Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise ("QHG"), appealed a circuit court's judgment awarding Amy Pertuit ("Amy") $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages. Leif Pertuit ("Leif") had been married to Deanna Mortensen; they had one child, Logan. Leif and Mortensen divorced in 2007. At some point, Mortensen was awarded sole physical custody of Logan, and Leif was awarded visitation. Leif later married Amy, a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Leif and Amy resided in Mobile, Alabama, and Mortensen resided in Enterprise. Eventually, tensions arose between Leif and Mortensen regarding the issue of visitation. In March 2014, Mortensen began sending text messages to Leif accusing Amy of being addicted to drugs. Around that time, Mortensen visited the attorney who had represented her in divorce from Leif. Mortensen expressed concern that Logan was in danger as a result of the visitation arrangement and asked her attorney to assist with obtaining a modification of Leif's visitation. In April 2014, Mortensen contacted Dr. Kathlyn Diefenderfer, a physician whom QHG employed as a hospitalist at Medical Center Enterprise. Mortensen had been Dr. Diefenderfer's patient, and Dr. Diefenderfer's son played sports with Logan. Mortensen informed Dr. Diefenderfer that Logan was scheduled to ride in an automobile with Amy from Enterprise to Mobile for Leif's visitation and expressed concern regarding Amy's ability to drive, given her belief that Amy was using drugs and had lost her nursing license. Dr. Diefenderfer used a hospital computer to check on Amy's drug prescriptions. After reviewing that information,Dr. Diefenderfer told Mortensen: "All I can tell you is I would not put my son in the car." Mortensen went back to her attorney, informing him that Dr. Diefenderfer had acquired the necessary proof of Amy's drug use. Amy received a copy of the modification petition, and was convinced her private health information had been obtained in violation of HIPAA, and filed complaints to the Enterprise Police Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Alabama Bar Association, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. A grand jury indicted Mortensen and Dr. Diefenderfer, which were later recalled, but the two entered diversion agreements with the district attorney's office. Amy then filed suit alleging negligence and wantonness, violation of her right to privacy, the tort of outrage and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by denying QHG's motion for a judgment as a matter of law with respect to Amy's asserted theories of respondeat superior; ratification; and negligent and wanton training, supervision, and retention because there was not substantial evidence indicating that QHG was liable to Amy as a consequence of Dr. Diefenderfer's conduct under any of those theories. The trial court's judgment awarding Amy $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages was reversed, and judgment rendered in favor of QHG. View "QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise v. Pertuit" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit dismissed bankruptcy appeals filed by attorney Breuer of Moffa & Breuer, who purported to represent the Trust. The bankruptcy court disqualified attorney Moffa and Moffa & Breuer from representing the Trust. Because the Trust was a 50 percent shareholder of the debtor created to ensure that Moffa & Breuer would collect its legal fees, the bankruptcy court concluded that Moffa & Breuer’s representation of a shareholder in which it had a business interest conflicted with its simultaneous representation of the debtor. Moffa & Breuer repeatedly ignored the disqualification order. Moffa, purportedly pro se in his capacity as trustee of the Trust and as an attorney for related entities, filed a competing plan of reorganization that would have released the debtor’s claims against his firm and made him president of the reorganized debtor.There has been no indication of an intent to appeal from any qualified agent of the Trust, only from disqualified attorneys. Moffa had no authority to act pro se in the bankruptcy court, so his filings do not suggest that the Trust intended to appeal. There is no justification for excusing these defective notices of appeal. When an appeal is taken on behalf of an artificial entity by someone without legal authority to do so, the appeal should be dismissed. View "J.J. Rissell, Allentown PA, Trust v. Kapila" on Justia Law

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Following an investigation, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance determined that Copiah County Justice Court Judge Teresa Bozeman had violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(2), 3B(7), and 3C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct as well as Mississippi Code Section 9-11-9 (Rev. 2019). During her tenure on the bench, Judge Bozeman’s conduct resulted in violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Mississippi Code Section 9-11-9. Specifically, Judge Bozeman (1) initiated improper ex parte communications to investigate a pending civil matter, (2) failed to comply with the statutory limitations of money judgments in justice court, and (3) retaliated against a complainant who filed a complaint with the Commission. The Commission found that Judge Bozeman’s conduct constituted willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brought the judicial office into disrepute, actionable under article 6, section 177A, of the Mississippi Constitution. The Commission recommended that Judge Bozeman be suspended from office without pay for thirty days, be publicly reprimanded, and be fined $1,000. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court found the agreed recommendation was appropriate and commensurate with similar cases of misconduct. Thus, the joint motion was granted, and Judge Bozeman was suspended from office without pay for thirty days, was publicly reprimanded, and fined $1,000. View "Mississippi Comm'n on Judicial Perf. v. Bozeman" on Justia Law

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Respondent Eric Nisley was elected to the office of Wasco County District Attorney and began serving a four-year term in January 2017. After respondent’s election, the Oregon State Bar charged him with several violations of the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct. The Oregon Supreme Court ultimately reviewed the case against respondent, concluded that he had committed some of the charged violations, and imposed the sanction of a 60-day suspension from the practice of law, beginning February 2020. The Supreme Court agreed to exercise its original jurisdiction in the nature of quo warranto to determine whether respondent was the lawful holder of that office. The dispute turned on whether the 60-day suspension from the practice of law caused respondent to “cease[ ] to possess” a qualification for holding office—thus creating a vacancy in the public office—as contemplated by ORS 236.010(1)(g). The Supreme Court concluded respondent’s brief suspension from the practice of law did not render the office of Wasco County District Attorney vacant. View "Oregon ex rel Rosenblum v. Nisley" on Justia Law

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An award of attorneys' fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 was properly denied to the prevailing defendants in an action brought by DFEH under Government Code section 12974. This case arose out of an administrative complaint filed with DFEH by a same-sex couple who alleged they were denied services at a bakery because of their sexual orientation.The Court of Appeal held that section 12974's unilateral attorneys' fee provision conflicts with Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, and the two statutes cannot reasonably be harmonized. The court explained that because section 12974 is the more specific, later-enacted statute, it governs. Therefore, the court held that a prevailing defendant in a section 12974 action is not entitled to an award of fees against DFEH under section 1021.5, and the trial court did not err in denying defendants' attorneys' fee request. View "Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Cathy's Creations, Inc." on Justia Law

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As the foundation for the application of Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 to this case, the Court of Appeal held that an unincorporated association has standing to appear in an election contest as a representative of its members if (1) its members live in the area affected by the outcome of the election, (2) its members would suffer injury from an adverse outcome in the election contest, and (3) the questions involved were of a public nature.In this case, the court held that the unincorporated association met these requirements where it is undisputed that the patients residing at CSH-Coalinga are in an area affected by the referendum vote on Measure C; the members of DACE would have been harmed in at least two ways if the election contest was successful; and the specific challenge of illegal votes raised in this election contest involves questions of a public nature. The court held that the trial court's analysis of DACE's right to intervene in the election contest in the order denying the motion for attorney fees did not accurately reflect California law governing an unincorporated association and (2) DACE qualified for permissive intervention. Furthermore, as a de facto intervenor and based on its unique contribution to the evidence and argument presented in the trial court, DACE qualified as a party for purposes of section 1021.5's "successful party" requirement. The court rejected the remaining contentions, reversing the order denying the motion for attorney fees. View "Vosburg v. County of Fresno" on Justia Law

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Innovative Images, LLC sued its former attorney James Summerville, Summerville Moore, P.C., and The Summerville Firm, LLC (collectively, the “Summerville Defendants”) for legal malpractice. In response, the Summerville Defendants moved to dismiss the suit and to compel arbitration in accordance with the parties’ engagement agreement, which included a clause mandating arbitration for any dispute arising under the agreement. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the arbitration clause was “unconscionable” and thus unenforceable because it had been entered into in violation of Rule 1.4 (b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (“GRPC”) for attorneys found in Georgia Bar Rule 4-102 (d). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the arbitration clause was not void as against public policy or unconscionable. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded after review that regardless of whether the Summerville Defendants violated GRPC Rule 1.4 (b) by entering into the mandatory arbitration clause in the engagement agreement without first apprising Innovative of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration, the clause was not void as against public policy because Innovative did not argue, and no court has held, that such an arbitration clause could never lawfully be included in an attorney-client contract. For similar reasons, the Supreme Court held the arbitration clause was not substantively unconscionable, and on the limited record before it, Innovative did not show the clause was procedurally unconscionable. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the appellate court's judgment. View "Innovative Images, LLC v. Summerville et al." on Justia Law

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In 2001-2013, Ridgeway worked for Stryker, which believed that Ridgeway intended to use its confidential business information at his next job. Stryker sued Ridgeway. A jury found that Ridgeway had breached his contractual obligations, breached his fiduciary duty, and violated Michigan’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (MUTSA) and that the MUTSA violation was willful and malicious for purposes of an award of attorney’s fees. Ridgeway filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The automatic stay caused by the filing of the petition prevented Stryker from making an attorney’s fee request in the Michigan proceedings. Stryker filed a proof of claim for $2,272,369.54, supported by hundreds of pages of time entries; the amount claimed and the corresponding time entries do not just relate to the lawyers’ work on the MUTSA claim. Stryker argued that, under the “Common Core” doctrine, its win on the MUTSA claim entitles it to attorney’s fees for all of its claims. Ridgeway argued that fee recovery under the Common Core doctrine “is reserved for fee awards in civil rights cases.”The bankruptcy court allowed Stryker’s proof of claim, including fees claimed under the Common Core doctrine. The district court and Fifth Circuit affirmed. Ridgeway has not shown that Michigan law requires statutory attorney’s fees to be “proved at trial.” The court upheld the striking of Ridgeway's "Common Core" objection as a sanction. Ridgeway did not comply with a court order to specify to which charges his objection applied. View "Ridgeway v. Stryker Corp." on Justia Law

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A.C.'s Westside eighth-grade class watched a video about athletes kneeling during the national anthem. During a “critical thinking” discussion, the teacher insisted that A.C. share her ideas. A.C. stated that “kneeling was disrespectful to law enforcement and military," and questioned that violence could have stemmed from music lyrics including "F-the Police, and the use of the N-word.’” A.C. stayed home the next day due to illness. The teacher allegedly told students that A.C. was a racist and was on suspension. A.C. was subjected to bullying. After meeting with school officials, her parents removed A.C. from school. A.C. attempted suicide. Her parents contacted eight lawyers. but were unable to retain one.On behalf of A.C., they filed the pro se 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit. The court ruled that they could not serve pro se as A.C.’s representatives and lacked standing to bring individual claims that only derive from alleged violations of their child’s constitutional rights. They contacted 27 more lawyers and organizations. They refiled, requesting court-appointed counsel. The district court refused, reasoning that the claims were “not likely to be of substance,” and that A.C. lacked standing for declaratory and injunctive relief, as she was no longer a student at Westside. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that the parents may not represent A.C. pro se but remanded with directions to appoint counsel. The court did not err in considering the potential merit of the claims and other relevant factors in deciding whether to request counsel but the allegation of First Amendment retaliation is a serious claim on which the plaintiffs and the court would benefit from the assistance of counsel. View "Crozier v. Westside Community School District" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit previously reversed, in part, bankruptcy appellate panel decisions. The court subsequently denied the debtors’ applications, as prevailing parties, for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412(d). The EAJA did not authorize attorney fees because a bankruptcy court does not fall within the EAJA’s definition of “United States,” and uncontested Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases are not “civil actions brought by or against the United States.” The EAJA is a limited waiver of the government’s sovereign immunity; it must be strictly construed in favor of maintaining immunity not specifically and clearly waived. View "In re: Sisk" on Justia Law