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In Bronstein v. Omega Construction Group, Inc., 2016 WL 1577185 (N.Y. App. April 20, 2016), the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, affirmed a lower court’s denial of a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Michael T. Cetera, an architect hired by Plaintiffs to provide architectural services. In 2006, Plaintiffs entered into an agreement with Mr. Cetera to prepare plans for an addition to their residence. Mr. Cetera filed plans with the New York City Department of Buildings. The Department approved Mr. Cetera’s plans, and Mr. Cetera subsequently withdrew from the project on May 28, 2008.
In September 2010, Plaintiffs notified Mr. Cetera the Department found errors in Mr. Cetera’s plans. Mr. Cetera rendered additional services to remedy the defects and omissions. Mr. Cetera had no further involvement in the project after November 2010.
In August 2013, Plaintiffs brought claims of professional negligence against Mr. Cetera based on the services he rendered under the 2006 agreement. Mr. Cetera moved to dismiss the amended complaint as untimely. Mr. Cetera argued the amended complaint was filed more than three years after his May 28, 2008 withdrawal from the project and therefore was barred by the statute of limitations. The lower court denied Mr. Cetera’s motion.
Typically, a negligence claim “accrues” - i.e., the statute of limitations begins to run - at the moment the negligent act occurs. The Appellate Court noted, however, under the so-called “continuing representation doctrine,” professional malpractice claims accrue upon the completion of performance and resulting termination of the professional relationship. The continuing representation doctrine allows courts to recognize a party seeking professional services has a right trust a professional’s judgment and ability throughout the duration of the professional relationship. According to the Appellate Court, evidence of Mr. Cetera’s continuing communications with Plaintiffs after his withdrawal, as well as Mr. Cetera’s efforts to remedy the alleged errors and deficiencies in his plans between September and November 2010, supported the lower court’s denial of Mr. Cetera’s motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ amended complaint.
The holding in Bronstein demonstrates why a design professional should be cognizant of his or her continued professional relationship on a project. Despite Mr. Cetera’s withdrawal from the project almost five years prior to Plaintiffs filing suit, Mr. Cetera’s attempts to correct the alleged deficiencies in his work essentially restarted the statute of limitations. Although Mr. Cetera’s attempts to correct his work may have made sense in this case - Design professionals should be weary of their continued involvement, and always seek the advice of counsel when asked to perform corrections.