Vallinoto v. DiSandro

Decision Date11 February 1997
Docket NumberNo. 93-379-A,93-379-A
PartiesMaria Del Rosario VALLINOTO v. Edmond A. DiSANDRO et al. ppeal.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

BOURCIER, Justice.

This case comes before us on appeal from a final judgment entered in the Superior Court following a jury's verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Maria Del Rosario Vallinoto (Vallinoto), and against the defendant, Edmond A. DiSandro (DiSandro).

I Facts and Travel

In May 1987, Vallinoto retained DiSandro to represent her in a divorce action brought against her by her former husband, Dennis Ledo (Ledo). Vallinoto, a citizen of Spain, married Ledo while living in Spain in 1977. They thereafter moved to this country. Ledo was an American citizen, but Vallinoto was not and was here on a so-called "green card." The marriage produced one child, Christina, who was also an American citizen.

Vallinoto's marriage was by no means a tranquil or a happy one. She testified that during the course of her marriage to Ledo she had been restricted to the marital home, verbally abused, badgered, and belittled. She claims to have suffered severe mental depression and stress, to have entertained suicidal thoughts, and to have been "isolated" and "victimized" by Ledo throughout the course of their ten-year marriage. It was Ledo, however, who commenced the fateful divorce proceedings, with Vallinoto later counterclaiming for divorce.

After having retained and then dismissing two other attorneys with whom she had become dissatisfied in the course of the divorce proceedings, Vallinoto retained DiSandro in May of 1987. DiSandro's legal efforts on her behalf appear to have been both well performed and successful. DiSandro was able to obtain for her an increase in the weekly child support payments previously ordered for her daughter, Christina, from $15 to $30 per week to $150 to $200 per week. Moreover, at the time that her divorce became final on April 25, 1989, Vallinoto was awarded custody of Christina, 60 percent of the marital assets, several priceless paintings and heirlooms, and attorney's fees. Vallinoto, by her own account, acknowledged receiving excellent legal representation from DiSandro in her divorce proceedings as well as successful final results, all clearly evidenced in her final judgment of divorce. Unfortunately, however, DiSandro's relationship with Vallinoto extended far beyond his legal representation of her.

In August of 1987, some three months after having been retained to represent Vallinoto in her divorce action, DiSandro and Vallinoto became involved in an intimate physical relationship. That relationship continued until Vallinoto's last hearing on her divorce petition in December of 1988. DiSandro viewed the relationship as consensual. Vallinoto, on the other hand, alleged that she was compelled to perform sexual acts with DiSandro in part because of an alleged threat that DiSandro had once made to her, stating that if he discontinued his representation of her, she would be deported and lose custody of her child. She also alleged, in like vein, that DiSandro told her that he had undertaken to represent her only because she had been referred to him by a mutual friend and that good lawyers like himself usually did not take cases that other lawyers had started, which she interpreted to mean that if he withdrew as her counsel in her case, other good attorneys would not undertake to represent her. Vallinoto asserted that as a result of those implied threats, she felt compelled to comply with DiSandro's sexual demands, fearing that he would terminate his representation of her and that she would not thereafter be able to engage another competent attorney. 1 Over the course of their approximately eighteen-month relationship, Vallinoto estimated that she and DiSandro were actively intimate almost 200 times, all without her consent. She later testified at disciplinary board hearings that the 200 number was really a guess on her part. In any event, the occurrence rather than the number is the significant factor.

During the jury trial below, DiSandro's law partner, Z. Hershel Smith (Smith), was called as a witness by Vallinoto to testify with regard to the nature of the relationship that existed between Vallinoto and DiSandro. Smith testified that contrary to Vallinoto's view of her relationship with DiSandro, he considered Vallinoto to be DiSandro's girlfriend. He recalled that at Christmas time, Vallinoto cheerfully came to DiSandro's law office and gave gifts to the office personnel, including DiSandro. Vallinoto herself testified that in the course of the relationship she frequently sent different greeting cards to DiSandro, many of which ended with an expression of "love" obviously intending to convey that emotion to DiSandro. Among the many trial exhibits was a greeting card containing the phrase "you got me right where I want me."

By the time Vallinoto's divorce became final in early 1989, the affairs, both legal and nonlegal, between her and DiSandro had ended. She returned, however, to DiSandro some eight months later, seeking legal assistance on another matter in which she was being sued by her former husband, Ledo. She and DiSandro did not renew their sexual intimacy during that particular attorney-client relationship, and Vallinoto has never complained of DiSandro's handling of that matter for her.

The record also reveals that Vallinoto's extramarital interests, however, were not restricted to her attorney's participation. She admitted that during her ongoing sexual relationship with DiSandro and prior to the time of concluding her divorce petition hearings and continuing on thereafter into late 1989, she was dating someone other than DiSandro. In the summer of 1989 she traveled to Hawaii with that other person and shared the same hotel room with him for some two weeks. Later, in early 1990, she then began dating a new and different man. It was while planning with this latest man to purchase a larger house in which to live together that she decided to tell him of her previous sexual relationship with DiSandro. She eventually married that man in December 1990. It was some three weeks later, in January 1991, that she decided, with the encouragement of her new husband, to commence her litigation seeking monetary damages from DiSandro.

In her civil action complaint filed in the Superior Court she asserted therein claims for legal malpractice against DiSandro and his law firm, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress against DiSandro, deceit against DiSandro and the law firm, and negligence against the law firm. 2 She sought compensatory as well as punitive damages. After trial five separate claims were submitted to the jury, and the jury returned a general verdict for Vallinoto, covering all claims, for $25,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. DiSandro appealed.

II Legal Malpractice

In order to prevail on a negligence-based legal malpractice claim, Vallinoto was required to prove that she had retained the defendant-attorney to represent her in her divorce proceeding, that the attorney had been negligent, and that the attorney's " 'negligence was the proximate cause of * * * her damages or loss.' " Scuncio Motors, Inc. v. Teverow, 635 A.2d 268 (R.I.1993) (per curiam). An integral part of any attorney-malpractice-negligence claim requires proof that actual damages resulted from the attorney's alleged breach of the duty arising out of the attorney-client relationship. That duty includes in essential part providing competent representation to the client, including the utilization of competent legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and case preparation reasonably necessary both to protect and to advance the client's interests. See, e.g., art. V, Rule 1.1 of the Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct.

In Suppressed v. Suppressed, 206 Ill.App.3d 918, 151 Ill.Dec. 830, 565 N.E.2d 101 (1990), a female client sued an attorney who had previously represented her in a divorce action. The client alleged a breach of fiduciary duty arising from the attorney's alleged coercion and seduction of her, which resulted in her engaging in sexual acts with him. The client claimed that she had been forced to comply with the attorney's requests for sexual intimacy because she had feared that to have refused would have jeopardized her case. After having complied with her attorney's requests a few times, the client discharged him and retained new counsel to complete her divorce action.

Although in her complaint the client did not specifically label her cause of action "legal malpractice," the Illinois court nonetheless interpreted her allegations as such. That court concluded, however, that the client had failed to demonstrate, on the evidence presented, proof of a breach of duty and damages. The court accordingly held that the client was not entitled to recovery. The client's legal malpractice claim in that case was rejected, in part, because the Illinois court refused to go as far as to hold that inherent in every attorney-client relationship was a duty to refrain from sexually intimate behavior. Instead, the court held there that "the breach of duty alleged in a legal malpractice action must be more clearly linked to the attorney's legal representation." 151 Ill.Dec. at 834, 565 N.E.2d at 105. Thus there could be no claim for legal malpractice as a result of sexual involvement between an attorney and a client unless "the attorney actually made his professional services contingent upon the sexual involvement or * * * his legal representation of the client was, in fact, adversely affected" by his sexual activities. Id. The court found that on the facts as alleged by the client, no evidence existed that the sexual acts were a quid pro quo for the legal services provided her.

The Supp...

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