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Diean Sabin v. Ivan Ackerman

January 9, 2013

DIEAN SABIN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
IVAN ACKERMAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Bremer County, Rustin Davenport, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eisenhauer, C.J.

Executor/beneficiary of an estate appeals the district court's summary dismissal of her legal malpractice claim. REVERSED.

Heard by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Vogel and Vaitheswaran, JJ.

Diean Sabin, a beneficiary and also the executor of the estate of her father, Elmer Gaede, filed a legal malpractice action against attorney Ivan Ackerman.*fn1 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Ackerman, ruling "it is clear Ackerman's client was Diean in her capacity as executor" and "Ackerman owed Diean no duty regarding her potential claims as beneficiary." *fn2

We reverse.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Elmer Gaede executed a will in 1999 naming son James Gaede, son Steven Gaede, and daughter Diean Sabin equal beneficiaries of the residue of his estate. In 2001, attorney Ackerman prepared a long-term farm lease between landlord Elmer and tenant James. This lease also granted James a sixteen-year option to buy the farmland for $200,000. On the face of the lease, Ackerman is the attorney who prepared the lease, but the record does not reflect whom Ackerman was representing at the time the lease was drafted.

Elmer died in February 2005, his wife having predeceased him. Diean, the executor of the estate, hired Ackerman to be the attorney for the estate. James and his spouse exercised their option to buy under the 2001 lease and, in March 2006, the residuary beneficiaries and their spouses signed a warranty deed and also executed an "Escrow for Deed and Abstract." Ackerman was involved in this transaction and notarized the documents.

After Diean signed over the farmland, she became aware there may have been improprieties regarding the option to buy. The sale to James for $200,000 priced the farmland for much less than the open-market price.*fn3 Diean hired a new attorney, and Diean and Steven subsequently settled their farmland option dispute with James for $20,000. Diean and Steven signed a document releasing James from claims "by reason of the lease, option, purchase, transfer, and ownership" of the farmland.

In January 2011, Diean sued Ackerman for malpractice, alleging she hired him "to represent her in the Probate of her father's Estate and regarding legal matters surrounding that Estate and her inheritance." Diean asserted Ackerman was negligent:

D. in giving advice to [Diean] without advising [her] of the relevant considerations necessary to make an informed decision, in entering into the escrow agreement and signing the Deed and papers involved with the decedent Elmer Gaede's Lease to James Gaede; And/Or

E. in failing to inform [Diean] of all potential conflicts of interest and advising [her] regarding the effects of legal enforceability of the lease option . . . and in failing to advise [her] of the potential need for her to consult with another attorney regarding this matter.

Ackerman moved for summary judgment, claiming he represented Diean as executor and did not represent her individually. In an interrogatory answer, Ackerman states:

My sole representation of [Diean] was to represent her in her capacity as executor of the estate of her [deceased] father, Elmer Gaede. I am unable to reconstruct the meetings that I had with [Diean] due to the loss of the firm's records in the flood of 2008. It is my best guess that I had fewer than half a dozen meetings with [her] and each of the meetings dealt only with her discharging her duties as executor of her father's estate.

Diean resisted summary judgment and filed an affidavit stating:

2. I viewed [Ackerman] as my attorney without limitation, not only in my capacity as the Executor of my father's Estate, and relied upon [him] to give me legal advice regarding my father's Estate. [Ackerman] certainly did not ever inform me of any limitations on his representation of me, nor inform me that I should ...


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