County Sewer District Sues Its Lawyers for Legal Malpractice

BY JOEL GROSSBARTH

The Rockland County Sewer District is seeking $8.8 million in a legal malpractice lawsuit against Nixon Peabody, a New York City law firm that represented the district during a property condemnation case in Hillburn last decade. The district alleges Nixon Peabody committed malpractice from the outset of the case in 2004, continuing until a trial in 2010 and then during an appeal.

The owners of the Hillburn  land in question had contracted to sell it to a private developer for $10 million in the early 2000s. Nixon Peabody recommended the county claim eminent domain and offer a mere $230,000 for the land, court documents state. Once the sewer district filed for eminent domain, the $10 million contract was voided and the property owners took the case to trial.

It was the beginning of a long sordid history of mismanagement at the sewer district property.

The sewer district alleges the law firm botched the trial. Their malpractice suits claims the firm provided an associate who was unable to offer or dispute evidence provided by the plaintiffs during the trial, neglected to offer the court evidence supporting the sewer district’s view of the property’s best use, did not marshal evidence, failed to call expert witnesses, including appraisers and did not properly advise the county of his litigation strategy.

Furthermore, the district alleges that the associate botched trial procedures leading to the preclusion of two experts’ testimony on the county’s behalf. Complainants also allege the trial associate failed to disclose certain environmental reports to the claimants, leading the trial judge to make a negative inference against the county.

The associate continued to argue during the trial that the value of the property was $230,000 despite the contract of sale for $10 million. At the conclusion of the trial, the court ordered the county to pay $8.1 million to the aggrieved property owner, with interest from 2005. The law firm continued to represent the county in an unsuccessful appeal.

Nixon Peabody billed the county $1,376,882.60 for all its work. As a result of the claimed malpractice, the county was ordered to pay a total of $16.2 million to the property owners after interest.

The sewer district claims that Nixon Peabody, LLC committed legal malpractice and should be ordered to repay the county the $8.8 million award and also that the county should be reimbursed for all legal fees it paid to date. Nixon Peabody, LLC has yet to file an answer to the county’s lawsuit, but it’s anticipated that it will deny the allegations. This will likely lead to another long and drawn-out lawsuit.

Calls to Nixon Peabody for comment on the lawsuit were not returned.