October 30, 2013 Articles

Miranda v. Said: No Need to Get "Emotional"

The recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling permitting emotional-distress damages in a legal-malpractice case is closer to the exception and not the new rule.

Saleel V. Sabnis

If one begins to type “Iowa is” into the Google search bar, one of the top phrases the auto-fill feature recommends to complete the sentence is “famous for.” Clearly, the masses are still searching for the true identity of the state that has given us everything from Ashton Kutcher to those annoyingly premature presidential caucuses. (Although that does not beat the search for “Idaho is,” which yields as the top entry “not a real place.”) But perhaps the auto-fill should now recommend “gutsy” as exemplified in the state supreme court’s opinion in Miranda v. Said, 836 N.W.2d 8 (Iowa 2013). In Miranda, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a 5–1 decision that emotional-distress damages are available to plaintiffs in a legal-malpractice action involving an immigration attorney whose reckless representation led to the plaintiffs’ banishment from the country and separation from their children.

The opinion was not popular among the defense bar. Post-Miranda, some legal bloggers ignored all the qualifiers of the above description of the case and had the clairvoyance to predict that the apocalypse in legal-malpractice defense was dawning, that the decision would open the proverbial door for allowing emotional-distress damages in all types of cases and trigger the overused “chilling effect” on practicing law. After all, isn’t mental anguish a by-product of any unsuccessful litigation? Based on these forecasts, perhaps one could have wholly expected “Iowa is known for . . . ruining the practice of law” to display in the Google search bar.

In fact, the Miranda opinion is tame and should not be an archetype of a new wave of decisions. Miranda still represents how the minority of jurisdictions award emotional-distress damages in attorney-malpractice lawsuits although, at best, it may expand the scope of what is justifiably “distressful” in the context of a legal-malpractice matter.

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