The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that there is no conflict of interest in using an expert affidavit supporting a complaint written by an attorney who is also a law partner of the filing attorney.
The Personal Injury Case
Plaintiff David Mitchell retained attorney Randall Cade Parian of Parrian Injury Law, LLC to represent him in a personal injury action. Without informing Mitchell, Parian referred the case to Brian Wesley Craig of Craig & Avery, LLC. Attorney Craig filed a personal injury action on Mitchell’s behalf in Fulton County State Court.
Mitchell contacted Parian numerous times in the two years after retaining them. Parian told Mitchell that the case was “chugging along” and never informed him that the case was actually being handled by another law firm.
The defendants in the personal injury case set a deposition for Mitchell and notified Craig, but neither Parian nor Craig notified Mitchell of the deposition. The defendants filed a motion to compel and a motion for sanction, but neither Craig nor Parian contacted Mitchell. As a result of the motions, Mitchell’s case was dismissed with prejudice.
When Mitchell learned of the dismissal, he reviewed the complaint that Craig had filed on his behalf. Mitchell saw that the allegations had little resemblance to the facts of his case, leading him to conclude that Craig had simply used a complaint his firm had filed in a different case and substituted Mitchell as the plaintiff.
The Malpractice Action
Mitchell retained attorney William Ney to represent him in a legal malpractice action against Parian and Craig. Ney filed a complaint that was supported by the affidavit of Jacob Rhein, an attorney who is licensed to practice law in Georgia. In his affidavit, Rhein indicated that he was familiar with the standard of care for Georgia attorneys and that it was his opinion that Parian and Craig had breached that standard of care. The day after Rhein executed his affidavit, he and Ney formed a law firm together, Ney Rhein, LLC.
Parian and Craig filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that because Rhein was a member of Ney’s law firm, he was not competent to provide the affidavit that was required to support a legal malpractice action. Following a hearing, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss. The court ruled that there was “an inherent conflict between Rhein making the affidavit as a witness and being a member of the law firm” that represented Mitchell.
Mitchell appealed the trial court’s ruling. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals, First Division, looked to the language of the statutory requirement. OCGA § 9-11-9.1 provides, in relevant part, that to assert a claim for legal malpractice, the plaintiff is “required to file with the complaint an affidavit of an expert competent to testify, which affidavit shall set forth specifically at least one negligent act or omission claimed to exist and the factual basis for each such Claim.”
The Georgia Court of Appeals found that Rhein met the statutory requirements for an expert witness as set forth in OCGA § 24-7-702. The court further found that Rhein’s status as Ney’s law partner affected Rhein’s qualifications as an expert witness. Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes authored the opinion with the concurrence of Judges Elizabeth Gobeil and John Pipkin III.
Attorney for the plaintiff William Ney said of the ruling, “It just confirms what the ethics rules are: That members of the same firm can provide pretrial affidavits on behalf of each other’s clients and still comply with [the statute].” Whether a member of the firm could testify at trial, as opposed to filing a pretrial affidavit attesting to the claim’s legal merit, was not a question the court needed to answer.