(CN) – An Iowa attorney who attacked his client-turned-girlfriend did not commit legal malpractice against her, a narrowly divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled.
Melissa Stender sued Anthony Blessum for assault and battery, legal malpractice and punitive damages.
Blessum served as Stender’s attorney in her will preparation, divorce and assault claim against her former husband, Phillip.
When Phillip received a second draft of divorce papers from Blessum, he physically and sexually assaulted Stender, according to court records.
Two years later, Blessum informed Stender that Phillip had allegedly asked if he would get the entire balance of his retirement account if “something happened” to Melissa.
Both Stender and Blessum considered the statement threatening, and he agreed to help work on her will.
Blessum and Stender met over dinner, and Blessum confided that he was unhappy in his own marriage. At the end of the night, he kissed her.
In a matter of weeks, they began a sexual relationship while Blessum continued to act as her attorney.
After more than a year, Stender suspected that Blessum was seeing other women. She confronted him in the kitchen while holding his frying pan, and she was burned when hot grease landed on her shirt.
Blessum retrieved Stender’s anxiety pills, but she told him their relationship was over.
He then attacked her, threatened to sexually assault her and left the room, court records show.
Stender grabbed a phone and called 911. She screamed for help, and Blessum reportedly strangled her.
Blessum was said to be pulling Stender’s jeans off when police arrived. The Des Moines Register reported that she suffered bruising and a black eye.
Later that month, Blessum wrote a letter apologizing to Stender and admitting that he had seen other women. Blessum also allegedly wrote that he gave Stender a sexually transmitted disease.
Blessum pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily injury. He was sentenced to a year in prison, with all but seven days suspended.
He was also restrained from contacting Stender for five years, and his law license was suspended for 18 months.
A trial court ruled in Stender’s favor on her civil assault and battery claim, awarding her compensatory and punitive damages in the total amount of $498,562.
However, the court found in favor of Blessum on Stender’s legal malpractice claim.
After the jury awarded Stender the damages, one of the jurors told the judge that five of the six jurors did not agree with the amount.
He claimed that several of the jurors had read an opinion article in the Des Moines Register stating that “hopefully the jury will do something more” than the law-license suspension, according to court records.
Stender appealed the trial court’s decision on the malpractice claim, but the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the decision Friday in an opinion written by Justice Bruce Zager.
“Blessum’s sexual relationship in violation of our rules of professional conduct does not by itself give rise to a legal malpractice claim,” he wrote.
Zager added that Stender did not prove Blessum had committed malpractice in the preparation of her will.
“There was no evidence of any actual injury, loss or damage claimed by Stender separated from the damages resulting from the assault,” the judge wrote.
In addition, Zager rejected Stender’s claim that testimony from Blessum’s wife, Jan, about Stender’s “sexually graphic emails and text messages” to her should have been excluded.
For example, Stender once texted Jan that Blessum was in the shower with her and that Stender needed to show Jan how to please Blessum sexually.
“While Jan’s testimony certainly painted Stender in a negative light, the record demonstrates a lack of prejudice,” the ruling states.
Zager also refuted Blessum’s challenge to the amount of damages she was awarded.
“The award of actual damages and punitive damages in this case did not exceed the range permitted by the evidence,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman concurred with Zager.
Justice Daryl Hecht wrote a dissenting opinion on the legal malpractice claim, which was joined by Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel.
“Put simply, sexual relationships between lawyers and their clients are fraught with risk of financial and emotional injuries to clients,” Hecht wrote.
He added, “Because the risk of such injuries to clients is so grave, the rules of professional conduct for lawyers do not merely recommend avoidance of sexual relationships with clients—the rules categorically prohibit the commencement of such relationships during a lawyer–client professional relationship. Blessum clearly breached his professional duty to avoid a sexual relationship with Stender.”