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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev 5778

P'ninat Mishpat: Was he or Was he Not the Lawyer? part I

(based on ruling 75084 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiff (=pl) bought an apartment in 1994. He and the seller used the defendant (=def) as a lawyer, and def is referenced in the sales contract. In 2007, def’s office, in an effort to clear space, sent pl and many others their files. In 2014, the seller informed a startled def that he just found out that the apartment is still in the seller’s name; it later surfaced that the tax authorities had also not been notified. After a meeting between def and pl, whose details are quite disputed, def did not take responsibility to complete what was missing. The tax authority demanded 44,000 shekels, most of which was due to very late payment. Pl had a new lawyer finish the processes and negotiate a reduction of late payment (to 7,166 shekels). The new lawyer is charging a total of 7,700 shekels for his services, and pl is suing def to pay for both fees that became needed due to his negligence. Def responds that he had indications that pl had not paid and there is no old record of payment, and so he was not responsible to finish the legal processes. The contract anyway says it is the parties’ obligation to ensure the processes are finished. Def also wants to invoke the statute of limitations, which has long passed.


Ruling: There is no automatic statute of limitations in halacha, although dayanim should look into the possibility that a delay in making a claim makes it suspicious (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 98:1). In this case, there are clear indications that pl had no idea the process had not been completed, and therefore there is no logic to apply a statute of limitations.  

Def’s main claim, that he was never paid and therefore never obligated to register the change of ownership, was the subject of internal contradictions. He quoted his bookkeeper as saying that there was no payment received from pl, but when beit din asked for confirmation from the bookkeeper, def refused to give contact information. Later he admitted to having received some money from an account that belonged to pl’s brother.  There is no question that def took part in the contract, which both his past and present secretaries testified he generally does not do before being paid. While def claims to have some recollection of running after pl for payment, even if that were true, it still would not explain why he did not notify the seller that he had not done the transfer, as there are even fewer indications that the seller did not pay.

While def claims that it is the buyer’s responsibility to check if the ownership has been transferred, beit din rejects that claim. Very few buyers are capable of doing that. In fact, when, in 2007, def sent pl’s file to him, it was accompanied by a letter sent to many clients in which def indicated he reviewed the files as being finalized before sending them.

Next time we will discuss assessing the amount of damage def must pay for.

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