his suit against the employer because by then it was "plainly obvious" that he had been injured as a result of legal malpractice.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In 2011, Dwight Nelson decided to leave his branding and packaging design business, HBN Brandesign, and join another company, Launch Creative Marketing, while bringing his HBN clients to Launch. Nelson hired Donald Lee Padgitt and Padgitt, Padgitt, & Peppey, Ltd., to represent him in negotiating an employment agreement with Launch. Nelson signed the agreement on June 6, 2011.

         ¶ 4 Six months later, on January 19, 2012, Launch terminated Nelson's employment. The letter informing Nelson of his firing specified that under the employment agreement Launch could terminate Nelson for cause if the revenue collected from Nelson's old clients totaled less than $250, 000 over the first six months of employment.

         ¶ 5 On October 31, 2012, Nelson sued Launch and one of its employees for breach of contract and fraud. In the complaint, Nelson alleged that Launch breached the obligations of good faith and fair dealing by failing to define Nelson's job description and to support his work and unnecessarily reducing and delaying the billing of the clients Nelson had brought to Launch. Had Launch not done so, Nelson alleged, he would have met the $250, 000 target during his first six months of employment and not been fired for cause. Nelson attached to the complaint a copy of the employment agreement and the January 19 letter terminating his employment.

         ¶ 6 On December 4, 2014, the trial court granted summary judgment in Launch's favor. In a written decision, the trial court pointed out that Nelson was "a successful businessman, and was represented by competent counsel throughout the negotiation of his employment agreement." The trial court attributed the outcome to "Nelson's failure to properly negotiate on his own behalf, " which gave Launch much discretion under the employment agreement. In sum, "Nelson was in a position at the bargaining table to ensure none of these complications arose by better protecting his interests through negotiation."

         ¶ 7 On July 7, 2015, Nelson sued Padgitt and his firm for legal malpractice. Nelson alleged he hired Padgitt based on Padgitt's experience in transactional matters and told Padgitt his goal of securing a steady income for the next few years and eventually retiring. Padgitt negotiated the employment agreement with Launch, and Nelson signed it on Padgitt's recommendation. But Nelson alleged Padgitt neglected to tell him that (1) the agreement did not provide steady income past six months, (2) Launch could fire Nelson after six months if the revenue from his customers fell short of the specified target, (3) Launch had the ability to insure that Nelson would not meet his target, (4) Launch had broad discretion in billing and defining Nelson's job description, or (5) the agreement lacked a specific start date. Nelson alleged that any reasonable attorney would have negotiated an agreement that would have better protected Nelson. Finally, Nelson alleged that he had suffered damages, including future benefits from employment with Launch, the value of the customers he brought to Launch, the cost of settling his suit with Launch, and the cost of suing Launch. He estimated these damages exceeded $100, 000.

         ¶ 8 On February 10, 2016, the trial court dismissed Nelson's complaint with prejudice for the reason that the two-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice barred his claims. (The trial court did not consider extra-record evidence submitted by Padgitt, and neither will we.)


         ¶ 10 We review a trial court's dismissal of a complaint based on the statute of limitations de novo. Carlson v. ...

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