Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in New Mexico Supreme Court

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Respondent Magistrate Judge James Naranjo placed a phone call on behalf of his stepson Albert Hernandez who was a party in a child-support enforcement proceeding assigned to another judge. After Mr. Hernandez was jailed for nonpayment of support, respondent called the judge presiding over Hernandez's case stating Hernandez was not a flight risk, and requested that Hernandez's bond be reduced, or that he be released from custody. As a result, the judge in Hernandez's case recused himself. The Judicial Standards Commission filed charges against respondent for willful misconduct, and recommended the imposition of discipline. The Supreme Court granted the Commission's petition and imposed a ninety-day suspension (60 days deferred), and a public censure. View "In the Matter of Naranjo" on Justia Law

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The Judicial Standards Commission filed a petition for discipline against Espanola municipal court judge Respondent Stephen S. Salazar. David Vigil, the son of a member of Respondent’s church and an acquaintance, manufactured a custom chopper motorcycle which he allowed John Martinez to test ride. Vigil did not produce a title to the vehicle prior to allowing Martinez to test ride it. Ohkay Owingeh police towed the motorcycle during the course of a criminal case for domestic violence against Martinez. The seized motorcycle was towed by George and David Luna d/b/a Aces Towing and Recovery, LLC. Vigil phoned and later visited Respondent for help in recovering the motorcycle. Respondent directed Vigil to have his attorney draft an ex parte order regarding the motorcycle. Vigil delivered the order to Respondent in the lobby of the courthouse and Respondent signed it. In the order, Respondent directed George Luna and Aces Towing to return Vigil’s motorcycle. The order falsely stated that Respondent had held a hearing on the matter. Respondent did not give notice or an opportunity to be heard to the Lunas or their company. In addition, Respondent embossed the official seal of the Espanola Municipal Court upon the order even though there was no case pending or court file existing in that court for the matter. Respondent also failed to inquire if Vigil’s matter was pending in Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court or was part of any other action in any other court; Martinez’s case was, in fact, pending in Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court. When Respondent signed the order, he was on probation with the Commission following a trial before the Commission in November 2009. George Luna and Aces Towing filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition and Superintending Control in the district court seeking to quash Respondent’s order. The First Judicial District Court granted the writ petition and quashed the order. The Supreme Court issued an order accepting the Commission’s recommendation for discipline suspending Respondent without pay for ninety days, placing Respondent on probation for the remainder of his current term of office, requiring Respondent to pay restitution to the injured parties, requiring Respondent to pay all costs associated with the disciplinary process and ordering a public censure of Respondent. View "In the Matter of Salazar" on Justia Law

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Paul Barber and his law firm, Barber & Borg, L.L.C. were the attorneys for Ellen Sam. Barber filed a lawsuit against numerous defendants for injuries Sam sustained when her car was struck from behind on Interstate 40. Barber also represented Sam in her capacity as the personal representative of the estates of her daughter and granddaughter, both of whom died from injuries they sustained in the collision. At some time during his representation of Sam, Barber learned that Sam had been drinking alcohol before the collision and that she had "parked at night with the lights off in a lane of traffic on [I-40], following which the car was struck by a truck." Barber also learned at some time during the litigation that Sam, who was a statutory beneficiary of her daughter's estate, took the position that the other statutory beneficiary, her ex-husband, Herman Spencer, was not entitled to share in any wrongful death proceeds because he had abandoned their daughter. Based on Sam's position, Barber approached Spencer in person with a settlement agreement, which Spencer ultimately signed, that reduced Spencer's entitlement to proceeds from the wrongful death litigation. Spencer later challenged the validity of the agreement. Barber filed a lawsuit against Spencer on Sam's behalf to enforce the agreement. Spencer counterclaimed against Sam and filed a third-party complaint against Barber for malpractice, fraud, collusion, and misrepresentation. The district court granted Barber summary judgment on the grounds that Barber did not owe a duty to Spencer as a statutory beneficiary because Spencer and Sam were adverse parties, and Barber represented Sam. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the following two questions: (1) "[w]hether the duties a lawyer owes wrongful death statutory beneficiaries are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct"; and (2) "[w]hether an adversarial relationship precludes only contract based malpractice claims and not independent tort claims." Upon review, the Supreme Court ruled that: (1) the Rules of Professional Conduct provide guidance in determining lawyers' obligations to their clients, and that the statutory beneficiary may sue the personal representative's attorney when the attorney harms the statutory beneficiary by failing to exercise reasonable skill and care during the attorney's representation of the personal representative; (2) the adversarial exception may preclude a malpractice action, whether it is in tort or in contract, and that in this case, the adversarial exception does not preclude Spencer's malpractice claim against Barber because there existed genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Barber failed to exercise reasonable skill and care in his representation of Sam as the personal representative, and if so, whether such failure harmed Spencer. View "Spencer v. Barber" on Justia Law

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The underlying case in this matter concerned a property dispute between BNSF Railway (BNSF) and Roy D. Mercer, LLC (Mercer) and the interpretation of an easement. BNSF claimed a right to construct large berms on Mercer's property (to divert water from railroad tracks) pursuant to a 1936 easement granted to BNSF's predecessor in interest by Mercer's predecessor in interest. BNSF hired Gandy Dancer, LLC to construct the new berms. Mercer objected and threatened to remove them. Relying upon its easement claim, BNSF filed suit in state court against Mercer seeking to enjoin Mercer from removing the berms and requesting damages. Mercer filed a counterclaim against BNSF for tort damages and inverse condemnation, and joined Gandy Dancer as a party defendant for trespass, negligence, and prima facie tort. Once joined as a party, Gandy Dancer, through its attorneys Riley, Shane & Keller, P.C. (Riley Law Firm), removed the matter to federal court. Upon removal, Mercer hired the Wagner Ford Law Firm. At that time, the firm consisted of attorneys Kenneth Wagner and Lisa Ford. Although the firm was named "Wagner Ford," Ford was only an associate. In January 2010, Mercer added another law firm, Law & Resource Planning Associates, P.C. (the LRPA Law Firm) to represent it in the state court proceeding because of water law issues involved in that case. The Wagner Ford Law Firm ceased representing Mercer in late 2010. In late June 2012, while the state court proceeding was ongoing, the LRPA law firm learned via the Riley firm's website that the Riley firm had hired Ford as a new associate. LRPA promptly sent a letter to the Riley firm raising Ford's conflict of interest and stating that the Riley firm could no longer represent Gandy Dancer in the litigation with Mercer, Ford's former client. The Riley firm filed a motion in the state case seeking judicial approval of a Rule 16-110(C) screening process for Ford that Riley believed would allow its continued representation of Gandy Dancer. The court found that Ford had previously represented Mercer in the same or a substantially similar matter, her role was substantial, and she had a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, the district court found that the equities favored Gandy Dancer and declined to disqualify the Riley firm. Mercer appealed the district court's decision not to disqualify the Riley Firm. In interpreting and applying the rule to this case, the Supreme Court held that when an attorney has played a substantial role on one side of a lawsuit and subsequently joins a law firm on the opposing side of that lawsuit, both the lawyer and the new firm are disqualified from any further representation, absent informed consent of the former client. "We also specifically conclude under the same rule that screening the new attorney from any involvement in the lawsuit is not an adequate response to the conflict." View "Mercer v. Reynolds" on Justia Law

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This case concerned the scope of absolute privilege that grants immunity to litigants and their attorneys from being sued for defamation based on public statements they make about a judicial proceedings either before or after the proceeding is filed. Specifically, the issues before the Supreme Court in this case were: (1) whether pre-litigation statements made by an attorney to prospective clients in the presence of the press regarding a potential mass-tort lawsuit; and (2) whether statements made directly to the press by an attorney or party after such lawsuit was filed, are absolutely privileged, thus barring any lawsuit for defamation. The district court found in the affirmative on these issues and granted summary judgment to the defendants. The Court of Appeals reversed that decision, finding that absolute privilege did not apply to statements made before or after a complaint was filed when the statements were made before the press. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that absolute privilege indeed does apply to pre-litigation statements made by attorneys in the presence of the press if (1) the speaker is seriously and in good faith contemplating a lawsuit at the time the statement was made; (2) the statement is reasonably related to the proposed litigation; (3) the attorney has a client or identifiable prospective clients at the time the statement was made; and (4) the statement is made while the attorney is acting in the capacity of counsel or prospective counsel. View "Helena Chemical Co. v. Uribe" on Justia Law

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Defendant Zirachuen Rivera drove through a DWI checkpoint in Bernalillo County and an officer suspected he had been drinking alcohol. Defendant showed signs of impairment on the standard field sobriety tests and was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Defendant’s bench trial began in Metropolitan Court where assistant district attorney Rachel Bayless entered an appearance for both herself and Chris Mills, a purported attorney, on behalf of the State. At the conclusion of trial, Defendant was found guilty of driving while intoxicated. Upon leaving the courtroom, defense counsel overheard Mills telling Bayless that he had decided not to take the New Mexico bar exam. Upon learning that Mills was not a licensed New Mexico attorney, Defendant filed a motion for a mistrial and a new trial. Defendant later attached a certificate from the Chief Clerk of the New Mexico Supreme Court to affirm that Mills was not on the official roll of New Mexico attorneys.In its opinion in this case, the Supreme Court clarified the rules and judicial precedent pertaining to the authorized practice of law in all state courts. The Court held that practice is limited to "duly licensed attorneys who are members of the State Bar or otherwise authorized by this Court’s rules in specific, limited circumstances." Because the Court of Appeals relied on statutory expressions that appeared to permit the unauthorized practice of law in magistrate courts, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals while affirming Defendant's conviction. View "New Mexico v. Rivera" on Justia Law

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The willful judicial misconduct at issue in this case arose by Judge Robert Schwartz's untimely recusal after initiating a romantic relationship with an assistant public defender that had cases pending before him and making dishonest statements from the bench concerning his reasons for recusing. In the spring of 2009, a female assistant public defender regularly appeared in his courtroom. Although Judge Schwartz doubted that a romantic relationship would develop given the difference in their ages, he was open to the possibility. At some point during a lunch with the assistant public defender, Judge Schwartz gave the assistant public defender a gift of a pair of purple latex gloves and a book written by an author with the same name as Judge Schwartz entitled "The One Hour Orgasm." The gift was intended by Judge Schwartz and understood by the assistant public defender to be a self-deprecating joke because the author and Judge Schwartz shared the same name. Before he became a judge, Judge Schwartz had given this book to others, whose common reaction was to burst out laughing. When the assistant public defender returned to work, she showed her supervisor the joke gift. After Judge Schwartz announced that he would recuse in two of the assistant public defender's cases, he provided dishonest reasons for his recusal and entered rulings in those cases. There was no evidence of any adverse impact on these cases from the recusals. Both cases were resolved in a timely manner. The relationship with the assistant public defender ended, and following a trial in August 2009, Judge Schwartz took voluntary medical leave while the Ethics Commission obtained an independent medical examination of his condition. The Commission found that although his reasons for recusal were not credible, Judge Schwartz had been forthcoming and candid with the Commission, apologized for his conduct, and expressed a desire and willingness to learn from his mistakes. Based on these facts, the Commission concluded that Judge Schwartz violated ethics rules. The Judge challenged the Commission's findings to the Supreme Court. The Court adopted the Commission's recommendation that Judge Schwartz receive a formal reprimand. The Court also adopted the recommendations that he take appropriate leave during any future transitions in medical treatment, and that he receive training on the nature of sexual harassment. The Court rejected the Commission's recommendations that Judge Schwartz be suspended without pay and, instead, ordered him to pay a $6,000 fine.