Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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This dispute arose between two attorneys representing the plaintiff class in an approved settlement. After the trial court made an award of attorney fees and divided the fees in accordance with the alleged fee division agreement, appellant challenged the enforceability of that agreement and the division of the attorney fee award between himself and respondent. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that the trial court abused its discretion by enforcing the fee division agreement, when the undisputed facts showed a clear violation of former Rules of Profession Conduct 3-410, which rendered the agreement unenforceable. The intent of the rule was to require the attorney to disclose the lack of professional liability insurance to the client, at the time the client retained the attorney, so the client could consider that information in making the decision to retain or not retain the attorney. The court remanded for the trail court to determine whether principles of equity entitled the law firm to some measure of compensation. In this case, the trial court did not reach the issues of whether respondent should recover compensation for his attorney services on a quantum meruit basis, despite invalidation of the fee division agreement for violation of former rule 3-410 and, if so, how much he should recover. View "Hance v. Super Store Industries" on Justia Law

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Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC (collectively, "Edwards"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct a trial court to enter a summary judgment in their favor in an action filed against them by Ivan Gray. Sonya previously represented Gray in proceedings in federal court. In 2015, after mediation and a settlement, those proceedings concluded with the entry of a final judgment. Thereafter, Gray sought to set aside the settlement, and Sonya terminated her representation of Gray. In 2017, Gray sued Edwards alleging Edwards had entered into a contract with Gray in June 2014 in which Sonya agreed to represent Gray in the federal proceedings in exchange for a contingency fee of 50%. Gray alleged that he paid a total retainer fee in the amount of $14,380.85 to cover expenses. According to Gray's complaint, when his federal case concluded, Edwards disclosed that the actual expenses amounted to $4,516.77, therefore, he felt he was entitled to a refund of $9,864.08. When the refund was not forthcoming, Gray alleged Edward converted his retainer and breached the contract between the two. The Supreme Court determined the "act or omission or failure giving rise to the claim" occurred on September 16, 2015, and that was the operative date from which to measure the applicable two-year limitations period. Gray did not file his action until October 27, 2017, which was beyond the two-year limitations period. Accordingly, Edwards has demonstrated a clear legal right to have a summary-judgment entered in her favor. View "Ex parte Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC." on Justia Law

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Van Hoven, a Michigan attorney, defaulted on a credit card debt. The Buckles law firm, collecting the debt, won a state court lawsuit. Van Hoven did not pay. Buckles filed four requests for writs of garnishment. Van Hoven says those requests violated the Michigan Court Rules by including the costs of the request ($15 filing fee) in the amount due and, in later requests, adding the costs of prior failed garnishments. Van Hoven filed a class-action lawsuit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from making false statements in their dunning demands, 15 U.S.C. 1692e. Years later, after “Stalingrad litigation” tactics, discovery sanctions, and professional misconduct allegations, Van Hoven won. The court awarded 168 class members $3,662 in damages. Van Hoven’s attorneys won $186,680 in attorney’s fees. The Sixth Circuit vacated. When Buckles asked for all total costs, including those of any garnishment request to date, it did not make a “false, deceptive, or misleading representation.” It was a reasonable request at the time and likely reflected the best interpretation of the Michigan Rules. The court remanded for determinations of whether Buckles made “bona fide” mistakes of fact in including certain costs of prior failed garnishments and whether its procedure for preventing such mistakes suffices. In some instances, Buckles included the costs of garnishments that failed because the garnishee did not hold any property subject to garnishment or was not the debtor’s employer. View "Van Hoven v. Buckles & Buckles, P.L.C." on Justia Law

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The district court in this case sua sponte ordered the parties to exchange exhibits thirty days before trial. The State charged Joshua Kilgore with two counts of felony sexual assault. In the minute order it issued following the arraignment, the court indicated, among other things, that “exhibits [were] to be exchanged 30 days before trial” (“disclosure requirement” or “disclosure order”). The disclosure requirement was not prompted by a party’s request and appeared to have been part of the court’s standard case-management practice. A couple of months later, Kilgore filed an objection, arguing that the disclosure requirement violated his attorney’s confidentiality obligations, the attorney-client privilege, the attorney work-product doctrine, and his due process rights (including his right to make the prosecution meet its burden of proof, his right to a fair trial, and his right to the effective assistance of counsel). Furthermore, Kilgore argued Rule 16 neither required him to disclose, nor entitled the prosecution to receive, his exhibits before trial. The court overruled Kilgore’s objection, reasoning that requiring Kilgore to disclose his exhibits prior to trial would “foster[] efficiency and allow[] for a fair trial” without running afoul of his rights. Any exhibits not disclosed before trial, warned the court, would “not be used at trial.” Kilgore sought reconsideration of this ruling, but the court declined to alter it. Thereafter, Kilgore submitted a sealed motion detailing the specific reasons he opposed disclosing a particular exhibit. Despite having this additional information, though, the court stood by its earlier ruling. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded a district court could not rely on its case-management discretion to order disclosures that exceed the discovery authorized by Rule 16 of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure, nor could a court require disclosures that infringe on an accused’s constitutional rights. In this instance, the district court erred in ordering Kilgore to disclose his exhibits before trial. View "In re Colorado v. Kilgore" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Carol Rademacher challenged a district court’s ruling that she impliedly waived her attorney-client privilege by filing a legal malpractice complaint close to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations and by then contesting defendant Ira Greschler’s statute of limitations defense. Greschler served as Rademacher’s attorney on various matters for more than two decades. One of the matters in which Greschler represented Rademacher involved the settlement of potential civil claims that Rademacher had brought against a man named John Becker and his wife. Pertinent here, for approximately ten years, Rademacher and Becker were involved in an extramarital relationship. Becker’s wife ultimately confronted and assaulted Rademacher, after which Rademacher contacted the police. The Beckers and Rademacher entered into a settlement agreement, under which Rademacher agreed not to pursue any claims against the Beckers and to ask the Boulder District Attorney’s office to offer Ms. Becker a deferred sentence. In exchange for these promises, Becker executed a $300,000 promissory note payable to Rademacher. Becker stopped making payments, and Rademacher, still represented by Greschler, sued to enforce the agreement. A jury ultimately found for Rademacher, and Becker appealed. After Greschler had orally argued the case in the court of appeals but before an opinion was issued, Rademacher’s divorce attorney, Shawn Ettingoff, sent Greschler a letter “to convey [Rademacher’s] dissatisfaction with [Greschler’s] inadequate representation” in the dispute with Becker. The letter also noted that Greschler’s conduct in representing Rademacher “helped create and perpetuate a situation that may very well lead to the reversal of the judgment in [Rademacher’s] favor.” The court of appeals eventually ruled the agreement between Rademacher and Becker was void as against public policy. Rademacher thereafter sued Greschler, asserting, among other things, a claim for professional negligence (legal malpractice). Several months later, Greschler moved for summary judgment on this claim, arguing that it was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that on the facts presented, Rademacher did not assert a claim or defense that either focused or depended on advice given by her counsel or that placed any privileged communications at issue. Accordingly, the Court further concluded Rademacher did not impliedly waive her attorney-client privilege in this case. View "In re Rademacher v. Greschler" on Justia Law

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After prevailing on a petition for writ of mandate, petitioner filed a motion for attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's denial of attorney fees. The court agreed with the trial court that petitioner failed to establish that the benefit the writ petition achieved was conferred on a sufficiently large enough class of persons to justify an attorney fee award under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The court explained that the most significant benefit here inured specifically to individual drivers with non-qualifying out-of-state drunk driving convictions, and that benefit and the extent to which that benefit balances against the public benefit from an interest in public safety in the form of California's participation in the Compact are both "pertinent circumstances" the trial court was required to consider. View "Villarreal v. Gordon" on Justia Law

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On April 1, 2016, Lasonya Lindsey agreed to purchase real property located in Selma from Doris Wallace. Attorney Charles Sims III was retained by one or both of the transacting parties in connection with the sale. On April 26, Sims incorrectly represented to Lindsey that the property was unencumbered by any liens. The transaction closed two days later. In November 2017, Lindsey received written notice that the property had been sold two days earlier at a foreclosure sale after Wallace defaulted on a mortgage on the property. Lindsey and her family were ordered to immediately vacate the property, on which they had already spent $20,000 improving. In early 2018, Lindsey brought a single-count complaint against Sims under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act, alleging that Sims breached his duty of care by misrepresenting the property. Lindsey filed a first amended complaint on January 31 for the sole purpose of correcting the spelling of Sims's name. Neither the original complaint nor the first amended complaint contained a jury demand. Sims answered the first amended complaint on March 8, and on April 25 he submitted a response to Lindsey's interrogatories in which he stated that he had never represented Lindsey, that his only involvement in the transaction had been to prepare a warranty deed at Wallace's direction, and that he did not perform any title work as part of his representation of Wallace. Lindsay amended the complaint a second time, which included, for the first time, a jury demand on all counts. Relevant here, Sims moved to strike the jury demand, asserting it was made more than 30 days after service of the last pleading on the triable issue: Sims' March 8, 2018, answer. The trial court granted this motion, and Lindsay petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for mandamus relief, directing the trial court to vacate its order. Because any error could be adequately remedied on appeal, the Supreme Court denied Lindsey's petition for a writ of mandamus to the extent it asks the Court to direct the trial court to vacate its order dismissing counts III and IV of the second amended complaint. The Court granted the petition for a writ of mandamus, however, to the extent it asks the Court to direct the trial court to vacate its order striking the jury demand in the second amended complaint with respect to new issues. The second amended complaint included two new issues –- the conflict-of- interest allegation against Sims in count I and the fraud claim against Wallace in count II –- and Lindsey made a timely demand for a trial by jury on both of those issues. View "Ex parte Lasonya Lindsey" on Justia Law

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Shealey served on active duty in Vietnam. He sought service connection for a cervical spine disability and major depressive disorder. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals held that Shealey was dishonorably discharged. Before Shealy filed his third motion for reconsideration, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records upgraded his discharge to “under honorable conditions.” The Board denied reconsideration. Shealey sought assistance from Veterans Legal Advocacy Group (VetLAG), a nonprofit law firm; VetLAG would not charge a fee and if the Veterans Court granted attorney’s fees, VetLAG could keep the full amount. Shealey agreed that VetLAG could apply for attorney’s fees and litigation expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412(d) (EAJA), and he would provide assistance. VetLAG represented Shealey before the Veterans Court for three months until a pre-briefing conference, where the government stated its intent to move for dismissal. The attorneys advised Shealey to file a new claim to reopen his case. Shealey disagreed, discharged them, and obtained new counsel. The court vacated the Board’s decision. The government did not dispute that Shealey was the “prevailing party” and did not oppose VetLAG's EAJA motion seeking $4,061.60. Shealey opposed the application. The court determined that VetLAG lacked standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Under EAJA’s plain text, the attorneys lack any substantive rights sufficient to confer standing. Affording standing to the attorneys over Shealey’s objections would contravene the policies on which the third-party standing doctrine is based. The fee agreement did not constitute an assignment. View "Shealey v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and his counsel appealed from a postjudgment order denying plaintiff's motion to compel the production of documents and imposing $3,456.70 in sanctions against counsel for discovery abuses. The underlying action involved residual payments owed by defendant to plaintiff. The Court of Appeal denied the petition challenging the motion to compel the production of documents, and affirmed the imposition of $3,456.70 in sanctions against counsel. The court held that, although plaintiff lacked standing, counsel had standing to appeal the order and was properly an appellant in this matter. The court also held that the trial court did not err in denying the motion to compel; rejected challenges to the monetary sanctions levied against counsel; held that a separate motion is not required, nor is a separate hearing on discovery sanctions; and held that the trial court did not err in awarding discovery sanctions representing fees and costs incurred. View "Dalessandro v. Mitchell" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against MBUSA under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act after the navigation system in the vehicle he leased from MBUSA experienced recurring problems. The jury found that the vehicle had a substantial impairment and that MBUSA failed to repair or replace the vehicle. Plaintiff did not lease the vehicle for his own use, but for his friend, Arjang Fayaz, who was the primary driver. The jury awarded damages solely to Fayaz. Both plaintiff and Fayaz moved for attorney fees as prevailing parties. The trial court granted the motion as to Fayaz only, and limited the award to fees incurred while Fayaz was a party to the case. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that the Act provides that successful plaintiffs are entitled to collect attorney fees based on actual time expended, determined by the court to have been reasonably incurred by the buyer in connection with the commencement and prosecution of such action. In this case, plaintiffs successfully proved to a jury that the vehicle was defective in breach of MBUSA's express warranty, MBUSA failed to repair or replace it, and damages resulted from MBUSA's breach. Therefore, the jury award did not support the trial court's holding and the court remanded for a hearing to determine a reasonable fee award. View "Patel v. Mercedes-Benz USA" on Justia Law