Time Matters

Rogers v. Cape May County Public Defender's Office is an important case for people who received deficient legal services in relation to a criminal trial. The case provides an important standard for how long a person in New Jersey has to file a legal malpractice claim, following "exoneration."

In the case, John Rogers was indicted on 9 counts of drug related charges in August of 1998. His attorney was a Cape May public defender, and had crafted a strategy, which aimed at showing the arresting officer could not differentiate between the John Rogers and his brother. In order to accomplish this, the attorney was going to have Rogers sit at the back of the court room, while his brother sat up front. The prosecutors discovered the scheme, and it was aborted, but provided material for cross examination. When Rogers did testify, the prosecutors cross-examined about the scheme, which damaged his credibility. The jury convicted Rogers on July 30, 1999, and he was sentenced to 14 years of prison time, 6 without parole. The appellate court affirmed the conviction, thus leaving Rogers with only a post conviction relief (PCR) option.

Rogers filed the PCR in 2002, and eventually amended an ineffective assistance of counsel charge. The trial court denied the motion, but the appellate court reversed, and granted a new trial in October, 2007. On July 25, 2008 the indictment against Rogers was dismissed. Finally, on September 11, 2008, Rogers retained a civil attorney to pursue a legal malpractice claim against the Public Defenders. Rogers's attorney requested the PCR file the day after he was retained, and did not receive the file until November 3. The attorney then went to file a motion to file a late notice of tort claim in July, 2009, but the court denied it, because the trial judge determined the action accrued on October 23, 2007, when the appellate conviction was reversed and remanded. The action was thus more than a year later, so the court declared it was outside of their jurisdiction. The appellate division affirmed this decision, thus the Supreme Court of New Jersey granted Rogers's petition for certification to hear the matter.

The specific question the Court dealt with was, at what point does exoneration occur, such that the plaintiff would have notice that a legal malpractice claim had accrued. This date is important, because the Public defender was covered by the tort claims act which limits liability of government entities. The New Jersey statute requires a cause of action be presented not later than the 90th day after accrual of the cause of action. After 6 months from the date of notice of claim, the claimant may file suit in an appropriate court. The exception to this rule, allows a person to file a claim within one year after the accrual as long as the public entity has not been injured or prejudiced. Thus, any late claim requires the Court ascertain the date an action accrues.

The Court stated a standard for finality in cases where a guilty verdict is overturned. It is not simply a new trial triggers the date from which accrual begins. It was not until the indictment itself was dismissed with prejudice that Rogers was in fact exonerated. Up until that time, a new trial could be commenced and he could be found guilty, which would negate any harm, which is required in a legal malpractice action.

This case modified Grunwald for plaintiffs suing criminal attorneys for legal malpractice. Grunwald determines the accrual period for malpractice claims, in non criminal matters. Normally, the discovery rule applies in legal-malpractice actions. This means the date for a cause of action does not accrue until the client suffers actual damage, and discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should discover, the facts essential to a malpractice claim. In that case, however, the plaintiff suffered actual damages well before the date of appeal, and thus the date of accrual was when the first decision was made, not the appellate decision.

This case outlines the difference between legal malpractice actions in a civil matter versus a criminal matter. In a civil matter, the action accrues when the client suffers actual damage, even if there is an appeal. In a criminal matter, the legal malpractice claim will accrue on the date a person is exonerated either on appeal, or through use of PCR. Once again, the Courts show how important time really is.

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