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Thomas v. Hillyard

Supreme Court of Utah

July 2, 2019

Matthew Ross Thomas, Appellant,
v.
Lyle Hillyard and Hillyard, Anderson & Olsen, P.C., Appellees.

          On Direct Appeal First District, Cache County The Honorable Michael D. Lyon No. 170100149

          Troy L. Booher, Beth E. Kennedy, Jeffrey R. Oritt, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Michael F. Skolnick, Jeremy R. Speckhals, Salt Lake City, for appellees

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

          OPINION

          Durrant, Chief Justice

         Introduction

         ¶ 1 Matthew Ross Thomas claims he was convicted of two felonies because of malpractice by his trial counsel, Lyle Hillyard. Following his trial, Mr. Thomas hired new counsel and was able to secure a new trial. He then accepted a plea deal in which he achieved a better result than he had received at trial-replacing two felony convictions with three misdemeanor convictions. We must determine when his malpractice cause of action accrued.

         ¶ 2 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Hillyard, concluding that Mr. Thomas's malpractice action was barred by the statute of limitations. He now appeals. Mr. Hillyard argues that the elements of a legal malpractice claim were all provable at the time the jury first returned its guilty verdict. He asserts that Mr. Thomas's claim for legal malpractice therefore accrued on that date, and the statute of limitations began to run. Because Mr. Thomas filed his claim after the four-year statute of limitations had run, he claims it was untimely. Mr. Thomas, on the other hand, argues that the element of causation could not be proven until he received a more favorable result, which happened when he accepted the plea deal. Alternatively, he asserts that his claim accrued when he was granted a new trial. The date of both of these events would place the filing of Mr. Thomas's malpractice action within the statute of limitations. We conclude that Mr. Thomas's claim accrued at the conclusion of his criminal case-when he pled guilty to three misdemeanors. Because we find that Mr. Thomas's claim was timely filed, we reverse.

         Background[1]

         ¶ 3 Mr. Thomas was charged and convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual abuse. He hired Mr. Hillyard as his attorney. On October 26, 2012, a jury found him guilty of both felony counts. Mr. Thomas contends that Mr. Hillyard's representation at trial was deficient in several respects. Specifically, he argues that Mr. Hillyard failed to object to inadmissible testimony from Mr. Thomas's daughter and her counselor, failed to object to inadmissible other-acts evidence presented in his ex-wife's testimony, failed to request key jury instructions, and failed to object to prejudicial statements in the prosecutor's closing argument.

         ¶ 4 Mr. Thomas hired new attorneys, and on January 7, 2013, they filed a motion to arrest judgment, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel based on Mr. Hillyard's alleged errors. This motion was granted on May 24, 2013, and Mr. Thomas was granted a new trial. On October 24, 2014, Mr. Thomas pled guilty to three misdemeanor charges and was released from custody.

         ¶ 5 On May 23, 2017, Mr. Thomas sued Mr. Hillyard for malpractice. The complaint alleged that Mr. Hillyard's representation fell below a reasonable standard of care, proximately causing economic and noneconomic damages. Mr. Hillyard filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the malpractice action was time-barred under the four-year statute of limitations applicable to legal malpractice actions. He grounded this motion on a theory that the claim accrued on the date the jury returned a guilty verdict, October 26, 2012.

         ¶ 6 Mr. Thomas opposed the motion, arguing that the malpractice action did not accrue until he obtained relief from his felony convictions on October 24, 2014. Since he filed his complaint two and a half years after that, he asserted that he filed within the statute of limitations. Alternatively, he claimed that, at the earliest, the action accrued when he was granted a new trial, which happened three years and 364 days prior to his filing, also within the statute of limitations. So either way, he asserts, he was still within the statute of limitations.

         ¶ 7 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Hillyard. It ruled that the malpractice action accrued when Mr. Thomas was convicted on the felony charges. The court concluded that, at the latest, his cause of action accrued when he incurred legal fees for the post-trial motion he filed on January 7, 2013.

         ¶ 8 Mr. Thomas timely appealed the district court's ruling to this court, and we have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

         Standard of Review

         ¶ 9 A district court's application of a statute of limitations and grant of summary judgment are both questions of law, which we review for correctness.[2] But application of a statute of limitations may also involve "subsidiary factual determination[s, ]" which we review "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."[3]

         Analysis

         ¶ 10 Mr. Thomas argues that his legal malpractice claim did not accrue until he received a result more favorable than he had received at trial-pleading to misdemeanor charges rather than felony charges. Mr. Hillyard, on the other hand, asserts that the claim accrued, at the latest, when Mr. Thomas moved to arrest judgment. We hold that a legal malpractice claim based on alleged malpractice committed in the course of a criminal proceeding does not accrue until the underlying action has concluded and there is no appeal of right available. Additionally, we hold that if a defendant chooses to pursue a claim under the Post-Conviction Remedies Act (PCRA), the ...


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