Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 8:45 a.m.
As far as lawsuits go, the Maricopa County Superior Court case of Alice and George Kaplan v. Chandler was anything but monumental. Heck, all it concerned was a broken water pipe at an unoccupied building that the couple own in the East Valley city.
The Kaplans claimed that the city was negligent by failing to turn off the water to the building, and a pipe burst, causing property damage.
Not the end of the world, right?
But here's what happened, according to an Arizona Court of Appeals decision issued just last week:
Unknown to the Kaplans, their attorney, one Samuel Tiffany, "completely abandoned them and their claim" after filing the lawsuit in June 2010.
In September 2010, court officials filed paperwork warning lawyer Tiffany to serve the city of Chandler with the lawsuit pronto or it would be dismissed.
But Tiffany did diddly (a legal term for nothing).
In late November 2010, the Kaplans learned that Tiffany was the subject of State Bar of Arizona disciplinary proceedings, and had agreed to an interim suspension of one year.
"In fact," the appellate panel wrote, "the Kaplans' attorney had abandoned no fewer than seven other clients who filed bar complaints against him, resulting in his suspension.
The Kaplans' hired a new attorney, who immediately asked a judge to extend the time for service. But it was too late, as the court already had dismissed the case.
So, the Kaplans' appealed, and over the city of Chandler's objection, a county judge reinstated the case.
Naturally, as this is the Land of the Appeal, the city asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to take a look at the issues, which it did.
Too bad for the Kaplans'.
The three-judge panel unanimously sided with the city of Chandler, and here's part of its reasoning:
"The Kaplans argue their lawyer is to blame for their failure to timely serve the city. We accept the proposition that the failure...is entirely the fault of [attorney Tiffany]. Indeed, the record of his disciplinary proceedings, tells a sorry story of a lawyer who, facing particular pressures in his personal life, failed his obligations to several clients.
"But unfortunately for the Kaplans...even gross negligence by a client's lawyer does not excuse a failure to prosecute a case diligently."
In other words, their lawyer messed up badly, so tough shit, folks.
But, a ray of hope then seeped through the legalese.
Judge Diane Johnsen, who wrote the opinion, noted that the trial court never did rule on the Kaplans' original request for an extension of time to serve the complaint because county officials administratively had dismissed the suit on the same day.
Johnsen wrote that the court may allow a litigant additional time to serve a lawsuit, "even without a showing of good cause."
With that, the panel remanded the lawsuit to Superior Court to consider the Kaplans' original request for an extension of time to effect service.
So, just maybe the couple will get their day in court.
By the way, the State Bar of Arizona continues to list Samuel Tiffany as "suspended," though his year-long punishment should have ended late last year.
From the Bar's hearing report: "[TIffany] does not make any excuses for his conduct, admits his mistakes, and acknowledges that...he simply lacked the physical capacity and mental wherewithal to sufficiently handle the most simple and routine tasks."