Court of Appeals Holds that Rules of Professional Conduct Do Not Establish a Duty of Care Upon Which a Negligence Claim May Be Based

On September 21, 2017, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Papageorge v. Zucker, No. 16-CV-226, slip op. (D.C. Sept. 21, 2017) in which it considered, inter alia, whether the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct may be used to establish a duty of care upon which a civil claim for negligence may be based. Slip Op. at 4-7.

By way of background, the plaintiff-appellant had a contract with a third party entitling him to a portion of the proceeds from another civil action. Id. at 2-3. The defendants-appellees represented the third party in the civil action but did not have an attorney-client relationship with the plaintiff-appellant. Id. The defendants-appellees obtained a settlement and disbursed funds to the third party but not to the plaintiff-appellant. Id.

The plaintiff-appellant subsequently filed suit against the defendants-appellees to recover the funds that he alleged should have been disbursed to him. Id. at 4. The plaintiff-appellant asserted, inter alia, a civil claim for negligence. Such a claim requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant “owed him a duty of care, that the defendant breached the duty, and that the plaintiff suffered damages as a result.” Id. at 4-5. The trial court dismissed the negligence claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Id. at 4.

The only issue on appeal, with respect to the negligence claim, was whether the plaintiff-appellant adequately pleaded a duty of care. Id. at 5. The plaintiff-appellant argued that the defendants-appellees owed him a duty of care pursuant to the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, which apply to all members of the District of Columbia Bar. Id. In particular, he relied on Rule 1.15 which provides that an attorney who is in possession of a person’s property must promptly deliver the property to the person if he or she is entitled to it. Id.

The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff-appellant’s argument and affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss. It held that, as a matter of law, the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct do not establish a duty of care. Id. at 6. The Court stated that, “[w]hile the ethical rules governing lawyers may be relevant to establishing the standard of care . . . , they are not the source of a duty of care enforceable in tort.” Id. In reaching that conclusion, the Court relied on a provision in the Rules stating that nothing in them “‘is intended to enlarge or restrict existing law regarding the liability of lawyers to others . . . [or] to confer rights on an adversary of a lawyer to enforce the Rules in a proceeding other than a disciplinary proceeding.’” Id. (quoting D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, Scope).

For general background about tort claims for negligence in the District of Columbia, see Douglas C. Melcher, Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia § 8 (2014).