Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals affirming the judgment of the district court that Appellant could not enforce the contract between Appellant and Respondent whereby Appellant purchased an interest in Respondent's personal injury suit because it violated Minnesota's common law prohibition against champerty, holding that Minnesota's common-law prohibition against champerty is abolished. When Respondent settled her suit and did not abide by the terms of the contract, Appellant sued to enforce the contract. Both the district court and the court of Appeals held that Appellant could not enforce the agreement against Respondent because Minnesota law applied to the agreement and the agreement violated Minnesota's common-law prohibition against champerty. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) because the contract was champertous the lower courts did not err in determining that, under prior decisions, the contract was unenforceable; but (2) changes in the legal profession and in society show that the ancient prohibition against champerty is no longer necessary. View "Maslowski v. Prospect Funding Partners LLC" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court answered in this case in what situations a non-attorney who performs one or more of the various services that are associated with a real estate transaction is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee transmitted three reports to the Supreme Court concluding that Respondents had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by engaging in several aspects of residential real estate transactions that constitute the practice of law. The Supreme Court declined to adopt the Committee's recommendations in part and accepted them in part, holding (1) title insurance companies and their agencies do not engage in the unauthorized practice of law when they conduct a residential real estate closing, draft a residency affidavit, and draft a limited durable power of attorney when those activities are carried out in connection with the issuance of title insurance; (2) a title insurance company by conduct the examination of title for marketability only if a licensed attorney conducts the examination; and (3) drafting a deed constitutes the practice of law and that an attorney is required to either draft the deed or review it after its has been prepared. View "In re William E. Paplauskas, Jr." on Justia Law

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A complaint issued by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) alleged four counts of misconduct against a superior court judge, Respondent John Russo, Jr. The charges and findings related to four discrete instances of misconduct. Count I, the most serious matter, concerns Respondent’s conduct at a hearing on an application for a final restraining order. The misconduct charged related to his questioning of an alleged victim of domestic violence who testified that she had been sexually assaulted, as well as his comments to staff members in open court after the hearing. Count II addressed a personal guardianship matter in which Respondent allegedly asked a Judiciary employee to contact her counterpart in another vicinage and request that a hearing be rescheduled to accommodate Respondent. Count III asserted Respondent created the appearance of a conflict of interest when he presided over a matter in the Family Division in which he knew both parties since high school. Count IV related to Respondent’s ex parte communication with an unrepresented litigant. After it conducted a hearing, the ACJC found clear and convincing evidence to support all the charges. A panel of three Judges designated by the Supreme Court then conducted a separate, additional hearing and concluded that the evidence supported a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Respondent violated the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules cited in all four counts. The panel recommended that Respondent be removed from office. Based on its review of the extensive record, the New Jersey Supreme Court found beyond a reasonable doubt that there was cause for Respondent’s removal, and ordered such removal. View "In the Matter of John F. Russo, Jr." on Justia Law

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Noe hired attorney Dorit to evaluate the medical records of Noe’s deceased mother for a potential medical malpractice suit. Noe agreed to pay Dorit a $10,000 non-refundable retainer fee, intended to cover Dorit’s time spent evaluating the claim, plus “the costs of additional medical records and/or expert medical review if indicated.” The agreement stated, “Should there arise any disagreement as to the amount of attorney fees and/or costs, Client agrees to enter into binding arbitration of such issue or dispute before the Bar Association of San Francisco.” Ultimately, Dorit said he did not think a malpractice claim was viable. Noe later asked Dorit to return some or all of the retainer fee. Dorit refused. Noe filed a request for arbitration. An arbitrator awarded Noe nothing and allocated him the entire filing fee. Because neither party requested a trial de novo, the award became binding under the Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act MFAA). Months later, Dorit sued Noe for malicious prosecution based on the initiation of arbitration. Noe filed a special motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. The court of appeal reversed the denial of his motion. A malicious prosecution claim cannot be based on an MFAA arbitration. View "Dorit v. Noe" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court (1) affirmed the judgment of the circuit court in a conversion case granting motions to dismiss on the ground that all pleadings filed on behalf of the Estate of A. Rafael Gomez by a non-attorney executor and all arguments made by him in court proceedings constituted the unlawful practice of law, and (2) found that the appeal in a companion case, a will contest, was improvidently granted. The Estate sought reversal of a circuit court dismissing its lawsuit on the ground that Mark Gomez, as a non-attorney executor, was not authorized to file pleadings or otherwise represent the Estate in judicial proceedings. Mark, together with his brothers, also filed a will contest in which Mark filed pleadings and argued on both his own behalf and on behalf of the Estate. The Supreme Court held (1) as to the conversion case, Mark, a non-attorney executor, was engaged in the unlawful practice of law, and therefore, the circuit court properly dismissed the case; and (2) as to the will contest, the court did not make any rulings that conclusively determined any issue in the case, and therefore, the appeal was improvidently granted. View "Gomez v. Smith" on Justia Law

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After a conflict of interest between an attorney and a long-time client arose during settlement negotiations, the attorney filed a confidential motion with the superior court criticizing his client. The client discharged the attorney and hired new counsel. But the attorney continued to control the settlement funds and disbursed himself his fee, even though the amount was disputed by the client. The court found that the attorney’s actions had violated the rules of professional conduct and ordered forfeiture of most of his attorney’s fees. Finding no reversible error in the superior court's order, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Kenneth P. Jacobus, P.C. v. Kalenka" on Justia Law

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In November 2013, three men robbed a Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania bank. A bank employee, Kane, later admitted to assisting them. The next morning, the three were pulled over in North Carolina. Wilson stated they were driving to Georgia and admitted that they had a lot of cash in the car. The officer, suspecting that they were going to buy drugs in Atlanta, searched the car, found the stolen cash, turned it over to federal agents, then released the men. A week later, three men robbed a Phoenixville, Pennsylvania bank. The police got a tip from Howell, whom Wilson had tried to recruit for the heists. Howell provided Wilson's cell phone number. Police pulled his cell-site location data, which put him at the Bala Cynwyd bank right before the first robbery and showed five calls and 17 text messages to Kane that day. Howell identified Wilson and Moore from a video of the robbery. Kane and Foster took plea bargains. Wilson and Moore were tried for bank robbery, conspiracy, and using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Moore was sentenced to 385 months’ imprisonment. Wilson received 519 months. The Third Circuit affirmed. Counsel’s stipulation that the banks were federally insured did not violate the Sixth Amendment, which does not categorically forbid stipulating to a crime’s jurisdictional element without the defendant’s consent or over the defendant’s objection. View "United States v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal held that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding any attorney fees to plaintiff. Labor Code section 218.5 mandates an attorney fee award in any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, if any party requests them at the initiation of the action. Furthermore, Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1244, 1255, held that a plaintiff cannot obtain attorney fees in an action for failure to provide rest breaks or meal periods. In this case, there was no basis for the trial court's award of fees where the only wage and hour claims alleged and litigated were for rest break and meal period violations. The court held that plaintiff's claim that it must affirm the judgment because defendants presented an inadequate record for judicial review is unfounded. The court also rejected plaintiff's contention that the predicate misconduct of her wage and hour claims was not rest period violations, but rather failure to pay earned wages. The court explained that this theory was reflected nowhere in the record of the attorney fee proceedings—until plaintiff filed her reply papers. In those reply papers, plaintiff cited no evidence of any work performed before the settlement that referred to or suggested the existence of a claim or cause of action for failure to pay earned wages. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment to the extent it awarded attorney fees to plaintiff, remanding for entry of a new and different judgment denying recovery of attorney fees. View "Betancourt v. OS Restaurant Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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Richard and Debra Plein sued USAA Casualty Insurance Company, alleging insurance bad faith. The Pleins hired three attorneys, two of whom were members of the Keller Rohrback LLP lawfirm (Keller), to represent them. But Keller had previously defended USAA in bad faith litigation for over 10 years. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, Keller would have been barred from representing the Pleins if the prior representation was in a matter "substantially related" to the Plein matter. Interpreting the "substantially related" language in the Rules of Professional Conduct was one of first impression for the Washington Supreme Court. The Court held that under RPC 1.9(a), USAA failed to show a "substantial risk" that Keller obtained 'confidential factual information" that would 'materially advance" the Pleins’ case. Accordingly, Keller did not represent former client USAA on any matter "substantially related" to the instant case. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals decision that disqualification was required, and reinstated the trial court’s order that disqualification was not required. View "Plein v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Green, was convicted of two counts of the first-degree murder for the gang-related shooting death of Lewis and was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment on one of those convictions. The conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. The trial court rejected a post-conviction petition alleging that Green’s trial counsel, Ritacca, labored under a per se conflict of interest because his trial counsel had previously represented Williams, the intended victim of the murder, who was in the vehicle with Lewis at the time of the shooting. Green neither knew about the conflict nor waived the conflict was rejected. The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, finding no per se conflict of interest. Only three situations establish a per se conflict of interest: where defense counsel has a prior or contemporaneous association with the victim, the prosecution, or an entity assisting the prosecution; where defense counsel contemporaneously represents a prosecution witness; and where defense counsel was a former prosecutor who had been personally involved with the prosecution of the defendant. Ritacca’s representation of both defendant and Williams did not fit within any of those three per se conflict situations. View "People v. Green" on Justia Law