Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Antoinette Belle, as personal representative of the estate of Edith Mitchell, deceased, sued various health-care providers that treated Mitchell while she was hospitalized in April 2009. Belle eventually reached settlements with all of those health-care providers except two physicians. The trial court entered a summary judgment against Belle and in favor of the two physicians, bringing the medical-malpractice action to a close. Belle then filed a legal-malpractice case against four attorneys and three law firms that had represented her at varying times in the medical-malpractice action, alleging they had been negligent in representing her. Belle later brought an additional claim of fraudulent concealment. The attorneys and law firms denied the allegations against them, arguing that Belle's claims were untimely and that they had no factual or legal basis. The trial court agreed and entered judgments in favor of the attorneys and law firms. Belle appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in the attorneys and law firms. View "Belle v. Goldasich, Jr., et al." on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's award of attorney's fees after the settlement of a civil rights action. The panel held that the district court abused its discretion by failing to apply the correct legal standard for awarding legal fees and thus remanded for the application of the correct legal standard. In this case, the district court's wholesale rejection of the relevant attorney declarations, and the district court's singular reliance on the hourly rates previously awarded to counsel in unrelated cases departed from the correct legal standard and constituted legal error. The panel also remanded for the district court to make a specific finding regarding when the settlement agreement became final. View "Roberts v. City and County of Honolulu" on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for habeas relief seeking reinstatement of his earned-release supervision (ERS) and trusty time. The district court dismissed the petition for failure to exhaust state remedies and denied Montalto's unopposed motions for sanctions and contempt, as well as criticized MDOC and its counsel for disregarding orders for production and not properly investigating the circumstances of Montalto's revocations. The Fifth Circuit held that judicial criticism amounting to an actual finding of attorney misconduct is directly appealable. Because the court was unable to determine whether the district court made actual findings of professional misconduct, the court remanded with instructions for the district court to clarify its findings regarding counsel's professional misconduct. View "Montalto v. Mississippi Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Rebecca Parkinson appealed a district court’s dismissal of her claim for breach of fiduciary duty against her attorney, James Bevis. Parkinson filed a complaint alleging Bevis breached his fiduciary duty when he disclosed a confidential email to the opposing attorney after reaching a settlement in Parkinson’s divorce action. Bevis moved to dismiss under Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Parkinson’s complaint failed to state a claim for relief. The district court agreed and dismissed Parkinson’s claim after determining that it was, in essence, a legal malpractice claim, on which Parkinson could not prevail because she admitted that she suffered no damages from Bevis’ disclosure. The Idaho Supreme Court determined the district court erred in dismissing Parkinson's complaint: whether an attorney must forfeit any or all fees for a breach of fiduciary duty to a client must be determined by applying the rule as stated in section 37 of the Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers and the factors the Supreme Court identified to the individual circumstances of each case. In light of this conclusion, the district court’s determination that Parkinson could not pursue her claim on an equitable basis as a matter of law was incorrect. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Parkinson v. Bevis" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Startley General Contractors, Inc. ("Startley"), and Mandy Powrzanas, appealed the denial of their renewed motion to have Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Robert Vance, Jr. recuse himself from the underlying action the plaintiffs filed against the Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham ("BWWB"), Board members, Jones Utility and Contracting Co., Inc., and Richard Jones (collectively, “defendants.”). Plaintiffs alleged the defendants conspired to violate Alabama's competitive-bid law in ways that resulted in financial harm to the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs contended that Judge Vance had received monetary contributions to his 2018 campaign for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court from law firms and attorneys representing the defendants. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded the renewed motion to recuse did not fall under the auspices of section 12–24–3, Ala. Code 1975, because it was not based on campaign contributions in "the immediately preceding election." Moreover, “even if [section] 12–24–3 did apply, the plaintiffs failed to establish a rebuttable presumption for recusal because, in order to meet the required threshold, the plaintiffs: (1) included contributions from law firms and individuals who were not ‘parties,’ as that term is defined in 12–24–3(c), to the case; (2) aggregated campaign contributions from multiple parties in contravention to 12–24–3(b) addressing campaign contributions made by ‘a party to the judge or justice’; and (3) incorrectly assumed that ‘total campaign contributions raised during the election cycle’ refers to one-month totals for campaign contributions rather than the ordinary meaning of an ‘election cycle,’ which concerns a longer period.” The Court concluded plaintiffs did not establish that a single, actual "party" to this case gave a "substantial campaign contribution" that would give rise to the conclusion that "[a] reasonable person would perceive that [Judge Vance's] ability to carry out his ... judicial responsibilities with impartiality is impaired." View "Startley General Contractors, Inc. v. Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham et al." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment entered in favor of the law firm in an action where defendant entered a written settlement and release from a 2008 judgment to the plaintiff in the underlying lawsuit. The settlement and release released the attorney fees and costs due to the law firm pursuant to the firm's retainer agreement with plaintiff. The law firm then brought this action against defendant, seeking attorney fees and costs, plus interest, awarded in the underlying litigation and incorporated into the judgment. The court held that defendant's act of executing the memorandum was communicative, but it was one act in a course of tortious conduct to deprive the law firm of its attorney fees. Therefore, defendant's noncommunicative conduct was not protected by the litigation privilege. The court also held that there was sufficient evidence to establish that defendant knew of the law firm's attorney fee lien and that he intended to interfere with the firm's collection of its attorney fees and costs. View "Mancini & Associates v. Schwetz" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff, an attorney, discovered that SBAND was using his compulsory dues to oppose a state ballot measure he supported, plaintiff filed suit against SBAND and various state officials in their official capacities, alleging First Amendment claims. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants and the Eighth Circuit affirmed. A year later, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018). On remand from the Supreme Court, the Eighth Circuit again affirmed the district court's judgment and held that Janus did not alter its prior decision explaining why the district court did not err in granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claim that SBAND's procedures violate his right to "affirmatively consent" before subsidizing non-germane expenditures. The court held that plaintiff forfeited his claim that mandatory state bar association membership violates the First Amendment by compelling him to pay dues and to associate with an organization that engages in political or ideological activities; SBAND's revised fee statement and procedures clearly do not force members to pay non-chargeable dues over their objection; nothing in the summary judgment record suggests that SBAND's revised fee statement is so confusing that it fails to give SBAND members adequate notice of their constitutional right to take the Keller deduction. View "Fleck v. Wetch" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit held that the magistrate judge's dual role—generator and administrator of court fees—creates a conflict of interest when the judge sets an arrestee's bail, and therefore violates due process. Like the mayor in Ward v. Monroeville, the court held that because a magistrate judge must manage his chambers to perform the judicial tasks the voters elected him to do, he has a direct and personal interest in the fiscal health of the public institution that benefits from the fees his court generates and that he also helps allocate. Furthermore, the bond fees impact the bottom line of the court to a similar degree that the fines did in Ward. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's determination that the magistrate judge's institutional incentives create a substantial and unconstitutional conflict of interest when he determines the class's ability to pay bail and sets the amount of that bail. View "Caliste v. Cantrell" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs sued Kissler and her medical marijuana collective (Alternatives), alleging defendants failed to pay them for their contract work growing marijuana. The summons and complaint were served: defendants actively participated in the case but failed to file any responsive pleading. They did not move to quash service. At a case management conference, the judge warned defendants their response to the complaint was long-overdue and that challenging the validity of service required a motion. The court ordered the plaintiffs to take the defendants’ default by a specified date or else be sanctioned. Weeks later, plaintiffs took their default. Meanwhile, Kissler was pursuing cases she had filed against plaintiffs: an unlawful detainer action in which she obtained a writ to remove plaintiffs from her property, and a breach of contract action that alleged plaintiffs, not Kissler had breached the contract. Kissler obtained a discovery ruling in her separate contract action that, contrary to her complaint allegations, deemed plaintiffs to have admitted Kissler was not a party to that contract. Kissler sought to set the default aside. The court of appeal affirmed the denials of discretionary relief from default under Code of Civil Procedure 473(b)) on the ground of excusable mistake. Kissler was capable of ascertaining the rules and using them to her advantage when it suited her. Alternatives was “one and the same” party as Kissler, an attorney. The attorney declaration of fault she filed was of no legal effect for purposes of granting mandatory relief from default under section 473(b). View "McClain v. Kissler" on Justia Law

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Gulfport OB-GYN was a professional association of physicians specializing in obstetrical and gynecological care. In 2008, it hired the law firm Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A., to assist in negotiating the hiring of Dr. Donielle Daigle and to prepare an employment agreement for her. Five years later, Dr. Daigle and another physician left Gulfport OB-GYN to establish their own practice. They sued Gulfport OB-GYN for unpaid compensation and sought a declaratory judgment that the noncompetition covenant was unenforceable. The departing physicians ultimately prevailed, with the chancery court holding the noncompetition covenant not applicable to Dr. Daigle because she left voluntarily and was not “terminated by the Employer.” The chancery court decision was initially appealed, but the dispute was later settled through mediation when Gulfport OB-GYN agreed to pay Dr. Daigle $425,000. Gulfport OB-GYN then filed this legal-malpractice suit against the attorney who drafted the employment agreement and her firm. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the defendants after finding Gulfport OB-GYN had failed to produce sufficient evidence that it would have received a better deal but for the attorneys’ alleged negligence, i.e., Gulfport OB-GYN failed to prove that the alleged negligence caused it damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and affirmed. View "Gulfport OB-GYN, P.A. v. Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A." on Justia Law