Post-Conviction Relief is Required to Maintain a Criminal Legal Malpractice Action

In the case of Gibson v. Trant, 58 S.W.3d 103 (2001), the Supreme Court in Tennessee held that post-conviction relief is required to maintain a criminal legal malpractice action.

In Gibson, Johnie Gibson was charged with committing several drug related offenses.  Gibson hired two attorneys, and the attorneys asked Gibson to persuade the other co-defendants to hire them too.  Gibson alleged (1) that the joint representation, generated by unethical conduct, created a severe conflict of interest; (2) that the attorneys pressured Gibson to plead guilty or federal prosecutors would file charges against his elderly father; and (3) that the attorneys told him he would receive a sentence of eight to ten years.  After Gibson entered a guilty plea, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison, the minimum sentence.

Gibson subsequently filed a legal malpractice action.  He also tried to have his plea vacated because it was involuntary.  However, the district court and the Sixth Circuit both denied his motion, thereby holding that his plea was voluntary.  Gibson’s former attorneys then filed a motion to dismiss the legal malpractice action.  The attorneys argued that Gibson suffered no damages from any alleged breach because the federal courts had already determined that Gibson’s guilty plea was valid.  Accordingly, Gibson could not now recover damages based on his allegation that his plea was invalid.   The state court granted the attorneys’ motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

The Tennessee Supreme Court framed the question in this case as follows: whether a criminal legal malpractice action required any additional elements, other than those required in a civil legal malpractice action of duty, breach, causation, and damages, when a criminal defendant sues his defense lawyer for malpractice.

The court noted that one of the most persuasive reasons for requiring post-conviction relief is the problem of causation, that is, the criminal defendant’s ability to prove his attorney caused him a legally cognizable injury.  The Supreme Court, quoting the California Supreme Court’s decision in Wileyv. County of San Diego, 966 P.2d 983, 988 (Ca. 1998), stated as follows:

In a civil malpractice action, the focus is solely on the defendant attorney’s alleged error or omission; the plaintiff’s conduct is irrelevant.  In the criminal malpractice context by contrast, a defendant’s own criminal act remains the ultimate source of this predicament irrespective of counsel’s subsequent negligence.  Any harm suffered is not ‘only because of’ attorney error but principally due to the client’s antecedent criminality.

Stated otherwise, a criminal legal malpractice actions stems from a criminal conviction, and the validity of a criminal conviction should not be tested in the civil courts.

Another reason for the requirement of post-conviction relief is that the criminal justice system provides redress for any error or omission.  The post-conviction process prevents the wrongly accused and unfairly convicted from suffering an underserved criminal penalty and preserves the constitutional right to a fair trial.  Estoppel also precludes a criminal defendant from relitigating his claim and seeking to overturn a conviction under the guise of a malpractice suit.  Although Gibson alleges that he was induced to involuntarily plead guilty and told he would only serve eight to ten years if he plead guilty, even though the minimum sentence was twenty years, Gibson already made these arguments before the federal courts, who considered and rejected them.

Further, by requiring post-conviction exoneration, criminal attorneys are encouraged to thoroughly represent their clients and exercise sound legal judgment instead of following orders from a criminal defendant.  If post-conviction exoneration was not required, a criminal attorney might be persuaded to follow a client’s instructions, even though it might be harmful to the client, to prevent a future malpractice action.

The Tennessee Supreme Court thus went on to hold that the principles of tort law, equity, post-conviction law, and public policy necessitate that a criminal defendant must obtain post-conviction relief in order to maintain a criminal legal malpractice action against his defense attorney.

The attorneys at Bailey & Greer can help you evaluate your legal malpractice lawsuit.  Contact us today for a free case consultation.