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Rules of Law versus Rules of Conduct.

Smith v. Morrison, 2012Pa. Super. 105 (Pa. Super. 2012) is a case from Perry County, Pennsylvania that analyzes the jury instructions to be given during legal malpractice cases. During trials, courts will often take suggestions for instructions from each party. ... 

Smith v. Morrison, 2012Pa. Super. 105 (Pa. Super. 2012) is a case from Perry County, Pennsylvania that analyzes the jury instructions to be given during legal malpractice cases. During trials, courts will often take suggestions for instructions from each party. In turn, the Judge will read the instructions to the jury in order to aid in the fact-finding mission. Often times, attorneys believe cases are won or lost based on the instructions received.

This case centered on the will of Mabel Smith (the plaintiff) and her husbands will. At the time the will was written Mabel was living on one of two farms owned by her husband, while their child lived on the other farm. In 1985, Mabel and her husband sold the farm they did not live on to the occupants, their son and his family. In 1990, Mabel and her husband added their other son to their deed, which created a joint tenancy where Mabel and her husband owned one-half while their son owned the other half. At the same time of adding their son to the deed, the Smiths also executed codicils requiring their co-tenant son to pay for the interest in the farm to the last surviving parent.

Mabel's husband died in 2003, and the son who owned the other farm, protested that the $80,000 payment was far too small for the interest being given to his brother. The conflict between the sons upset Mabel, and in reaction she sought counsel with her niece's husband, defendant Morrison. She advised Morrison that she wanted each son to have ½ interest in the farm she lived on, and to furthermore revoke her codicil and split her estate equally between her sons. Morrison tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Mabel from transferring the interest in the farm.

In May 2004, Mabel and her 2 sons met with Morrison concerning the interest in the farm. The meeting ended with a screaming match between the sons. Over the next several years, Mabel had several contacts with Morrison and did execute the will. In September 2005, she again changed her will, and finally executed the deed to her non-occupying son. At all times, Mabel was living with her son in one farm. She did not inform the occupying son of the transfer, and he did not become aware until looking at the real estate tax bill. The next day, the son living with Mabel filed a suit to rescind the deed, and won the suit. Later, he alleged this professional negligence action against Morrison for breach of fiduciary duty by representing both Mabel and her son who owned the other farm (Richard) when their interests were directly adverse. Mabel challenged the trial court decision based on the jury instructions and a collateral legal malpractice matter not pertinent to this blog.

InPennsylvania, trial court judges have great discretion in the language used for jury instructions. If the court gives a full and adequate summary of the applicable law, the only way in which the instructions can be overturned is if there is a clear abuse of discretion. In this case, Mabel wanted the rules of professional conduct read to the jury. The court however has held repeatedly that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted rules of professional conduct in order to exercise jurisdiction over the conduct of attorneys, and to regulate their behavior. The rules, thus do not have the effect of substantive law, but rather should be used in disciplinary hearings. Additionally, the preamble to the rules state "Violation of a rule should not give rise to a cause of action nor should it create any presumptions that a legal duty has been breached. The rules are designed to give a structure for regulating the conduct through disciplinary agencies. They are not to be used for civil liability."

The appeals court analyzed the proposed instructions where Mabel and her representatives sought to use the rules of professional conduct which govern attorney-client relationships and the fiduciary duties therein. Proposing instructions which were verbatim from the Rules was rejected by the trial court without any case law to support such instructions. At the initial trial, Smith was given a chance to find case law as well, but was unable to. Initially, upon rejection, the Judge noted that fiduciary duty may be governed by Rules of Professional conduct; however the action against an attorney for violations of fiduciary duties arises from a common-law claim. Thus, allowing instructions which essentially frame a cause of action based on violation of rules of professional conduct is improper.

The court strictly construed the preamble, and did not allow Mabel Smith or her attorney to use the rules of professional conduct as the standard. This is the correct result, but many clients may wonder why. To frame it simply, the Rules of Professional conduct provide an objective way for a board to analyze an attorney's behavior. While the conduct which a disciplinary board may find to be a violation also causes injury to a client, the standards are different. In order to win a civil suit, the cause of action must be recognized either through court-made common law or by a statute which condemns the behavior. The Rules of Professional conduct inPennsylvaniaand most states provide a statutory code of behavior to be enforced by the Supreme Court of a respective jurisdiction. This is the reason courts will not allow these to be used as jury instructions, but may allow the violation of rules of professional conduct to enter as evidence of professional negligence. It is very important to understand the difference between Rules of professional conduct providing applicable common law which inPennsylvaniais never; and in the Rules of Professional conduct being a source of evidence to be used by a plaintiff which will almost always be allowed.

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