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Silvagni v. Shorr

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 27, 2015


Appeal from the Order August 6, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Civil Division at No(s): 1386.



Page 811


Phillip J. Silvagni appeals from the order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting summary judgment in favor of Jeffrey S. Shorr, Esquire, and the law firm of Dashevsky, Horwitz, Kuhn & Novello, P.C. (hereinafter " Defendants" ). We affirm.

On October 27, 2011, Silvagni filed a complaint against Defendants alleging legal malpractice in the handling of his workers' compensation claim.[1] In the legal

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malpractice action, Silvagni claimed Defendants gave him incorrect legal advice that ultimately led to a compromise and release. Silvagni claims that but for that incorrect legal advice, he would not have agreed to the terms of the settlement.

Defendants filed preliminary objections, which the trial court denied. On February 29, 2012, Silvagni filed a second amended complaint. On May 17, 2013, the parties entered into a stipulation to dismiss Counts I and III of the complaint (Professional Negligence/Malpractice and Breach of Fiduciary Duty). On June 6, 2013 the trial court approved the stipulation, and Silvagni's complaint continued with the remaining Count II (Breach of Contract/Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing). On May 31, 2013, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Honorable John M. Younge granted. Thereafter, Silvagni filed this appeal, raising two issues:

1. Did the trial court commit an error of law in its grant of summary judgment in its application of the Muhammad[2] doctrine's general prohibition against " settling and suing" when the necessary diminished underlying settlement was procured by underlying Defendants' legal and not judgment errors and otherwise, likewise not " voluntarily" entered?
2. Did the trial court commit an error of law in its grant of summary judgment per the Muhammad doctrine when that doctrine had previously been adjudicated upon preliminary objections as inapplicable and no material facts had changed in the interim?

Because Silvagni's claims are barred under the doctrine espoused in Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod and Gutnick, 526 Pa. 541, 587 A.2d 1346 (Pa. 1991), we agree with Judge Younge's order granting summary judgment in Defendants' favor.

Our standard of review of an order granting summary judgment requires us to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law[,] and our scope of review is plenary. We view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered.
* * *
Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, he may not merely rely on his pleadings or answers in order to survive summary judgment. Further, failure of a nonmoving party to adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which he bears the burden of proof establishes the entitlement of the moving party to judgment as a matter of law.

Sokolsky v. Eidelman, 2014 PA Super 117, 93 A.3d 858, 861--62 (Pa. Super. 2014) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

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In Muhammad, plaintiffs filed a legal malpractice action against defendant law firm as a result of defendant's representation of plaintiffs in a medical malpractice lawsuit following the death of plaintiffs' child. Defendant law firm negotiated a settlement of the medical malpractice case. Plaintiffs verbally accepted the settlement offer. Thereafter, plaintiffs changed their minds about the settlement before signing a written accord. Defendant law firm filed a Rule to Show Cause why the settlement agreement should not be enforced. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court enforced the agreement. The court ordered the defendants in the medical malpractice case to pay the settlement funds and instructed the prothonotary to mark the case settled. Plaintiffs hired new counsel, appealed the order, and this Court affirmed. Muhammad v. Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh, 337 Pa.Super. 635, 487 A.2d 443 (Pa. Super. 1984) (unpublished memorandum opinion).

Thereafter, plaintiffs filed a legal malpractice case against the law firm that had negotiated the medical-malpractice settlement. The legal malpractice case was dismissed, and our Supreme Court affirmed that dismissal, stating:

This case must be resolved in light of our longstanding public policy which encourages settlements. Simply stated, we will not permit a suit to be filed by a dissatisfied plaintiff against his attorney following a settlement to which that plaintiff agreed, unless that plaintiff can show he was fraudulently induced to settle the original action. An action should not lie against an attorney for malpractice based on negligence and/or contract principles when that client has agreed to a settlement. Rather, only cases of fraud should be actionable.

Muhammad, 587 A.2d at 1348 (emphasis added). The Court further stated:

[W]e foreclose the ability of dissatisfied litigants to agree to a settlement and then file suit against their attorneys in the hope that they will recover additional monies. To permit otherwise results in unfairness to the attorneys who relied on their client's assent and unfairness to the litigants whose cases have not yet been tried. Additionally, it places an unnecessarily arduous burden on an overly taxed court system. We do believe, however, there must be redress for the plaintiff who has been fraudulently induced into agreeing to settle. It is not enough that the lawyer who negotiated the original settlement may have been negligent; rather, the party seeking to pursue a case against his lawyer after a settlement must plead, with specificity, fraud in the inducement.

Id. at 1351.

Silvagni claims that the trial court improperly applied the Muhammad doctrine because he did not enter into the settlement voluntarily. Silvagni's claim is not supported in the record.

Silvagni executed a Compromise and Release Agreement on December 16, 2008, which included the following certification: " I have been represented by an attorney of my own choosing during this case. My attorney has explained to me the content of this agreement and the effects upon my rights." See Compromise and Release Agreement by Stipulation Pursuant to Section 449 of the Workers' Compensation Act, 12/16/08, ¶ 4.

Further, prior to approving the settlement, Judge Karl Baldys presided over a colloquy conducted by Silvagni's ...

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