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Young v. Govier & Mllone L.L.P.

Supreme Court of Nebraska

July 12, 2013

Mary Kay Young, an individual, appellant,
v.
Govier & Mllone, L.L.P., et al., appellees.

1. Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will affirm a lower court's grant of summary judgment if the pleadings and admitted evidence show [286 Neb. 225] that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from those facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

2. Judges: Recusal: Appeal and Error. A motion requesting a judge to recuse himself or herself on the ground of bias or prejudice is addressed to the discretion of the judge, and an order overruling such a motion will be affirmed on appeal unless the record establishes bias or prejudice as a matter of law.

3. Attorney and Client: Malpractice: Negligence: Proof. A client who has agreed to the settlement of an action is not barred from recovering against his or her attorney for malpractice if the client can establish that the settlement agreement was the product of the attorney's negligence.

4. Malpractice: Attorney and Client: Negligence: Proof: Proximate Cause: Damages. In a civil action for legal malpractice, a plaintiff alleging professional negligence on the part of an attorney must prove three elements: (1) the attorney's employment, (2) the attorney's neglect of a reasonable duty, and (3) that such negligence resulted in and was the proximate cause of loss to the client.

5. Malpractice: Attorney and Client. In a legal malpractice action, the required standard of conduct is that the attorney exercise such skill, diligence, and knowledge as that commonly possessed by attorneys acting in similar circumstances.

6. __:__. Although the general standard of an attorney's conduct is established by law, the question of what an attorney's specific conduct should be in a particular case and whether an attorney's conduct fell below that specific standard is a question of fact.

7. Attorney and Client: Expert Witnesses. Expert testimony is generally required to establish an attorney's standard of conduct in a particular circumstance and that the attorney's conduct was not in conformity therewith.

8. Summary Judgment Summary judgment proceedings do not resolve factual issues, but instead determine whether there is a material issue of fact in dispute.

9. Summary Judgment: Expert Witnesses: Testimony. A conflict of expert testimony regarding an issue of fact establishes a genuine issue of material fact which precludes summary judgment.

10. Malpractice: Attorney and Client: Negligence: Proof. In an action for legal malpractice, the plaintiff must establish that but for the alleged negligence of the attorney, the plaintiff would have obtained a more favorable judgment or settlement.

11. Res Judicata. The doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars the relitigation of a matter that has been directly addressed or necessarily included in a former adjudication if (1) the former judgment was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) the former judgment was a final judgment, (3) the former judgment was on the merits, and (4) the same parties or their privies were involved in both actions.

12. Res Judicata: Judgments: Collateral Attack. Res judicata will not preclude a second suit between the same parties if the forum in which the first action was brought did not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the action; stated another way, judgments entered by a court without jurisdiction are void and subject to collateral attack.

[286 Neb. 226] 13. Jurisdiction: Words and Phrases. Personal jurisdiction is the power of a tribunal to subject and bind a particular person or entity to its decisions.

14. __: __. Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a tribunal to hear and determine a case in the general class or category to which the proceedings in question belong and to deal with the general subject matter involved.

15. Res Judicata: Judgments. Summary judgments, judgments on a directed verdict, judgments after trial, default judgments, and consent judgments are all generally considered to be on the merits for purposes of res judicata.

16. Judges: Recusal. Under the Nebraska Revised Code of Judicial Conduct, a judge must recuse himself or herself from a case if the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

17. Judges: Recusal: Proof. In order to demonstrate that a trial judge should have recused himself or herself, the moving party must demonstrate that a reasonable person who knew the circumstances of the case would question the judge's impartiality under an objective standard of reasonableness, even though no actual bias or prejudice was shown.

Appeal from the District Court for Douglas County: Peter C Bataillon, Judge.

James D. Sherrets, Diana J. Vogt, and Thomas D. Prickett, of Sherrets, Bruno & Vogt, L.L.C, for appellant.

James M. Bausch and Mary Kay O'Connor, of Cline, Williams, Wright, Johnson & Oldfather, L.L.P, for appellees Baird, Holm, McEachen, Pedersen, Hamann & Strasheim, L.L.P, et al.

William M. Lamson, Jr., and Cathy S. Trent-Vilim, of Lamson, Dugan & Murray, L.L.P, for appellees Govier & Milone, L.L.P, and Pamela Hogenson Govier.

Heavican, C.J., Connolly, Stephan, McCormack, and Cassel, JJ.

STEPHAN, J.

In this professional negligence case, Mary Kay Young, formerly Mary Kay Davis, filed a complaint against several law firms and individual attorneys who represented her in a marital dissolution proceeding. Young's former husband, Henry Davis, filed for dissolution in July 2001. While that action was pending, the parties reconciled. As part of the reconciliation, they entered into two postmarital agreements which specified how their property would be divided in the [286 Neb. 227] event of a future dissolution. At the request of both parties, the district court for Douglas County approved the postmarital agreements and dismissed the dissolution proceeding without prejudice.

Subsequently, Young filed a second dissolution proceeding in which she was represented by the law firms and attorneys who are the appellees in this case. Eventually, on the advice of these attorneys, Young accepted a settlement proposal from Davis which was based upon the postmarital agreements approved in the first dissolution action, and the marriage was dissolved.

Young later brought this action in which she alleged that her attorneys were negligent in advising her to accept the settlement proposal from Davis. The district court sustained the appellees' motions for summary judgment. It reasoned that the actions of the attorneys were not the proximate cause of any damage to Young, because she could not show that her recovery in the dissolution proceeding would have been greater but for the allegedly negligent advice of the attorneys. The court specifically found that under the doctrines of res judicata and judicial estoppel, the order in the first dissolution proceeding which approved the parties' postmarital agreements was binding on the court in the second proceeding.

Young appeals. We affirm the judgment of the ...


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