MEREDITH L. LAWRENCE, AND MEREDITH L. LAWRENCE, P.S.C. APPELLANTS
BINGHAM, GREENEBAUM, DOLL, L.L.P.; J. RICHARD KIEFER; TALIFERRO CARRAN AND KEYS, P.L.L.C; AND ROBERT CARRAN APPELLEES
REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2016-CA-000510-MR
GALLATIN CIRCUIT COURT NO. 15-CI-00113.
COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS MEREDITH L. LAWRENCE, P.S.C. AND
MEREDITH L. LAWRENCE: Brandy Lawrence Meredith L. Lawrence
COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES BINGHAM, GREENEBAUM, DOLL, L.L.P., AND
J. RICHARD KIEFER: Beverly Ruth Storm Arnzen, Storm &
COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES TALIFERRO CARRAN AND KEYS, PLLC, AND
ROBERT CARRAN: Jeffrey C. Mando Adams, Stepner, Woltermann 85
Meredith L. Lawrence and Meredith L. Lawrence, P.S.C.,
(Lawrence) appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeals
which held that a criminal defendant who has been convicted
at trial and whose conviction has not been overturned on
appeal or through other post-conviction proceedings may not
maintain a legal malpractice action against his criminal
defense attorneys for alleged negligence occurring during the
criminal defense representation. The Appellees,
Lawrence's defense attorneys, are Bingham, Greenebaum,
Doll, L.L.P.; J. Richard Kiefer; Robert Carran; and
Taliferro, Carran, & Keys, P.L.L.C.
Court of Appeals' opinion is based upon a doctrine known
as the "Exoneration Rule" which has been previously
applied by our Court of Appeals but has never been addressed
or adopted by this Court. We granted discretionary review to
consider the merits of the rule.
Exoneration Rule provides that a criminal defense attorney
may not be sued for legal malpractice in a case resulting in
the conviction of his or her client unless the client has
been exonerated by direct appeal or upon postconviction
relief. The rationale for the rule is that the sole cause of
the conviction is the criminal conduct of the client rather
than the poor performance of the defense counsel. Thus,
absent subsequent exoneration, the convicted defendant cannot
establish that his attorney was the cause of his conviction.
The Exoneration Rule, with slight variations discussed below,
is the majority rule across the nation.
reasons stated below, we follow the lead of the Court of
Appeals and most of our sister-state jurisdictions in
adopting the Exoneration Rule. Upon application of this rule
to Lawrence's legal malpractice claim, we affirm the
trial court's dismissal of his claims against Appellees.
Upon that conclusion, we recognize Lawrence's remaining
claims on appeal as moot or otherwise without merit.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
was formerly an attorney and a member of the Kentucky Bar
Association. In 2012, he was found guilty in federal district
court of violating 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1), a felony offense
involving false and fraudulent tax returns which Lawrence
allegedly filed between 2004 and 2006. He was sentenced to
twenty-seven months in prison and ordered to pay $128, 253 in
restitution to the United States Treasury.
conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. See U.S. v.
Lawrence, 557 Fed.Appx. 520 (6th Cir.
2014). Lawrence unsuccessfully sought a new trial
pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure
U.S. v. Lawrence, 2015 WL 428087 (E.D. Ky. 2015). He
later filed a petition for habeas corpus, seeking
post-conviction relief in federal district court pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2255. His petition was denied, and the district
court denied a certificate of appealability to the United
States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. U.S. v.
Lawrence, 2016 WL 3212161 (E.D. Ky. 2016); U.S. v.
Lawrence, 2016 WL 4803934 (E.D. Ky. 2016). He petitioned
the Sixth Circuit for a certificate of appealability, which
was denied by Order entered April 4, 2017. See Lawrence
v. U.S., Case No. 16-5870 (6th Cir. April 4, 2017).
Lawrence has now exhausted all conventional post-conviction
direct and collateral attacks against his conviction.
October 2015, while the federal litigation was still pending,
Lawrence filed a civil action in the Gallatin Circuit Court
against the attorneys and law firms that defended him in his
federal court trial. His sole cause of action was that his
attorneys had committed professional negligence in their
defense of his criminal charges. The Complaint was entitled,
"CAUSE OF ACTION PROFESSIONAL NEGLIGENCE." The
complaint alleges that "the representation provided by
the defendants jointly and individually were [sic] laced with
professional negligence, gross negligence, breach of
fiduciary duty, breach of contract both express and implied,
breach of professional failure to observe the rules and order
of the court and were intentionally reckless and wanton with
the representation of the defendants, including but not
limited to the violating the constitutional rights of the
defendants." More specifically, the complaint alleged
that Lawrence's attorneys were negligent by failing to
comply with a scheduling order relating to the disclosure of
expert witness testimony; by failing to object to certain
testimony presented at trial; and by failing to move for a
bill of particulars. This negligence, according to
Lawrence's complaint, caused the "utter
failure" of his trial defense and "subjected Mr.
Lawrence to ineffective assistance of counsel."
with the results obtained in his post-conviction litigation,
Lawrence's complaint does not allege that he has been
exonerated or that his conviction has been otherwise
overturned. Instead, his complaint demonstrates that he
remains under conviction for the crimes.
upon the Exoneration Doctrine, the trial court granted
Appellees' motion to dismiss Lawrence's complaint
pursuant to CR 12.02(f), for failure to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted. The trial court also denied
Lawrence's subsequent motions under CR 59 and 60 to
alter, amend, or vacate the dismissal. The Court of Appeals
affirmed the trial court's dismissal.
identifies thirteen arguments for relief in the
"Arguments" section of his brief, some of which
overlap. They include: (1) that Lawrence is actually and
factually innocent of the federal crimes charged; (2) that
the Appellees are collaterally estopped from asserting the
Exoneration Rule because their conduct was intentional and
egregious; (3) that the Exoneration Rule should not be
applied where defense counsel willfully/ intentionally
breaches his fiduciary duties owed to his client; (4) the
Appellees should not be able to rely upon the collateral
estoppel effect of the federal habeas corpus proceeding
finding no ineffective assistance of counsel because the
Appellees failed to properly plead it in this case; (5) the
Exoneration Doctrine and its reliance on the ineffective
assistance of counsel standard is not applicable to his
claims concerning fee disputes, intentional post-trial
betrayal, violations of Supreme Court Rules, fraud, and
concealment; (6) his legal malpractice claims should be
allowed to proceed under the language of KRS 411.165, and
that KRS 411.165 preempts the Exoneration Rule; and (7) the
doctrine is inapplicable in cases of professional negligence
where the attorney fee is unreasonable, or when the attorney
fails to provide his case file to his former client.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which
relief may be granted under CR 12.02(f) "admits as true
the material facts of the complaint." Fox v.
Grayson,317 S.W.3d 1, 7 (Ky. 2010). Therefore, a motion
under the rule should not be granted "unless it appears
the pleading party would not be entitled to relief under any
set of facts which could be proved . . . ." Id.
In assessing the motion, "the pleadings should be