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Iowa Supreme Court: Relief from Conviction Not Required When Suing for Legal Malpractice Based on Wrongful Sentence

by Dale Chappell

In an issue of first impression in Iowa, the Supreme Court of Iowa held that relief from a wrongful sentence is enough to allow a legal malpractice claim regarding that sentence, and the defendant need not obtain relief from the underlying conviction.

Having spent an extra year in prison because his lawyer failed to challenge that his probation had ended before a probation violation occurred, Ray Kraklio obtained relief when the district court agreed that he was not on probation at the time of the violation. However, when Kraklio sued his lawyer, Kent Simmons, for failing to raise that issue, causing him to spend more time in prison, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Simmons, concluding that Kraklio could not show that he obtained relief from the underlying conviction to meet the relief-required rule (a.k.a. the exoneration rule). Kraklio appealed, and the court of appeals reversed, holding that relief from the wrongful sentence was enough. Simmons petitioned to the Iowa Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his appeal.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether Kraklio may sue his lawyer for malpractice over a sentencing error allegedly caused by the malpractice without having obtained relief from the underlying conviction. The Court held that he may.

To recover for (civil or criminal) legal malpractice, a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship giving rise to a duty; (2) the attorney breached that duty; (3) the breach proximately caused an injury to the plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff sustained an actual injury or loss. Huber v. Watson, 568 N.W.2d 787 (Iowa 1997).

The Iowa Supreme Court added a fifth element when suing a criminal defense attorney for legal malpractice, viz., the criminal defendant must obtain relief from his or her conviction before advancing a legal malpractice claim. Trobaugh v. Sondag, 668 N.W.2d 577 (Iowa 2003). In Barker v. Capotosto, 875 N.W.2d 157 (Iowa 2016), the Court clarified that a criminal defendant is not required to prove actual innocence before suing his or her lawyer; however, the Court “emphasized that the malpractice plaintiff must obtain judicial relief from the avoidable conviction blamed on the malpractice….” Neither Trobaugh nor Barker involved a claim of legal malpractice premised on a sentencing error as in the present case.

The Supreme Court had to determine whether Trobaugh and Barker require Kraklio to establish he obtained relief from his underlying conviction in order to advance his malpractice claim. Notably, he did not deny he committed the crime or claim that he was wrongfully convicted. Rather, he argued that he should be permitted to sue for malpractice without showing relief from his conviction. That is, he argued that he need only prove the general elements of legal malpractice articulated in Huber.

The Court agreed with Kraklio and determined that Trobaugh and Barker are distinguishable from the present case “because the malpractice in those cases led to an avoidable conviction while Kraklio claims Simmons missed the opportunity to end his probation sooner without blaming him for the underlying conviction.” Thus, the Court announced: “We hold that a criminal defendant suing his defense lawyer over a sentencing error must obtain postjudgment relief on the sentencing issue, but need not prove relief from the underlying conviction.

Applying this newly announced rule, the Court explained “Kraklio must show relief from the duration of his supervised probation, not the underlying conviction.” The Court instructed that the relief-required rule still applies to the alleged sentencing error. The district court ruled that Kraklio’s term of supervised probation actually ended prior to the alleged violation. Thus, the Supreme Court concluded that the district court’s ruling “constituted sufficient relief from the alleged sentencing error to avoid summary judgment under the relief-required rule.”

According, the Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals, reversed the district court’s summary judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings. See: Kraklio v. Simmons, 909 N.W.2d 427 (Iowa 2018). 

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