Heard October 16, 2012.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Appeal from Charleston County. Appellate Case No. 2010-154986. Thomas L. Hughston, Jr., Circuit Court Judge.
Chalmers Carey Johnson, of Tacoma, Washington, for Appellant.
Richard S. Dukes, Jr., of Charleston, and R. Hawthorne Barrett, of Columbia, both of Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, P.A., for Respondent.
CHIEF JUSTICE TOAL. KITTREDGE and HEARN, JJ., concur. PLEICONES, J., concurring in a separate opinion in which BEATTY, J., concurs.
[408 S.C. 626] TOAL,
Cynthia Holmes, M.D. (Appellant) appeals the circuit court's grant of a directed verdict with respect to her malpractice claim in favor of Haynsworth, Sinkler & Boyd, P.A. (Haynsworth), Manton Grier, and James Y. Becker (collectively Respondents), and award of sanctions against her. We affirm.
Facts/ Procedural Background
Appellant, an ophthalmologist currently in private practice in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, was previously a member of the consulting medical staff of Tenet HealthSystem Medical, Incorporated, d/b/a East Cooper Community Hospital, Incorporated (the Hospital). On September 10, 1997, Appellant lost her privileges to admit patients and perform procedures at the Hospital. Appellant engaged Respondents to represent her in a legal action against the Hospital on May 5, 1998. On Appellant's behalf, Respondents pursued an unsuccessful appeal for reinstatement of full admitting privileges through the Hospital's administrative process, which was exhausted in October 1998.
In March 1999, Respondents filed a lawsuit in federal court on Appellant's behalf, alleging violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, 15 U.S.C. § § 1, et seq. (2004), as well as pendant state law claims. Respondents filed a request for temporary [408 S.C. 627] injunction, which would permit Appellant to perform medical procedures at the Hospital. On November 22, 1999, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina granted a temporary injunction reinstating Appellant's admitting privileges based, in part, on Appellant's averments in an affidavit that her patients needed urgent surgeries and her inability to perform surgery at the hospital was causing her to lose patients. However, because Appellant did not perform a single surgery in the wake of the temporary injunction, the district court dissolved the injunction on January 25, 2000, because " the alleged harm suffered by [Appellant's] current patients had not materialized."  Furthermore, the district court held that Appellant and Respondents failed to comply with the scheduling order and the rules of discovery. Appellant blames Respondents for the dissolution of the injunction, claiming that Respondents did not act with due diligence on her behalf because she disputed their fees and refused to pay her legal bills. Respondents, however, attribute the dissolution of the injunction to Appellant's failure to utilize the injunction to perform surgery while it was in place and her lack of cooperation during discovery.
As the federal case began in earnest, a fee dispute arose between Appellant and Respondents, resulting in Respondents filing a motion to be relieved as counsel. Respondent Becker testified that the relationship broke down due to communication issues between the parties, Appellant's continued mischaracterization of the parties' engagement agreement as a contingency agreement, and Appellant's refusal to pay her legal bills. Appellant alleges that Respondents agreed to take the case on a contingency fee basis once the preliminary injunction was successfully in place. However, the engagement letter states that " [f]ees generally are based on the time spent rounded up to the nearest tenth of an hour."  In addition, [408 S.C. 628] correspondence from Respondents to Appellant confirms that Respondents would not take the case on a contingency basis. However, on January 25, 2000, Respondents withdrew the motion because the parties were able to resolve the dispute through the execution of an addendum to the engagement letter (the Addendum), setting forth the terms of Respondents' engagement moving forward. In the Addendum, Appellant agreed to pay $43,000 in attorney's fees upfront, and pay any addition legal fees incurred at an hourly rate.
On January 31, 2000, Appellant filed a pro se motion requesting the district court reconsider the dissolution of the preliminary injunction. In this motion, she also indicated she was dissatisfied with Respondents' representation and was critical of how Respondents had handled her case to that point and sought additional time to obtain substitute counsel and complete discovery. Because Appellant still refused to pay her legal bills, on February 2, 2000, Respondents filed a motion to be relieved as counsel.
[408 S.C. 629] On April 17, 2000, the district court granted summary judgment in the Hospital's favor, and dismissed the pendant state law claims without prejudice. Pursuant to the terms of the engagement letter, Respondents did not appeal this decision and chose not to proceed in representing Appellant in any state action.
After Respondents and Appellant ended their professional relationship, Appellant sought the return of the $43,000 in attorney's fees she paid pursuant to the Addendum. Respondents refused, and on April 1, 2002, Appellant filed a Complaint alleging professional malpractice in handling her federal antitrust claims. She also included claims for breach of contract, quantum meruit,
breach of fiduciary duty, violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act, abandonment, civil conspiracy, promissory estoppel, constructive fraud, conversion, negligent misrepresentation, negligent supervision, fraud, and misrepresentation. However, Appellant did not deliver copies of the Summons and Complaint to the Richland County Sheriff's Department for service upon Respondents Becker and Grier until April 30, 2003.
Appellant filed her Summons and Complaint in Charleston County, and Respondents successfully moved to transfer venue to Richland County on July 24, 2002. Appellant appealed that decision on March 12, 2003. On May 1, 2003, the court of appeals dismissed the appeal as interlocutory. Appellant filed a petition for rehearing, which was denied on June 16, 2003. Appellant subsequently filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in this Court, which was denied on April 8, 2004. Appellant filed a petition for rehearing regarding the denial of certiorari, and remittitur was issued on April 22, 2004. Appellant filed a " Motion to Reinstate the Appeal" and a " Petition for Original Jurisdiction" on April 23 and April 26, 2004, respectively. After this Court refused to accept the first petition, Appellant [408 S.C. 630] filed a second petition for original jurisdiction. This Court denied the petition on June 9, 2004. Appellant then filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which the Court denied.
On August 17, 2004, the circuit court ordered Appellant, who had been attempting to proceed under a " J. Doe" pseudonym to proceed under her real name. On September 24, 2004, Appellant appealed this decision. The court of appeals dismissed this appeal as interlocutory on January 13, 2005. Appellant filed a petition for rehearing, which was denied on May 25, 2005. On June 20, 2005, Appellant filed a petition for a writ of certiorari and a motion for sanctions against Respondents in this Court, which were denied.
On October 29, 2004, Appellant appealed the circuit court's decision to dismiss various motions filed there by Appellant because venue had been transferred to Richland County. On June 16, 2005, the court of appeals dismissed this appeal. On June 28, 2005, Appellant filed a petition for rehearing which was denied, and on April 14, 2006, Appellant filed another petition for a writ of certiorari in this Court, which was denied on October 19, 2006.
The circuit court transferred venue back to Charleston County on March 29, 2007. At this time, the case returned to the circuit court, where discovery resumed, and Appellant filed various discovery-related motions. In March 2008, the circuit court denied Appellant's motions. Appellant appealed this decision to the court of appeals, which dismissed the appeal as interlocutory on August 12, 2008. Appellant filed a petition for rehearing, which was denied on November 21, 2008, and a petition for rehearing en banc, which the court of appeals denied. On January 10, 2009, Appellant filed a " Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Original Jurisdiction and Petition for Certiorari" in this Court, which this Court denied on April 23, 2009. Remittitur was issued on April 29, 2009. Subsequently, Appellant filed a petition for rehearing, which this Court denied on May 13, 2009.
[408 S.C. 631] Trial commenced on June 8, 2009, despite Appellant's last minute attempts to obtain a continuance. Prior to trial, the circuit court heard Respondents' pending motion for summary judgment, which he denied because he did not have time on the eve of trial to review the extensive file in this case. On June 12, 2009, the circuit court granted Respondents' directed verdict as to all causes of action. Respondents subsequently moved for sanctions against Appellant. On July 19, 2009, Appellant filed a motion for new trial. The circuit court held a hearing on the post-trial motions on September 29, 2009. By order dated November 18, 2009, the circuit court denied Appellant's motion for a new trial,
and granted Respondents' motion for sanctions.
Appellant filed a Notice of Appeal. On December 2, 2009, this Court issued an order directing all clerks of court to refuse any filings by Appellant unless they were signed by a licensed South Carolina attorney. Therefore, the court of appeals dismissed Appellant's appeal for failure to obtain a signature by a licensed attorney on February 24, 2010. On March 10, 2010, current counsel for Appellant moved to reinstate the appeal. However, Appellant failed to file a brief in time. Therefore, the court of appeals granted Respondents' motion to dismiss the appeal on June 10, 2011. Appellant filed another motion to reinstate the appeal on June 15, 2011, and filed an initial brief and designation of matter on July 14, 2011. On August 24, 2011, the court of appeals issued an order accepting those materials and reinstating the appeal.
This Court transferred the case pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR.
I. Whether Appellant timely commenced her action against Respondents Becker and Grier within the statute of limitations?
II. Whether the circuit court erred in granting a directed verdict in favor of Respondents as to Appellant's legal malpractice claims?
[408 S.C. 632] III. Whether the circuit court erred in refusing to grant Appellant's motion for continuance?
IV. Whether the circuit court erred in awarding sanctions against Appellant?
V. Whether the circuit court erred in dismissing the other causes of action?
I. Statute of Limitations
Appellant argues that the circuit erred in finding that the claims against Respondents Becker and Grier were barred by the statute of limitations. We disagree.
Section 15-3-530 of the South Carolina Code provides for a three year statute of limitations for legal malpractice lawsuits. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-530 (2005). " The statute runs from the date the injured party either knows or should have known by the exercise of reasonable diligence that a cause of action arises from the wrongful conduct." Dean v. Ruscon Corp., 321 S.C. 360, 363, 468 S.E.2d 645, 647 (1996) (citation omitted). " The exercise of reasonable diligence means simply that an injured party must act with some promptness where the facts and circumstances of an injury would put a person of common knowledge and experience on notice that some right of his has been invaded or that some claim against another party might exist." Epstein v. Brown, 363 S.C. 372, 376, 610 S.E.2d 816, 818 (2005). " [T]he fact that the injured party may not comprehend the full extent of the damage is immaterial." Dean, 321 S.C. at 364, 468 S.E.2d at 647 (citation omitted).
In the instant case, as early as January 31, 2000, Appellant was openly critical of her attorneys' performance in a pro se filing in the district court:
[My] Attorney, however, has not been timely: first taking months to schedule the Motion for Temporary Injunction; second not responding in a timely manner to your Honor's Scheduling order; third, not providing adequate representation and preparation of the case; and fourth, not notifying opposing counsel until the eleventh hour on January 4, [408 S.C. 633] 2000[,] of the request to reschedule the deposition which was made by letter dated December 17, 1999.
At that time, it is apparent that Appellant, an attorney, clearly should have known, and in fact did know, she had a potential claim against Respondents Becker and Grier, as these complaints appear to be the basis of her legal malpractice claim. Consequently, we find the statute of limitations began ...