952 A.2d 110
(AC 28346)Appellate Court of Connecticut
Flynn, C. J., and Robinson and Berdon, Js.
Argued May 20, 2008
officially released August 5, 2008
Action to collect a debt for legal services rendered to the defendants, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Litchfield, where the defendants filed a counterclaim; thereafter, the court, Pickard, J., granted the plaintiff’s motion to preclude certain evidence; subsequently, the matter was tried to the court; judgment for the plaintiff on the complaint and on the counterclaim, from which the defendant Maura C. Smithies appealed to this court. Affirmed.
Maura C. Smithies, pro se, the appellant (defendant).
Kie Westby, for the appellee (plaintiff).
The defendant Maura C. Smithies appeals from the judgment, rendered after a court trial, in favor of the plaintiff, Ackerly Brown, LLP. On appeal, Maura Smithies claims that the court improperly concluded that expert testimony was required for her claim of legal malpractice. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.
The following facts are necessary for our resolution of Maura Smithies’ appeal. Attorney Michael Sconyers, a partner in the plaintiff law firm, represented Maura Smithies and her husband, the defendant Richard Smithies, in a lawsuit involving a failed residential lease. In that action, a third party sued the defendants for damages. Sconyers informed the defendants that the case could be settled for $7500, that the cost of proceeding to trial could be expensive and that the outcome of the trial was uncertain. The defendants declined to
make a settlement offer. Following a four day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the third party and awarded damages of approximately $25,000. Sconyers filed motions to set aside the verdict and for a new trial, which the court denied, and a motion for remittitur, which the court granted. The court reduced the third party’s damages to approximately $8000. The professional relationship between Sconyers and the defendants ended after the third party filed her appeal but before it was argued and briefed.
The plaintiff submitted a final bill to the defendants, indicating a balance due of $15,680.70. The defendants failed to make any payments to the plaintiff with respect to this outstanding balance. On August 11, 2005, the plaintiff commenced the present action, a one count complaint seeking a collection of the outstanding balance. The defendants filed an answer and counterclaim, essentially claiming that Sconyers had committed legal malpractice in his handling of the underlying lawsuit.
On November 20, 2006, prior to the start of evidence, the plaintiff filed a motion in limine to preclude the defendants from presenting any evidence regarding legal malpractice. The basis for this motion was the defendants’ failure to disclose an expert witness in accordance with the rules of practice with respect to
the issue of whether Sconyers had committed legal malpractice. The court granted the motion. After a trial in which the court heard testimony from Sconyers and the defendants, it issued a memorandum of decision filed November 15, 2006. The court determined that the absence of expert testimony was fatal to the defendants’ claim of legal malpractice. Specifically, the court found that Sconyers was “an attorney with many years of learning and experience. He used this learning and experience to make many tactical and legal decisions before, during and after the trial to the jury.” It further concluded that this was not a case of an attorney’s failure to meet an obvious standard of care. The court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $15,680.70 plus costs and 12 percent interest from August 19, 2005. The court also rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff with respect to the defendants’ counterclaim. This appeal followed.
Maura Smithies claims that the court improperly concluded that expert testimony was required for her claim of legal malpractice. Specifically, she argues that Sconyers’ alleged acts of negligence were so apparent that the need for expert testimony was obviated. We are not persuaded.
We begin our analysis by setting forth the applicable standard of review. The determination of whether
expert testimony is needed to support a claim of legal malpractice presents a question of law. Vanliner Ins. Co. v. Fay, 98 Conn. App. 125, 136, 907 A.2d 1220 (2006). Accordingly, our review is plenary. Id., 137.
It is axiomatic in our jurisprudence that “[g]enerally, to prevail on a legal malpractice claim . . . a [party] must present expert testimony to establish the standard of proper professional skill or care. . . . Not only must the [party] establish the standard of care, but [she] must also establish that the [attorney’s] conduct legally caused the injury of which [she] complain[s].” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) DiStefano
v. Milardo, 82 Conn. App. 838, 842, 847 A.2d 1034 (2004), aff’d, 276 Conn. 416, 886 A.2d 415 (2005); see also Davis v. Margolis, 215 Conn. 408, 416, 576 A.2d 489 (1990); Glaser v. Pullman Comley, LLC, 88 Conn. App. 615, 619, 871 A.2d 392 (2005) (“[p]roving allegations of legal malpractice usually requires expert testimony”) Dunn v. Peter L. Leepson, P.C., 79 Conn. App. 366, 369, 830 A.2d 325, cert. denied, 266 Conn. 923, 835 A.2d 472 (2003).
Our courts have carved out a limited exception to this general rule in cases in which “there is present such an obvious and gross want of care and skill that the neglect [to meet the standard of care] is clear even to a layperson.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Anderson v Schoenhorn, 89 Conn. App. 666, 671, 874 A.2d 798 (2005); see als Celentano v. Grudberg, 76 Conn. App. 119, 126, 818 A.2d 841, cert. denied, 264 Conn. 904, 823 A.2d 1220 (2003); Pearl v. Nelson, 13 Conn. App. 170, 173, 534 A.2d 1257 (1988). Simply put, “[i]n legal malpractice litigation, expert evidence is required for most cases but not for all.” St. Onge, Stewart, Johnson Reens, LLC v. Media Group, Inc., 84 Conn. App. 88,95,851 A.2d 1242, cert. denied, 271 Conn. 918, 859 A.2d 570 (2004).
Finally, we set forth the rationale behind the need of expert testimony, as established by the appellate
courts of this state. “The requirement of expert testimony in malpractice cases serves to assist lay people, such as members of the jury and the presiding judge, to understand the applicable standard of care and to evaluate the [attorney’s] actions in light of that standard.” (Emphasis added.) Davis v. Margolis, supra, 215 Conn. 416; Dixon v. Bromson Reiner, 95 Conn. App. 294, 297-98, 898 A.2d 193 (2006); DiStefano v Milardo, supra, 82 Conn. App. 842; Bent v. Green, 39 Conn. Sup. 416, 420, 466 A.2d 322 (1983).
As the court observed, “[t]he allegations of negligence in this case involve such tactical questions as whether to file a motion for summary judgment, the questions asked at voir dire, the questions asked of witnesses, whether to make objections to certain evidence, the substance of requests to charge and effective cross-examination.” We conclude, as the trial court did, that the defendants’ allegation of Sconyers’ negligence required expert testimony to assist the judge, as the
trier of fact, in determining both the applicable standard of care and the evaluation of Sconyers’ actions with respect to that standard. The court found that Sconyers was an attorney with many years of experience and learning and that he used this background to make various tactical and legal decisions before, during and after the trial involving the defendants and the third party. We are not persuaded that this is a case in which an attorney has done nothing to protect the interests of a client; cf. Paul v. Gordon, 58 Conn. App. 724, 728, 754 A.2d 851
(2000); or the trial judge’s knowledge of the rules of practice eliminates the need for expert testimony. Cf. Dubreuil v. Witt, 80 Conn. App. 410, 421-22, 835 A.2d 477 (2003), aff’ d, 271 Conn. 782, 860 A.2d 698 (2004). Instead, the court properly concluded that the general rule requiring expert testimony in a legal malpractice action applied, and, in the absence of such testimony, the defendant’s claim of legal malpractice failed.
The judgment is affirmed.
Richard Smithies subsequently filed a motion for joinder as an appellant. This motion was treated as a motion for permission to file a late appeal and was denied. Following Richard Smithies’ motion for reconsideration, it was ordered that he file a proper motion to file a late appeal on his behalf. This motion was denied on December 19, 2007.
We note, therefore, that the only appellant before us is Maura C. Smithies. As a pro se party, she cannot represent the interests of another party, namely, Richard Smithies. “A pro se party may not appear on behalf of another pro se party. . . . To do so would be to engage in the unauthorized practice of law. See General Statutes § 51-88.” (Citation omitted.) Collard Roe, P. C. v. Klein, 87 Conn. App. 337, 343 — 44 n. 3, 865 A.2d 500, cert. denied, 274 Conn. 904, 876 A.2d 13