St. Denis & Davey, P.A.

Legal Malpractice Issues

Lawsuit: Lawyer’s inability to read sign language resulted in loss of millions

| Apr 28, 2017 | Professional Malpractice Law |

As we discussed in a previous post, the rules of professional conduct dictate that attorneys are subject to a host of duties concerning their handling of settlement offers. For example, they must secure client consent prior to taking any sort of action regarding a settlement offer and must relay settlement offers promptly. 

As it turns out, this issue of communicating settlement offers is at the epicenter of a rather fascinating case filed in the state court system of New York, in which the plaintiff argues that an attorney’s poor sign language skills cost him potentially millions of dollars.  

According to the complaint, the plaintiff retained the services of a New York City-based firm to represent him in an employment discrimination case based on the assurances of one its attorneys that he was fluent in American Sign Language.

The plaintiff, a 49-year-old software engineer who lost his hearing at the age of 2, wanted to file a lawsuit against his former employer, tech giant IBM, which he believed terminated him because he was deaf. He was seeking upwards of $200 million in damages.

The compliant goes on to state that when the plaintiff was communicating his expectations for a settlement offer to the attorney he tapped on his open palm twice, which is the ASL sign for “million.” However, it indicates that the attorney, whose firm had eliminated written communication and interpreter services based on his purported sign language abilities, mistakenly believed that he had made the ASL sign for “thousands,” which is a single tap on an open palm.     

This mistake, claims the plaintiff, resulted in the attorney accepting an offer from IBM for only $207,500, which was well below his expectations and something he didn’t learn about until presented with the paperwork.

Despite his efforts to reject signing the settlement offer, it was ultimately enforced by a judge after IBM’s attorneys argued his claim of mistaken sign language was not credible.

For his part, the plaintiff’s former attorney has dismissed allegations of any negligence on his part, pointing to a 2014 ruling by a federal judge declaring that he had acted “professionally, competently and appropriately,” and indicating that the settlement expectations of the plaintiff — over three thousand times his salary — were unreasonable.

Stay tuned for updates …

Consider speaking with a skilled legal professional if you have reason to believe that the actions of your attorney have resulted in some manner of financial harm.