Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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In a construction-defect matter filed by a homeowners’ association (HOA) against several developers, an attorney for the HOA previously represented one of the developers. The developers moved to disqualify that attorney under Rules 1.9 and 1.10 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. The trial court denied the motion, without what the Colorado Supreme Court described as “meaningfully analyzing for purposes” of Rule 1.9 whether this case was “substantially related” to the prior matters in which the attorney represented the developer. Instead, the Court found the trial court relied on issue preclusion, and found that in this situation, the attorney was not disqualified to represent the developer. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred by not analyzing the facts of this case under Rule 1.9, and therefore vacated the denial of the developers’ motion, and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Villas at Highland Park Homeowners Assoc. v. Villas at Highland Park, LLC" on Justia Law

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Galveston County Commissioners Court may set a salary range for a county judicial employee while letting Galveston County district judges decide if compensation within that range is reasonable. While the judicial branch may direct the Commissioners Court to set a new range, it cannot dictate a specific salary outside that range. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment in this long-running dispute over who has the authority to set the compensation of a county judicial employee, holding that, in this case, the trial court lacked the authority to require a county judge to reinstate a county judicial employee at a specific salary, thus encroaching on the county’s legislative branch - the Commissioners Court. View "Honorable Mark Henry v. Honorable Lonnie Cox" on Justia Law

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Fee-sharing provisions in otherwise valid retainer agreements between clients and two separate law firms are not unenforceable simply because the primary service performed by one firm is the referral of the clients to the other and the agreements fail to specifically notify clients that each firm has assumed joint financial responsibility for the representation. In 2007-2010, Plaintiff, a Gurnee law firm, was retained by 10 clients for representation under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Plaintiff contracted with attorney Esposito for assistance in representing the clients before the Workers’ Compensation Commission. A letter of understanding was drafted by defendant, confirming that the cases had been referred to defendant by plaintiff, outlining the parties’ respective responsibilities regarding representation of the clients, and specifying that the attorney fees obtained in each case would be split between Plaintiff and Esposito. The agreements did not specifically notify the clients that the lawyers in each firm had assumed joint financial responsibility for the representation. Plaintiff’s breach of contract suit against Esposito was dismissed. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s reversal, rejecting an argument that the agreements’ lack of an express statement that the attorneys assumed joint financial responsibility violated Rule 1.5(e) of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct and thereby rendered the agreements invalid. View "Ferris, Thompson & Zweig, Ltd. v. Esposito" on Justia Law

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Based on the facts of this case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment, because the superior court gave no explanation for denying plaintiff’s contractual lien claim. Plaintiff Harvey Garod appealed a superior court order dismissing his conversion action against defendants R. James Steiner and Steiner Law Offices, PLLC. Plaintiff was retained by a client to pursue a personal injury action. In connection with the representation, the client signed plaintiff’s standard engagement contract. Plaintiff worked for the client for two years before being discharged without cause. The client subsequently hired defendants, who filed an action (underlying action) on behalf of the client. Defendants ultimately settled the underlying action on the client’s behalf. After the settlement of the underlying action, the client filed a motion to order that the settlement check be made “payable solely to [the client] and her counsel, R. James Steiner. On the same day, the plaintiff filed a series of motions in the underlying action, including a second motion to intervene wherein he asserted that he possessed a contractual lien, a motion for interpleader, and a motion to foreclose lien. The client objected to all these motions, and the court denied all of them without explanation. Plaintiff then filed suit against defendants, again alleging that he had an enforceable contractual lien for fees against the defendants. Defendants moved to dismiss the action, which was ultimately granted. In reversing the superior court’s order, the Supreme Court was persuaded by plaintiff’s argument that he may have had a valid lien, and the contract signed by the client was enforceable against defendants because defendants were aware of his lien at the time they were retained, and because the client should not be required to pay both lawyers’ fees. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Garod v. Steiner Law Office, PLLC" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend an exception to the general rule to the circumstances of this case, which wanted to impose on attorneys a duty to prospective beneficiaries of undrafted, unexecuted wills. Doing so, in the Court’s view, would undermine the duty of loyalty that an attorney owes to his or her client and invite claims premised on speculation regarding the testator’s intent. Plaintiff filed a complaint against both defendant and his law firm alleging that defendant committed legal malpractice and consumer fraud, specifically alleging defendant breached a duty of care by failing to advise mother on matters of her estate and failing to draft a codicil reflecting her intent. The court granted defendants a partial motion to dismiss on the consumer fraud allegation. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, adding another count of legal malpractice. This amended complaint alleged that defendant breached a duty owed to plaintiff to the extent that he could have successfully challenged mother’s will. According to plaintiff, he filed six affidavits from mother’s relatives, friends, and neighbors indicating that mother was committed to leaving a House she owned to plaintiff. Defendants again moved for summary judgment in which they argued that an attorney did not owe “a duty to a non-client prospective beneficiary of a nonexistent will or other estate planning document.” The trial court ruled there was no duty to beneficiaries of a client’s estate under Vermont law. The Supreme Court agreed. View "Strong v. Fitzpatrick" on Justia Law

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At issue was whether a newly-elected district court judge or the former judge he or she replaced may file findings of fact following a bench trial over which the former judge presided before his or her term expired. The court of appeals concluded that neither judge could file the findings. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the court of appeals properly found that the new judge could not file the findings because she lacked the authority to file them; but (2) the court of appeal erred by failing to direct the new judge to request that the former judge file the findings because the former judge was the only judge with the power to file findings, even after he left the bench. View "Ad Villarai, LLC v. Pak" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his conviction for first degree sexual assault of a child, rendered after a jury trial, and his conviction of thirty-five to fifty years’ imprisonment with credit for 129 days served. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) although Defendant was represented at trial by an individual who failed to meet the substantive requirements to be a licensed attorney at trial, there was no per se violation of Defendant’s constitutional right to trial because the lead attorney for Defendant’s trial was a qualified, licensed attorney; (2) Defendant’s counsel were not constitutionally ineffective; (3) there was sufficient evidence to sustain a guilty verdict; and (4) there was no abuse of discretion in the sentence imposed. View "State v. Loding" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court's opinion in CRST Van Expedited Inc. v. E.E.O.C., 136 S. Ct. 1642, 1646 (2016), effectively overruled Branson v Nott's holding that when a defendant wins because the action is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction he is never a prevailing party. In this case, Amphastar filed a qui tam action against Aventis under the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C 3730, alleging that Aventis obtained an illegal monopoly over the drug enoxaparin and then knowingly overcharged the United States. The district court dismissed the suit based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit held that Amphastar's allegations were based on publicly disclosed information, and it lacked the direct and independent knowledge needed to be an original source. Therefore, the panel upheld the district court's judgment on the merits. However, the panel held that the district court erroneously concluded that it could not award attorneys' fees, because the FCA's fee-shifting provision contained an independent grant of subject matter jurisdiction and because a party who wins a lawsuit on a non-merits issue is a "prevailing party." The panel remanded for resolution of the attorneys' fees issue. View "Amphastar Pharmaceuticals v. Aventis Pharma" on Justia Law

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Once removed from office, a justice court judge may not return to it by reelection or otherwise Former Justice Court Judge Rickey Thompson challenged the Lee County Democratic Executive Committee’s decision to withhold his name from the general-election ballot for a new term as a justice court judge, based on the Court’s order removing him from the office of justice court judge prior to the election. The circuit court dismissed Thompson’s case, finding him ineligible for judicial office. The Mississippi Supreme Court concurred with the circuit court and affirmed. Thompson also claimed that the proper procedures for removing him from the ballot were not followed, as neither the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance nor the Lee County Election Commission had authority to disqualify him. Because the Supreme Court held that Thompson’s removal was permanent, it did not address whether the proper procedures for removing him from the ballot were followed. View "Thompson v. Mississippi Attorney General" on Justia Law

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District court properly awarded “exceptional case” legal fees. In 2005, Dow filed an infringement action against NOVA, which argued that its product did not infringe and that Dow lacked standing because it had transferred ownership of the patents. In 2010, the district court entered judgment against NOVA for $61 million. The Federal Circuit affirmed. In a separate appeal from an award of supplemental damages, the Federal Circuit found the asserted claims invalid as indefinite under the Supreme Court’s intervening “Nautilus” standard, but did not disturb the 2010 judgment relating to preverdict infringement. NOVA became aware of evidence allegedly showing that Dow had committed fraud in obtaining the 2010 judgment but was time-barred from moving to set aside that judgment. In 2013, NOVA filed a separate action in equity for relief from the 2010 judgment, asserting misrepresentation of Dow’s ownership of the asserted patents, based on the testimony of a former Dow employee in an unrelated tax case and on the testimony of Dow’s expert, about testing on the accused product during separate Canadian litigation. The Federal Circuit affirmed dismissal. The district court awarded Dow $2.5 million under 35 U.S.C. 285, which allows courts to award “reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party” in “exceptional cases.” The court noted the weakness of NOVA’s litigating position and the manner in which NOVA pursued the case. The Federal Circuit affirmed. View "Nova Chemicals Corp. v. Dow Chemical Co." on Justia Law