Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The Supreme Court of Texas answered two certified questions, holding that the time for determining the existence and amount of unpaid commission due under Tex. Bus. & Com. Code section 54.001(1) is the time the jury or trial court determines the liability of the defendant, whether at trial or through another dispositive trial-court process such as a summary judgment; and that a plaintiff may recover attorney's fees and costs under section 54.004(2) even if the plaintiff does not receive treble damages, if the factfinder determines that the fees and costs were reasonably incurred under the circumstances. The Fifth Circuit held that CPTS was not entitled to treble damages, and the district court was thus correct to grant summary judgment to Horsburgh on the treble damages claim. In this case, there were no unpaid commissions due at the time of judgment, because Horsburgh had already paid all of its outstanding commissions, plus interest. The court also held that CPTS was eligible for attorney's fees simply by virtue of Horsburgh's breach. Therefore, the district court correctly concluded that CPTS was not entitled to treble damages, but erred by granting summary judgment to Horsburgh without awarding CPTS reasonable attorney's fees and costs. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "JCB, Inc. v. The Horsburgh & Scott Co." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's order awarding plaintiff attorney fees following the settlement of her action against Hyundai. Plaintiff moved for a fee award using the lodestar method for a total of $191,688.75, but the district court only awarded $73,864. The court held that the trial court did not engage in an inappropriate proportionality analysis; the trial court did not abuse its discretion by cutting fees billed by six of eleven attorneys; and plaintiff has shown no abuse of discretion in the trial court's reductions of the attorneys' hourly rates. View "Morris v. Hyundai Motor America" on Justia Law

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Attorney-defendant Peter Porter represented plaintiff Elise Sharon in a lawsuit resulting in a 2008 default judgment entered in favor of Sharon. In October 2015, a judgment debtor wrote to Sharon, claiming the judgment was void. In November 2015, Sharon’s new attorney correctly opined that the judgment was indeed void. In September 2016, the debtor filed a motion to vacate the judgment, which was granted the following month. In May 2017, Sharon filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Porter. During a court trial on stipulated facts, the trial court found the judgment had been valid until it was vacated. The court also found the statute of limitations applicable to Sharon’s lawsuit had been tolled until “actual injury” first occurred in September 2016, when Sharon began incurring hourly attorney fees to oppose the judgment debtor’s motion to vacate the judgment. After review, the Court of Appeal reversed, finding the default judgment was void independent of it being vacated. "Discovery of the void judgment and whatever injury resulted therefrom occurred at least by November 2015 when the judgment debtor wrote to Sharon and her new attorney claiming the judgment was void. The statute ran one year from that date. Sharon’s 2017 lawsuit was time-barred." View "Sharon v. Porter" on Justia Law

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B.E. sued Facebook for infringement of B.E.’s 314 patent. Approximately a year into the case, Facebook and two other parties B.E. had accused of infringement, Microsoft and Google, filed petitions for inter partes review of the asserted claims. The district court stayed its proceedings. The Patent Board instituted review and held the claims unpatentable. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Facebook then moved in the district court for a dismissal with prejudice and costs under Rule 54(d). B.E. agreed that dismissal was appropriate but argued that the claims should be dismissed for mootness, rather than with prejudice. The district court agreed with B.E., issuing an Order holding that, in light of the cancellation of claims, B.E. no longer had a basis for the lawsuit. The court ultimately awarded costs under Rule 54(d). The Clerk of Court held a hearing and taxed $4,424.20 in costs against B.E.; the court affirmed, holding that, although the case was dismissed for mootness, Facebook “obtained the outcome it sought: rebuffing B.E.’s attempt to alter the parties’ legal relationship.” The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding Facebook to be the prevailing party in B.E.’s lawsuit. View "B.E. Technology, L.L.C. v. Facebook, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a malpractice action against Zbylut, Cox and LPS alleging they had violated their professional duties by undertaking representation of Purposeful Press without her consent, and rendering legal advice in the underlying lawsuits that was adverse to her interests. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of defendants' motions for summary judgment, holding that plaintiff did not dispute that she lacked standing to seek reimbursement of Purposeful Press's funds, and plaintiff failed to present any evidence that would support a finding of an implied attorney-client relationship with the firm. In this case, plaintiff has not identified any harm that defendants' representation of Purposeful Press was alleged to have caused her in her representative capacity as a shareholder. Furthermore, even if there were circumstances under which a corporate attorney might owe such a duty to individual shareholders, no such circumstances were present here. View "Sprengel v. Zbylut" on Justia Law

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The dealer had the exclusive right to sell the manufacturer's below-ground storm shelters in Missouri and Arkansas. The dealer created a wordmark—“Life Saver Storm Shelters”— and a logo using that name, which it affixed to the shelters. In 2006, the manufacturer obtained the dealer’s permission to use these marks on shelters marketed in Illinois. The manufacturer violated the limited license by using the marks on products sold throughout the country. The manufacturer's suit for trademark infringement, claiming prior use and ownership of the wordmark, was rejected on summary judgment. The dealer counterclaimed for trademark infringement and false endorsement under the Lanham Act. The district judge found for the dealer on all claims, entered a cease-and-desist order, and awarded $17 million in disgorged profits as damages but denied vexatious-litigation sanctions under 28 U.S.C. 1927 and attorney’s fees under the Lanham Act. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part, rejecting the manufacturer's argument that the logo violated a statute that makes it a crime to use the American Red Cross emblem. The conclusion that the manufacturer engaged in trademark infringement on a vast scale was supported by the evidence. The court granted a limited remanded; although the judge reasonably concluded that section 1927 sanctions were not warranted, his summary denial of Lanham Act fees cannot be squared with his conclusions on the merits concerning infringement. View "4SEMO.COM, Inc. v. Southern Illinois Storm Shelters, Inc." on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Scott Ledford’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the outcome of a Workers’ Compensation Commission hearing. Ledford was a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents: in July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise; and in March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed the Commission’s order. Months later, Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Susan Barden held a hearing on Ledford’s Form 21 in August 2014. Following the hearing, but prior to the issuance of a final order, Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing during which she allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns; and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission, finding: (1) Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself; (2) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's decision to reverse Commissioner Barden's permanency determination; and (3) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's findings that Ledford was not credible and his landscaping business remained lucrative following the injury. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred in finding Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself. The Court was “deeply concerned” by the Commissioner’s conduct in this matter. “Ledford's counsel provided an opportunity for Commissioner Barden to right her wrong by moving for recusal. Instead of stepping aside, Commissioner Barden became more abusive and strident in both her ruling on the recusal motion and her final order.” The Commission’s orders were vacated and the matter remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner. View "Ledford v. DPS" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the 28 U.S.C. 1927 sanctions imposed against attorney John Morgan for advancing a meritless, immunity-barred claim against Judge Layne Walker. Morgan represented an attorney in an action alleging that Judge Walker fabricated a perjury accusation against her. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the sanctions where the district court was best positioned to assess the propriety of Morgan's litigation misconduct. In this case, it could not be seriously disputed that Morgan unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings where he pursued a baseless claim with reckless disregard for his duty to the court. Furthermore, the court upheld the district court's award of Judge Walker's legal expenses. View "Morrison v. Walker" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court ordered that Angela C. Foster be censured for conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2A, 3A(3) and 3A(4) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. 7A-376. The Judicial Standards Commission counsel filed a statement of charges against District Court Judge Angela C. Foster (Respondent) alleging that she had engaged in conduct inappropriate to her judicial office. Based on its findings of fact and conclusions of law, the Commission recommended that the Supreme Court censure Respondent. The Supreme Court concluded that the Commission's recommended censure was appropriate and ordered that Respondent be censured. View "In re Foster" on Justia Law

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Beane, formerly an Air Force electrical engineer, became involved in a conspiracy theory that the government creates for each citizen a "straw man" and that the Federal Reserve holds in trust that citizen’s inherent “unlimited value.” Proponents believe that by filing the correct paperwork, they can use those funds. Beane, deeply in debt, became involved with Tucci-Jarraf, a former attorney who ran a website, contributed to talk shows, and produced faux-legal documents that purported to allow individuals to access their secret accounts. Beane found a Facebook video that purported to teach viewers how to access their accounts; it actually taught them how to commit wire fraud by exploiting a deficiency in the “Automated Clearing House” bank network. With Tucci-Jarraf's support, Beane logged onto his bank’s website, followed those instructions, and made fraudulent payments on his debts and bought $31 million in certificates of deposit with Federal Reserve funds. He started cashing the certificates and spending money. A bank froze his account. Tucci-Jarraf advised Beane to place his new assets in trust; she prepared pseudo-legal documents and made calls. Agents arrested Beane as he was driving off the dealership lot in a new motor home. Officers arrested Tucci-Jarraf in Washington, D.C., where she was requesting a meeting with the President. Beane and Tucci-Jarraf filed multiple frivolous motions and asked to represent themselves. The judge concluded that they had knowingly and intelligently waived their right to counsel but appointed standby counsel. A jury convicted Beane of bank and wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1343, and both of conspiracy to commit money laundering, section 1956(h). The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the court should have forced them to accept counsel. They knowingly and intelligently made their choice; self-lawyering does not require the individual to subscribe to conventional legal strategies or orthodox behavior. View "United States v. Beane" on Justia Law