Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court

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This case started out of a business dispute between respondent-cross-petitioner Just In Case Business Lighthouse, LLC (JIC) and petitioner-cross-respondent Patrick Murray. To prepare for the litigation, JIC hired Preston Sumner, a businessman with knowledge of business sales and valuation, as an advisor. Sumner agreed to help with the case in exchange for a ten-percent interest in the case's outcome. Murray objected to Sumner's involvement in the case, arguing: (1) Sumner's interest in the case outcome was an improper payment violating Colorado Rule of Professional Conduce (RPC) 3.4(b); (2) Sumner lacked the requisite personal knowledge of the case's underlying events as required by Colorado Rule of Evidence (CRE) 602; and (3) the summary charts Sumner prepared were inadmissible under CRE 1006. The trial court ruled that Sumner could testify as a summary witness, but not as an expert or fact witness. Sumner testified and laid foundation for two of the summary exhibits, which the trial court admitted into evidence. The jury returned a verdict in favor of JIC. Murray renewed his arguments on appeal, and the Court of Appeals rejected them in part, and remanded for the trial court to determine whether Sumner's testimony should have been excluded as a sanction for JIC's violation of RPC 3.4(b). After review, the Colorado Supreme Court held that violation of the ethical rule did not displace the rules of evidence, and that trial courts retained discretion under CRE 403 to exclude testimony of improperly compensated witnesses. The trial court here did not abuse its discretion in declining to exclude Sumner's testimony. Further, the Court held that trial courts could allow summary witness testimony if they determine that the evidence was sufficiently complex and voluminous that the witness would assist the trier of fact. The Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion with respect to the summaries. Finding no reversible errors with the trial court's judgment, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's judgment remanding the case for consideration of whether Sumner's testimony should have been excluded. View "Murray v. Just In Case Bus. Lighthouse, LLC" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether dissatisfied beneficiaries of a testator’s estate have standing to bring legal malpractice or claims against the attorney who drafted the testator’s estate planning documents. Specifically, petitioners Merridy Kay Baker and Sue Carol Kunda sought to sue respondents Wood, Ris & Hames, Professional Corporation, Donald L. Cook, and Barbara Brundin (collectively, the Attorneys), who were the attorneys retained by their father, Floyd Baker, to prepare his estate plan. Petitioners asked the Supreme Court to abandon what was known as the "strict privity rule," which precluded attorney liability to non-clients absent fraud, malicious conduct or negligent misrepresentation. The advocated instead for a "California Test" and for an extension of the third-party beneficiary theory of contract liability (also known as the Florida-Iowa Rule), both of which petitioners asserted would allow them as the alleged beneficiaries of the estate, to sue the Attorneys for legal malpractice and breach of contract. After review of this case, the Supreme Court declined to abandon the strict privity rule, and rejected petitioners' contention that the court of appeals erred in affirming dismissal of their purported fraudulent concealment claims. View "Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a non-attorney trustee of a trust could proceed pro se before the water court. Appellant-trustee J. Tucker appealed the water court’s ruling that as trustee of a trust, he was not permitted to proceed because he was representing the interests of others. He also appealed the court’s order granting appellee Town of Minturn’s application for a finding of reasonable diligence in connection with a conditional water right. Appellant’s pro se issue was one of first impression before the Supreme Court, and the Court held that the water court correctly ruled that as a non-attorney trustee, appellant could not proceed pro se on behalf of the trust. In light of that determination, the Court did not address appellant’s other arguments regarding the sufficiency of the verification. View "Tucker v. Town of Minturn" on Justia Law

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Cherokee Metropolitan District intervened in a lawsuit to try to minimize the loss of its water rights to some of its wells. In a separate legal malpractice action, Cherokee sued its former attorneys James Felt and James Culichia, and their firm Felt, Monson & Culichia, LLC (collectively "FMC"), alleging that FMC's negligence led to the eventual loss of those water rights. FMC sought to intervene in the water rights action, arguing that intervention was necessary in order to minimize damages it may have suffered in the legal malpractice case. The water court denied FMC's motion to intervene. FMC appealed. The Supreme Court found that despite taking opposite sides in the malpractice action, Cherokee and FMC shared an identical interest in the underlying water rights litigation. Because FMC did not made a compelling showing that Cherokee could not adequately represent the interest that it shared with Cherokee, the Court affirmed the water court's denial of FMC's motion to intervene as of right. Similarly, the Court dismissed FMC's appeal of the water court's denial of FMC's motion for permissive intervention because the water court did not abuse its discretion. View "Cherokee Metro. Dist. v. Felt, Monson & Culichia LLC" on Justia Law

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In an original proceeding, petitioner Bruce Nozolino sought to vacate a trial court's order that disqualified the Office of the State Public Defender as his counsel. The trial court made the disqualification after it found that a conflict existed and was not waivable. On appeal to the Supreme Court, petitioner argued the trial court abused its discretion in its disqualification order. "Contrary to the trial court's ruling, our analysis of the factors critical to the determination of whether Nozolino must be allowed to waive conflict-free representation convince[d] us that the balance weigh[ed] in favor of Nozolino's preference for continued representation by [the Office of the Public Defender]." Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case for an advisement on record so that Nozolino could decide whether to waive conflict-free representation. View "In re Colorado v. Nozolino" on Justia Law

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This case came before the Supreme Court from a personal injury case against a restaurant that ended with allegations of a party contracting a food-borne illness. THe plaintiff sought to have a small out-of-state law firm that specializes in food-borne illness claims admitted pro hac vice to help in the litigation. The defendant objected on grounds that defense counsel had previously consulted with an attorney at the the out-of-state-firm about her case and her trial strategy. The trial court denied the out-of-state firm's motion, thus disqualifying it from representing plaintiff. On appeal to the Supreme Court, plaintiff argued that Colo. RPC 1.7 applied only to situations where an attorney-client relationship was established, and that the trial court's disqualification was the trial court's abuse of discretion. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's order, holding that: (1) the consultation between defense counsel and out-of-state counsel concerned confidential information (which created a conflict under Colo. RPC 1.7; and, (2) the conflict was not waivable. View "In re Liebnow v. Boston Enterprises" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to determine, whether an attorney owes fiduciary duties to third parties who are entitled to funds from Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation (COLTAF) trust accounts. The court of appeals reversed a trial court judgment and held that an attorney did not owe fiduciary duties to a group of medical service providers who were owed funds held in the attorney's COLTAF account. The Providers and the attorney, David J. Mintz,had an extensive and often contentious personal and business relationship over several years. Typically, Mintz would refer an uninsured victim of a motor vehicle accident to the Providers for medical services, paying himself and his clients' medical costs out of proceeds he secured after negotiating insurance settlements for the clients. The relationship turned sour due to a dispute about costs of a joint advertising arrangement, and, for reasons disputed by the parties, Mintz began withholding funds owed to the Providers for his clients' medical costs. Mintz eventually initiated an interpleader action for the withheld funds, naming as defendants his clients and the Providers. The Providers answered with several counterclaims, including breach of fiduciary duty. The trial court bifurcated the action and first determined that the Providers were entitled to the specific amount withheld in Mintz's COLTAF account but no more. In the second trial, the trial court found for the Providers on their abuse of process and breach of fiduciary duty counterclaims.The court of appeals reversed the trial court's holdings for the Providers in the second trial. Upon review, the Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals and affirmed judgment: "the Providers may not maintain a breach of fiduciary duty tort action against Mintz based on his obligations as trustee of his COLTAF account. The attorney-client relationship creates fiduciary obligations with corresponding liabilities on the part of the attorney to the client, not to third parties such as the medical providers in this case. Although Mintz may have had ethical or contractual obligations to disburse money that clients owed to the Providers out of insurance settlement proceeds placed into his COLTAF account, Mintz did not owe the Providers the duties of a fiduciary that give rise to tort liability." View "Accident & Injury Medical Specialists., P.C. v. Mintz" on Justia Law

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After losing on her Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim at the county court, Elizabeth Flood's trial counsel, Gary Merenstein, paid the fees of several appellate attorneys who represented Flood in an appeal to the district court and later to the Supreme Court because they were not willing to work on a contingency basis. Flood ultimately prevailed in her appeal, and the Supreme Court awarded attorneys' fees. On remand to the county court to determine Flood's entitlement to and the amount of the attorneys' fees, the opposing party, debt collector Mercantile Adjustment Bureau(MAB), argued that Flood was not entitled to receive attorneys' fees for her appellate counsel's work. MAB argued that the arrangement between Merenstein and Flood, wherein he agreed to pay her appellate attorneys' fees and expected to be reimbursed for these fees from any court award of attorneys' fees received by Flood, constituted unethical financial assistance of a client in violation of Rule 1.8(e) of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. The county court rejected MAB's argument and awarded Flood the requested attorneys' fees. MAB appealed to the district court, which affirmed the county court. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that Merenstein did not violate Rule 1.8(e) by paying the fees of Flood's appellate counsel and therefore affirmed the district court's decision in part. However, the Court concluded that the district court erred in applying the Colorado Appellate Rules, which require an appellee to make her request for attorneys' fees in her answer brief, to an appeal to the district court from the county court. The Court reversed that part of the district court's ruling applying the Colorado Appellate Rules to deny Flood's request for attorneys' fees incurred in the current appeal. The case was remanded to the district court to return it to the county court for proceedings to determine whether Flood was entitled to appellate fees as the prevailing party in this appeal and, if so, the amount of Flood's reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with this appeal—including the proceedings before the Supreme Court. View "Mercantile Adjustment Bureau v. Flood" on Justia Law

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A discovery dispute arose out of claims for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty brought by Moreland/Manoogian, LLC and Tamsen Investments, LLC (collectively "M/M"). Richard Judd, Stephen Waters and their firm Robinson Waters & O'Dorisio, PC (RWO) represented M/M in a real estate development deal. Cedar Street Venture, LLC and M/M sought to solidify their partnership, but in the final phases of the deal, Cedar Street's attorney withdrew. RWO continued to represent M/M in the transaction but at times also advised and acted on behalf of Cedar Street. Because of these actions, Cedar Street viewed RWO as its attorney. Eventually the relationship between M/M and Cedar Street soured, and the parties went to arbitration to settle their differences. The basis of M/M and Cedar Street's complaints pertained to RWO's fees. During discovery, M/M sought RWO's financial records. RWO refused to turn them over. With minimal explanation, the trial court found that these documents were directly relevant to the case. In its holding, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to set the framework that trial courts should use when deciding on discovery requests that implicate the right to privacy: (1) the party requesting the information must prove the information is relevant to case; (2) the party opposing the request must show that the materials are confidential and will not otherwise be disclosed; (3) if the court determines there is a legitimate expectation of privacy in the materials, the requesting party must prove disclosure serves a compelling interest; and (4) if successful, the requesting party must show that the information is not available through other sources.