Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries
Wesco Insurance Co. v. Roderick Linton Belfance, LLP
Lawyers brought claims against schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400. After the claims failed, the schools sought their attorney’s fees from the lawyers under the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision. The School Districts alleged that, during the administrative process, the attorneys presented sloppy pleadings, asserted factually inaccurate or legally irrelevant allegations, and needlessly prolonged the proceedings. The lawyers asked their insurer, Wesco, to pay the fees. Wesco refused on the ground that the requested attorney’s fees fell within the insurance policy’s exclusion for “sanctions.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Wesco. The IDEA makes attorney misconduct a prerequisite to a fee award against a party’s lawyer, so the policy exclusion applied. The court noted that the legal community routinely describes an attorney’s fees award as a “sanction” when a court grants it because of abusive litigation tactics. View "Wesco Insurance Co. v. Roderick Linton Belfance, LLP" on Justia Law
In re: Imerys Talc America, Inc.
A group of insurance companies appealed an order appointing a representative for the interests of unidentified future asbestos and talc claimants in an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. According to these insurers, who fund the asbestos claims trust established under 11 U.S.C. 524(g), this “future claimants’ representative” (FCR) has a conflict of interest precluding him from serving in this role because the FCR’s law firm also represented two of the insurance companies in a separate asbestos-related coverage dispute.The Third Circuit held that the Bankruptcy Court did not abuse its discretion in appointing the FCR. The court gave due consideration to the purported conflict, and correctly determined that the interests of both the insurance companies and the future claimants were adequately protected. View "In re: Imerys Talc America, Inc." on Justia Law
Michael Riolo v. USA
Petitioner appealed the district court’s denial of his 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 motion to vacate his 293-month prison sentence and convictions. Petitioner argued to the district court that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Petitioner asserted that his attorney told him if he pled guilty to five counts of mail fraud, he would serve no more than 10 years in prison because she had a deal with the government that his sentencing range would be 97–121 months’ imprisonment under the Sentencing Guidelines The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment and found that Petitioner’s attorney did not provide Petitioner with ineffective assistance by telling him she had an agreement with the government about his guideline range. Further, the court concluded that Petitioner’s attorney did provide ineffective assistance by underestimating Petitioner’s guideline range. The court explained that to show deficient performance, the movant must establish that his attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The “petitioner bears the heavy burden of showing that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.” Gissendaner v. Seaboldt, 735 F.3d 1311 (11th Cir. 2013). Here, the court concluded that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed each provision of the plea agreement with him at some point before the change-of-plea hearing. Further, the court held that the district court did not clearly err in finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed the plea agreement with Petitioner before the change-of-plea hearing. View "Michael Riolo v. USA" on Justia Law
Victaulic Co. v. American Home Assurance Co.
For about 10 years Victaulic and three of its insurers, members of the American Insurance Group (AIG), have been engaged in litigation. One case is this lawsuit filed by Victaulic in 2012; in 2013, the Pillsbury law firm became counsel for Victaulic and has represented it since, ultimately winning a $56 million judgment. In 2018, that judgment was reversed based on a combination of errors by the trial judge. Following remand, Victaulic filed an amended complaint; the vigorous litigation continued. In 2021 the insurers learned that two attorneys who had done work for a claims-handling arm of AIG had recently joined the Pillsbury firm, about six years after they left employment at the earlier firm. The insurers moved to disqualify the lawyers and the Pillsbury firm, generating thousands of pages of pleadings, declarations, and exhibits, and two hearings.The trial court concluded that the insurers failed to meet their burden. The court of appeal affirmed. There was no showing that the two attorneys had any confidential information and no “direct professional relationship with the former client in which the attorney personally provided legal advice and services on a legal issue that is closely related to the legal issue in the present representation.” View "Victaulic Co. v. American Home Assurance Co." on Justia Law
Static Media LLC v. Leader Accessories LLC
Static sued Leader in Wisconsin for infringing its D400 design patent. The parties entered into a court-approved protective order, under which they could designate certain material produced during discovery as “Confidential,” to be used solely for the purpose of the litigation, with disclosure limited to certain people. Outside independent persons retained for the Wisconsin action were bound by the protective order because they were obligated to sign a “Written Assurance.” After the parties agreed to the protective order, Static sent a cease-and-desist letter to OJ, also alleging infringement of the D400 patent. OJ’s attorney, Hecht, contacted Leader’s attorney, Lee; the parties entered into a Joint Defense Agreement.Static sued OJ for infringement in Florida. Lee sent Hecht copies of the protective order and Written Assurance from the Wisconsin action. Hecht signed and returned the Written Assurance to Lee. Lee emailed Hecht deposition transcripts and related exhibits from the Wisconsin action; only a few pages were marked confidential, reminding Hecht to “adhere to the protective order.” During settlement negotiations in the Florida action, Hecht improperly used royalty agreements he obtained from Lee to assess a settlement proposal.The court found Leader and Lee in civil contempt for violating the protective order and ordered Leader to pay Static’s attorney’s fees and a $1,000 sanction. The Federal Circuit reversed. The disclosure was not a clear violation of the protective order. View "Static Media LLC v. Leader Accessories LLC" on Justia Law
Centripetal Networks, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc.
Centripetal sued Cisco for the infringement of 10 patents relating to systems that perform computer networking security functions. Centripetal successfully requested that the case be reassigned to Judge Morgan, who had recently presided over a trial involving related technology and five of the same patents. While the case was pending, Judge Morgan sent the parties an email, stating that the previous day, his assistant had discovered that his wife owned 100 shares of Cisco stock valued at $4,687.99. He stated that the “shares did not and could not have influenced [his] opinion.” The disqualification statute, 28 U.S.C. 455, refers to financial interests held by family members. Centripetal had no objection to the judge’s continuing to preside over the case.Cisco sought recusal. Judge Morgan stated that section 455(b)(4) did not apply because he had not discovered his wife’s interest in Cisco until he had decided “virtually” every issue and that placing the Cisco shares in a blind trust “cured” any conflict, then found that Cisco willfully infringed the asserted claims and awarded Centripetal damages of $755,808,545 (enhanced 2.5 times to $1,889,521,362.50), pre-judgment interest ($13,717,925), and “a running royalty."The Federal Circuit reversed the denial of Cisco’s motion for recusal, vacated all orders and opinions of the court entered on or after August 11, 2020, including the final judgment, and remanded for further proceedings before a different district court judge. View "Centripetal Networks, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc." on Justia Law
Haggart v. United States
The Claims Court certified a class of landowners who owned property along a railroad corridor that was converted to a recreational trail under the National Trails System Act. Denise and Gordon Woodley, who jointly owned property along the railroad, were members of the class seeking just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The Woodleys challenged a proposed settlement and fee award and won a remand that entitled them to access to certain documents used in the calculations of class member compensation and attorneys’ fees.After approval of a settlement agreement that required payment of compensation to the class under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act, 42 U.S.C. 4654(c), the Woodleys successfully sought attorney’s fees for work performed by counsel they jointly hired. Denise separately sought attorney’s fees for work performed by her attorney-spouse, Gordon, explaining that he was one of her lawyers throughout the proceeding; she also sought to recoup certain expenses. The Claims Court denied the motion, reasoning that pro se litigants cannot recover attorney’s fees and expenses and that Gordon, as a co-plaintiff and joint owner of the property at issue, was pro se and not compensable. The Federal Circuit affirmed in part. Denise is not entitled to attorney’s fees for the legal work performed by her attorney-spouse. The court remanded for a determination of the proper reimbursement, if any, of her claimed expenses. View "Haggart v. United States" on Justia Law
Inquiry concerning Judge Eric Norris
A majority of the Hearing Panel (“Panel”) of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) recommended that Judge Eric Norris issue a public apology for violating Rules 1.2 (A) and 2.8 (B) of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, with the dissent recommending censure from the Court along with a public apology. The charges stemmed from an Athens Banner-Herald article published on a criminal defendant who had a bench warrant issued for failing to appear in court. Judge Norris presided over the defendant’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial; defendant was released on his own recognizance. A bail bondsman posted his disagreement with the judge’s handling of the case on social media. The judge arranged for a meeting with the bail bondsman wherein he had a deputy confiscate the bondsman’s cell phone, and scolded the bondsman in the judge’s chambers. The bondsman did not feel he was free to leave, and requested to have his lawyer present. The bondsman filed a complaint against Judge Norris with the JQC. The Director excepted to the recommended sanction, asserting that a public reprimand was appropriate. For the reasons stated below, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed that a public apology or a censure was an appropriate sanction and order that Judge Norris be publicly reprimanded. View "Inquiry concerning Judge Eric Norris" on Justia Law
In re: STEPHEN YAGMAN
Respondent, was ordered suspended from practice before this court based on the State Bar of California’s suspension following his federal conviction. He was permitted to file a petition for reinstatement if he were reinstated to practice law in California. Respondent was reinstated to practice law in California, but the Ninth Circuit held that he failed to meet his burden to justify reinstatement before this court because he was still disbarred from practice before the New York State Bar. The court held that an attorney cannot justify reinstatement while he or she is currently suspended or disbarred in another jurisdiction, provided that the other jurisdiction had independent, nonreciprocal reasons for imposing discipline. Here, New York independently determined that Respondent’s federal felony conviction constituted grounds for automatic disbarment under its precedent. View "In re: STEPHEN YAGMAN" on Justia Law
Turner & Associates, PLLC, et al. v. Chandler
While driving a forklift at work, Lori Chandler was hit by another forklift and injured. She retained Turner & Associates to file a workers’ compensation claim. But Turner & Associates failed to file her claim within the statute of limitations. Adding to that, the firm’s case manager engaged in a year-and-a-half-long cover-up, which included false assurances of settlement negotiations, fake settlement offers, and a forged settlement letter purporting to be from Chandler’s former employer. Because of this professional negligence, Chandler filed a legal malpractice action. The only issue at trial was damages. The trial judge, sitting as fact-finder, concluded that Chandler had suffered a compensable work-related injury—an injury that caused her to lose her job and left her unemployed for nearly two years. Based on her hourly wage, the trial judge determined, had Turner & Associates timely filed Chandler’s workers’ compensation claim, Chandler could have reasonably recovered $50,000 in disability benefits. So the trial judge awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages. The trial judge also awarded Chandler $100,000 in punitive damages against the case manager due to her egregious conduct. The Court of Appeals affirmed the punitive-damages award. But the court reversed and remanded the compensatory-damages award. Essentially, the Court of Appeals held that Chandler had failed to present sufficient medical evidence to support a $50,000 workers’ compensation claim. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the appellate court: "Were this a workers’ compensation case, we might agree with the Court of Appeals. But this is a legal malpractice case. And part of what Chandler lost, due to attorney negligence, was her ability to prove her work-related injury led to her temporary total disability. ... the Court of Appeals erred by applying exacting statutory requirements for a workers’ compensation claim to Chandler’s common-law legal malpractice claim." The Court reversed on the issue of compensatory damages and reinstated the trial judge’s $50,000 compensatory-damages award. Because this was the only issue for which Chandler sought certiorari review, it affirmed the remainder of the Court of Appeals’ decision, which affirmed the punitive-damages award but reversed and remanded the grant of partial summary judgment against attorney Angela Lairy in her individual capacity. View "Turner & Associates, PLLC, et al. v. Chandler" on Justia Law