On August 31, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a decision that likely will be a significant precedent in determining whether legal malpractice claims are barred by the statutes of limitation. In Seidner v. Howard Finkelman, Nos. 716 EDA 2017 and 808 EDA 2017, the Panel (President Judge Gantman and Judges Shogan and Platt) ruled that the claim at issue was untimely because it was subject to the two-year statute of limitations applicable to tort claims — rather than the four-year statute applicable to breach of contract claims.
The underlying case was a protracted divorce proceeding in which the plaintiff (Seidner) in the malpractice action had been represented by the defendants in the malpractice action. Seidner filed her legal malpractice action as a breach of contract claim, presumably to have the claim governed by Pennsylvania’s four-year statute of limitations applicable to contract actions. The trial court ruled that, regardless of how Seidner had styled her claim, it was governed by the shorter tort statute of limitations because the claim sounded in tort based on the “gist of the action” doctrine.
In affirming, the Superior Court reviewed the different elements for proving legal malpractice under tort and contract theories. The Court heavily relied on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Bruno v. Erie Ins. Co., 106 A.3d 48 (Pa. 2014), which set forth new standards for application of the “gist of the action” doctrine, including the principle that the mere existence of a contract between the parties does not mean that a claim by one of the contracting parties arising out of performance of the contract necessarily sounds in contract. At bottom, according to the Superior Court in Seidner, the legal malpractice claim before the Court was not predicated on the alleged breach of any specific, executory promise and, rather, was based on the allegation that the defendant lawyers negligently performed their obligations. The Court found support in the expert report of Seidner’s expert, which provided the opinion that the lawyers had failed to exercise ordinary skill and knowledge.