Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The Supreme Court approved the stipulation entered into by Palm Beach County Judge Marni Bryson and the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) that Judge Bryson be publicly reprimanded, suspended without pay for ten days, and pay a $37,500 fine, concluding that Judge Bryson acted inappropriately by failing to devote full time to her judicial duties.The JQC found that Judge Bryson was absent from the courthouse beyond the permitted number of days for judicial leave, failed to make appropriate notifications of some absences to appropriate court management, and was sometimes in the courthouse for less than a full workday. Judge Bryson admitted her conduct in the stipulation, and the JQC found that Judge Bryson's actions violated Canons 3A and 3B(4) for the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The Supreme Court approved the stipulation of the parties and ordered that Judge Bryson be publicly reprimanded and pay a $37,500 fine. View "Inquiry Concerning Judge Marni A. Bryson" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court publicly censured the Honorable Louise E. Goldston, a family court judge, for serious misconduct and ordered her to pay a total fine of $1,000, holding that censure was appropriate under the facts and circumstances.Judge Goldson searched a self-represented party's home for marital property, and when the homeowner protested, the judge threatened to jail him for contempt. After an investigation the Judicial Investigation Commission charged Judge Goldson with violating the West Virginia Code of Judicial Misconduct. Under a settlement agreement with Judicial Disciplinary Counsel, the judge admitted to violating the Code of Judicial Conduct, and both parties agreed to recommend that Judge Goldson be censured and fined. The Judicial Hearing Board, however, recommended that Judge Goldson be admonished and fined. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Judicial Hearing Board, holding that the judge exercised executive powers forbidden to her under the West Virginia Constitution and compounded her error by the manner in which she conducted the search and that censure was appropriate. View "In re Honorable Louise E. Goldston" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of over $3 million in attorney fees and expenses to plaintiffs in a settlement involving Missouri's foster-care system. Plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of a group of foster children, alleging that Missouri did not have adequate procedures in place to guard against the overuse of psychotropic drugs. The court concluded that the district court properly placed the burden on plaintiffs to support the hours claimed. The district court then evaluated the billing records, attorney-by-attorney, and disregarded any entries that were excessive or vague, leaving no doubt that plaintiffs had failed to prove their entitlement to all the fees and expenses they had requested. The court also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in setting the fee award and rejected defendants' contentions to reduce the award. View "M.B. v. Tidball" on Justia Law

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The parties’ son was born in November 2018. Mother initiated a claim for child support. Testing established father’s paternity. and a stipulated judgment entered. In February 2019, father requested protective orders under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act and sought sole custody, submitting evidence of mother’s repeated online cyberstalking and harassment. Criminal charges were filed against mother. Much of the harassing behavior involves the child. In March 2019, the court awarded father sole custody of the child. Proceedings on the domestic violence restraining order were stayed pending resolution of felony charges against mother. In August 2020, the court denied mother’s request to modify custody and continued her supervised visitation.In connection with requests for modification of the custody and visitation orders, mother requested attorney fees. Following a hearing, the court denied mother’s request for fees, noting that father had not exhibited any conduct to warrant a sanction-based award. Other statutes apply only to married parties and were inapplicable; there has been no finding that father made false allegations of child abuse. Mother is not the prevailing party in an action to enforce an out-of-state custody order. The court of appeal reversed in part. Mother may be entitled to attorney fees under Family Code 7605, which requires a court to “ensure that each party has access to legal representation to preserve each party’s rights,” using the appropriate needs-based criteria. View "C.T. v. K.W." on Justia Law

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Guzman, driving a truck for his employer (Progressive), rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff was driving a truck for his employer. Following the accident, the plaintiff returned to work for three weeks, but then left his employment. During the following months, the plaintiff continued to receive treatment. His former employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier, Liberty, paid for the treatment.Plaintiff sued The defendants served a $200,000 offer to settle (Code of Civil Procedure 998). Plaintiff rejected the offer. The parties stipulated that a $256,631.76 workers’ compensation lien existed and that the defendants would admit negligence, but not causation as to the plaintiff’s injuries. The jury returned a verdict of $115,000.Opposing the plaintiff’s fee petition, the defendants argued that the plaintiff should not recover fees and post-offer costs because the verdict did not exceed the section 998 offer. Defendants’ costs totaled $174,830.29. The court awarded the plaintiff $50,600 in attorney fees and the $475.98 pre-offer filing fee in costs. Although Labor Code section 3856 requires costs to be paid from the judgment, the court added the fees and costs to the verdict, then concluded the defense had a net gain over the plaintiff and was the prevailing party and entered an $8,754.22 final judgment in favor of the defendants.The court of appeal affirmed. The court erred by adding attorney fees to the verdict when calculating the net judgment. A $59,354.31 defense judgment should have been entered there was no “judgment for damages recovered” from which the plaintiff’s reasonable litigation expenses and attorney fees or Progressive’s workers’ compensation lien could be paid. (Lab. Code 3856(b)). The defendants had not challenged their $8,754.22 judgment. View "Oakes v. Progressive Transportation Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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Letgolts and Plattner (plaintiffs) remodeled their home in 2008. The contractor, Pinchevskiy, did some demolition and then walked away, causing extensive damage to the home. The plaintiffs retained attorney Marks, who sued Pinchevskiy, the plaintiffs’ home insurer, and their insurance agent who allegedly inaccurately advised the plaintiffs that their existing homeowners' policy would cover possible property damage by Pinchevskiy. The complaint detailed property damage but did not mention personal injury. Marks withdrew from the case in 2012. The plaintiffs retained Pierce, who secured a default judgment against Pinchevskiy in 2015; his insurer, National, filed for liquidation before Pierce could collect on the judgment. Pinchevskiy was bankrupt.The plaintiffs sued Pierce for negligent delay in seeking recovery from National. Pierce’s lawyers argued the plaintiffs could never have prevailed against National because Pinchevskiy’s policy did not cover construction defects. The court entered judgment for Pierce. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting the plaintiffs’ attempt to assert a personal injury claim based on Plattner’s alleged 2008 fall from temporary stairs installed by Pinchevskiy. National’s policy did cover personal injuries but the tardy, uncorroborated claim was at odds with the detailed lists of problems given to the insurer years before. Pursuing insurance money from National was a lost cause from the start, so whether Pierce committed malpractice did not matter, View "Letgolts v. David H. Pierce & Associates PC" on Justia Law

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Union Square owns the San Francisco building where Saks has operated a store since 1991. The lease's initial 25-year term was followed by successive options to renew; it mandates arbitration to determine Fair Market Rent for renewals. Section 3.1(c)(iv) states that “[e]ach party shall share equally the fees and expenses of the arbitrator. The attorneys’ fees and expenses of counsel for the respective parties and of witnesses shall be paid by the respective party engaging such counsel or calling such witnesses.” Section 23.10 permits a prevailing party to recover costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees, “Should either party institute any action or proceeding to enforce this Lease ... or for damages by reason of any alleged breach ... or for a declaration of rights hereunder,The parties arbitrated a rent dispute in 2017. The trial court vacated the First Award, in favor of Union Square. To avoid re-arbitration, Union Square sought mandamus relief, which was summarily denied. While discussions concerning another arbitration were pending, Union Square filed a superior court motion to appoint the second arbitrator. The court-appointed arbitrator ruled in favor of Saks.The court of appeal affirmed the orders vacating the First Award and confirming the Second Award. Saks sought $1 million in attorneys’ fees for “litigation proceedings arising out of the arbitration,” not for the arbitrations themselves, citing Section 23.10. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the motion. Each party agreed to bear its own attorneys’ fees for all proceedings related to settling any disagreement around Fair Market Rent under Section 3.1(c). View "California Union Square L.P. v. Saks & Company LLC" on Justia Law

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Georgia's November 6, 2018, general election was a bellwether of the national political mood. On November 5, Common Cause sued, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Help America Vote Act, 52 U.S.C. 21082; the Georgia Constitution; and Georgia Code 21-2-211, claiming Georgia’s voter registration systems were vulnerable to security breaches, increasing the risk eligible voters would be wrongly removed from election rolls, or that information would be unlawfully manipulated to prevent eligible voters from casting a regular ballot.Common Cause sought an order preventing the final rejection of provisional ballots for voters who had registration problems until there was confidence in the voter registration database. The district court granted a temporary restraining order on November 12 but determined the relief requested was “not practically feasible” and enjoined the Secretary from certifying the election results before 5:00 p.m. on November 16. The Secretary complied. In 2019, new Georgia voting laws changed procedures surrounding handling provisional ballots. The parties agreed that these provisions made further litigation unnecessary and stipulated to dismissal.Common Cause sought attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses incurred through the issuance of the TRO and in preparing the fee motion. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the $166,210.09 award. Common Cause was a 42 U.S.C. 1988 prevailing party because, in obtaining the TRO, it succeeded on a significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefits the parties sought in bringing suit. The litigation was necessary to alter the legal relationship between the parties. View "Common Cause Georgia v. Secretary, State of Georgia" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Yost was charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder in connection with the fatal stabbing of his former girlfriend, Randall. After Yost was convicted, he notified the court that he had just learned that his appointed counsel, Rau, had represented Randall in a past case; he requested a new trial. Rau also filed a motion for a new trial but did not reference Yost’s allegations of a conflict of interest. The court denied the motion and sentenced Yost to 75 years’ imprisonment. After conducting a preliminary inquiry on remand, the trial court concluded that the allegations had merit and appointed new counsel, Lookofsky, to investigate. Yost’s amended motion for a new trial alleged that Rau had represented Randall, on two prior occasions in an unrelated case. Yost waived any conflict of interest based on Lookofsky’s prior hiring of Rau on an unrelated civil matter and any conflict-of-interest claims based on the judge’s prior representation of Yost’s family members.The court concluded that there was no per se conflict of interest, which would have required automatic reversal of the conviction, absent a waiver. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Illinois now recognizes three per se conflicts of interest: when defense counsel has a contemporaneous association with the victim, the prosecution, or an entity assisting the prosecution; when defense counsel contemporaneously represents a prosecution witness; and when defense counsel was a former prosecutor who was personally involved in the defendant's prosecution. Yost did not claim an actual conflict of interest. View "People v. Yost" on Justia Law

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A putative nationwide class of current and former members sued MEF, a membership-based spa-services company, alleging that MEF increased fees in violation of the membership agreement. The parties settled. In exchange for the release of all claims against MEF, class members could submit claims for “vouchers” for MEF products and services. The district court approved the settlement as “fair, reasonable, and adequate” under FRCP 23(e).The Ninth Circuit vacated. If a class action settlement is considered a “coupon” under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) additional restrictions apply to the settlement approval process. The court did not defer to the district court’s determination that the MEF vouchers were not coupons but applied a three-factor test, examining whether settlement benefits require class members “to hand over more of their own money before they can take advantage of” those benefits, whether the credit was valid only for “select products or services,” and how much flexibility the credit provided. The district court also failed to adequately investigate some of the potentially problematic aspects of the relationship between attorneys’ fees and the benefits to the class, which impacted the fairness of the entire settlement, not just attorneys’ fees. The district court did not apply the appropriate enhanced scrutiny; it failed to adequately address the three warning signs of implicit collusion. View "McKinney-Drobnis v. Massage Envy Franchising, LLC" on Justia Law