Cox v. Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Eberson, PLLC, 83360-0-I

CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Writing for the CourtHazelrigg, J.
Decision Date11 July 2022
Docket Number83360-0-I
PartiesKATHRYN M. COX, Appellant, v. LASHER HOLZAPFEL SPERRY & EBERSON, PLLC, a Washington Professional Limited Liability Company; and MAYA TRUJILLO RINGE and JOHN DOE RINGE, a marital community, Respondents.

KATHRYN M. COX, Appellant,

LASHER HOLZAPFEL SPERRY & EBERSON, PLLC, a Washington Professional Limited Liability Company; and MAYA TRUJILLO RINGE and JOHN DOE RINGE, a marital community, Respondents.

No. 83360-0-I

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

July 11, 2022


Hazelrigg, J.

Kathryn "Katy"[1] Cox appeals from the summary judgment dismissal of her legal malpractice claim against her former attorney and law firm. She argues the trial court did not follow the proper procedural rules for summary judgment and that she raised genuine issues of material fact as to all four elements of her claim. Because Katy fails to meet her burden as to the element of proximate cause, we affirm the dismissal of her lawsuit.


In May 2016, Katy Cox filed a petition for legal separation from her husband, John.[2] John had filed for dissolution nearly a decade earlier, but dismissed the


petition after the couple reconciled. Throughout their marriage, John had worked as a vice president of a real estate firm, while Katy stayed home to raise their children. In March 2011, the couple entered into a post-nuptial "Property Settlement Agreement," Katy's 2016 petition for separation requested recognition and enforcement of the agreement. In the proceeding, Katy was represented by attorney Maya Trujillo Ringe[3] of the firm Lasher, Holzapfel, Sperry & Ebberson (LHSE). Trujillo Ringe filed a motion for summary judgment in December 2016, requesting the court enforce the property settlement agreement as procedurally and substantively fair. The court denied the motion. The parties proceeded to trial and the trial court again declined to enforce the agreement after finding it was procedurally and substantively unfair. This court affirmed the ruling in an unpublished opinion.[4]

In November 2020, Katy brought a pro se complaint for legal malpractice against Trujillo Ringe and LHSE. LHSE filed a motion for summary judgment in September 2021, arguing Katy had not established a material issue of fact on the elements of breach, damage, or proximate cause. LHSE noted that Katy had not submitted any expert testimony on the element of breach. The same day LHSE filed its motion for summary judgment, Katy filed a "Supplemental Primary Witness Disclosure" identifying Carolyn Martino, a California family law attorney, as an expert on the legal standard of care. However, no expert opinions were submitted


as part of the pleading. Two weeks later on October 5, Katy presented a declaration from Martino containing her opinions about the case, along with a response opposing summary judgment. LHSE submitted a reply on October 11, 2021, objecting to Martino's declaration as unqualified and presenting authority on the attorney judgment rule in support of its request for summary judgment dismissal. Katy filed a written objection and provided a supplemental declaration from Martino, which the court allowed.

The trial court considered both expert declarations, the sur-reply from Katy, and LHSE's argument regarding the attorney judgment rule and granted LHSE's motion for summary judgment. The court found Katy failed to raise a material issue of fact because Trujillo Ringe's decisions were covered by the attorney judgment rule.[5] Katy timely appealed.


I. Introduction

Summary judgment proceedings are governed by CR 56. Dismissal on summary judgment "shall" be ordered if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."


CR 56(c). This court reviews an order of dismissal on a motion for summary judgment de novo, conducting the same inquiry as the trial court. Folsom v. Burger King, 135 Wn.2d 658, 663, 958 P.2d 301 (1998); Lakev v. Puget Sound Energy, Inc., 176 Wn.2d 909, 922, 296 P.3d 860 (2013). We take "'all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'" Jackowski v. Borchelt, 174 Wn.2d 720, 729, 278 P.3d 1100 (2012) (quoting Biggers v. City of Bainbridge Island, 162 Wn.2d 683, 693, 169 P.3d 14 (2007)); see also Folsom, 135 Wn.2d at 663. "We may affirm on any basis supported by the record whether or not the argument was made below." Bavand v. OneWest Bank, 196 Wn.App. 813, 825, 385 P.3d 233 (2016), as modified Dec. 15, 2016. A defendant may prevail on summary judgment if they make an initial showing that there is an "absence of an issue of material fact," and the plaintiff in response fails to establish a genuine question of material fact. Young v. Key Pharm., Inc., 112 Wn.2d 216, 225, 770 P.2d 182 (1989).

To survive summary judgment, a plaintiff seeking relief for negligence "must establish an issue of material fact as to each element of negligence"-duty, breach, causation and damage. Walter Family Grain Growers, Inc. v. Foremost Pump & Well Servs., LLC,__ Wn.App. 2d__, 506 P.3d 705, 710 (2022). However, the elements of legal negligence vary slightly from the elements of general negligence.[6] They are: (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship creating


a duty of care, (2) breach of that duty, (3) damage, and (4) proximate causation between the breach and the damage. Smith v. Preston Gates Ellis, LLP, 135 Wn.App. 859, 863-64, 147 P.3d 600 (2006). Both parties agree there was an attorney-client relationship between Katy and Trujillo Ringe giving rise to a duty of care; their dispute centers on the remaining elements.[7]

II. Proximate Cause

Proximate cause in a legal negligence claim is "no different. . . than in an ordinary negligence" claim where a plaintiff must demonstrate cause in fact and legal causation. Versuslaw, Inc. v. Stoel Rives, LLP, 127 Wn.App. 309, 328, 111 P.3d 866 (2005). In analyzing such a claim, "it is important to understand that an attorney is not a guarantor of success and is not responsible for a 'bad result' unless the result was proximately caused by a breach of the attorney's duty of care." Clark County Fire Dist. No. 5 v. Bullivant Houser Bailey P.C. (Clark County Fire), 180 Wn.App. 689, 701, 324 P.3d 743, (2014). Therefore, a "plaintiff must demonstrate that [they] would have achieved a better result had the attorney not been negligent." Versuslaw, Inc., 127 Wn.App. at 328.


While generally proximate cause is left for a jury, it can be determined on summary judgment "if 'reasonable minds could not differ.'" Smith, 135 Wn.App. at 864 (quoting Hertog v. City of Seattle, 138 Wn.2d 265, 275, 979 P.2d 400 (1999)). To survive summary judgment and reach the "trial within a trial" stage, "the plaintiff must produce evidence that the error in judgment did in fact affect the outcome." Clark County Fire, 180 Wn.App. at 707 (quoting Kommavongsa v. Haskell, 149 Wn.2d 288, 300, 67 P.3d 1068 (2003)). If the defendant demonstrates "'that there is an absence or...

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