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Herendeen v. Mandelbaum

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

October 25, 2017

CHRISTINE HERENDEEN, as trustee of the bankruptcy estate of Christopher X. Hutchins, Appellant,
v.
SAMUEL R. MANDELBAUM, ESQ.; KEVIN J. FITZSIMMONS, ESQ.; JOHN N. CAIN, ESQ.; and MANDELBAUM, FITZSIMMONS & HEWITT, P.A., Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County; Cheryl K. Thomas, Judge.

          Scott A. Arthur and Lee D. Gunn, IV, of Gunn Law Group, P.A., Tampa, for Appellant.

          Scott A. Cole and Melinda Thornton of Cole, Scott & Kissane, P.A., Miami; and Joseph T. Kissane and Paula A. Post of Cole, Scott & Kissane, P.A., Jacksonville, for Appellees.

          LaROSE, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Christine Herendeen, the trustee for Christopher Hutchins' bankruptcy estate, appeals a final summary judgment entered in favor of Samuel Mandelbaum, Kevin Fitzsimmons, John Cain, and Mandelbaum, Fitzsimmons & Hewitt (collectively, "Mandelbaum"). Mr. Hutchins retained Mandelbaum to defend him in a wrongful death lawsuit. Ms. Herendeen later sued Mandelbaum for legal malpractice, claiming that Mandelbaum failed to defend against a punitive damages claim asserted against Mr. Hutchins.

         Ms. Herendeen maintains that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment. She argues that, as trustee, she can seek damages for the bankruptcy estate caused by a negligent lawyer. She also argues that the discharge of the wrongful death judgment by the bankruptcy court did not extinguish her cause of action for legal malpractice.

         The trial court erred in concluding that the bankruptcy discharge extinguished a debt so as to preclude Ms. Herendeen's lawsuit. The trial court also erred in concluding that public policy barred Ms. Herendeen's effort to recover damages. Ms. Herendeen should be allowed to pursue her cause of action for legal malpractice against Mandelbaum. Accordingly, we reverse.

         Standard of Review

         A trial court should grant a motion for summary judgment only if there are no genuine issues as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(c). We review a summary judgment de novo. See Volusia Cty v. Aberdeen at Ormond Beach, L.P., 760 So.2d 126, 130 (Fla. 2000).

         Background

         Mr. Hutchins accidentally shot and killed Jessica Leigh Fraccalvieri. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter by culpable negligence. The trial court sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.

         Ms. Fraccalvieri's estate sued Mr. Hutchins for wrongful death. He hired Mandelbaum to represent him. Because Mr. Hutchins was in prison, Mandelbaum decided not to have him attend the trial. Apparently, the defense was "to be as contrite and as apologetic as possible because [there was] no other way to defend this case. He killed a young mother." Mandelbaum presented no evidence about Mr. Hutchins' net worth. Nor did Mandelbaum move for a directed verdict as to punitive damages based on Mr. Hutchins' inability to pay. The jury returned a hefty verdict against Mr. Hutchins that included $500, 000 in punitive damages. Belatedly, Mandelbaum sought relief from the punitive damages award, arguing that Florida law prohibits an award against a financially drained wrongdoer. The trial court refused to remit the award. It entered a final judgment against Mr. Hutchins.

         A few months later, Mr. Hutchins filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. See 11 U.S.C. ยง 301 (2012). The bankruptcy court appointed Ms. Herendeen as the trustee of the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court eventually ...


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