Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries
Big Lots Stores v. Super. Ct.
In this case, the real parties in interest and plaintiffs were former store managers for petitioner-defendant Big Lots Inc., who claimed they spent less than 50 percent of their worktime on managerial tasks and, as a result, should have been paid overtime compensation for hours worked in excess of a standard 40-hour week. Big Lots was an Ohio corporation. When this lawsuit was first filed, it retained a California law firm, Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP (Haight Brown), as counsel of record. Big Lots later sought the superior court’s permission for attorneys from an Ohio law firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease LLP (Vorys), to also represent it. The trial judge ultimately granted applications filed by three different attorneys in the Vorys firm. But after later being advised that these Ohio attorneys were attempting to represent various current and former Big Lots managers in depositions noticed by plaintiffs, the court revoked pro hac vice authorization for all three lawyers. Big Lots petitioned for a writ of mandamus to overturn that order. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge that there was a between an attorney’s representation of the defendant corporation in a lawsuit and his or her representation of current or former employee witnesses. "Pro hac vice admission as to one client does not necessarily allow a lawyer to represent a different client even if substantive law does not otherwise prohibit it." The Court nonetheless concluded the total revocation of pro hac vice status for the Vorys attorneys was not supported by the record then before the trial court. The petition to vacated the revocation order was granted, but the matter was returned to the trial court for additional hearings/orders deemed necessary. View "Big Lots Stores v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law
In re: Justice of the Peace Cody King, Ward 6, Morehouse Parish
The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana filed a disciplinary proceeding against respondent, Justice of the Peace Cody King on one count that alleged respondent violated Canons 1, 2, 2A, 3A(1), 3A(7), and 3B(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct (1996) and La. Const. Art. V, section 25(C). In 2018, the Attorney General's Office filed the first of three complaints against Respondent with the Office of Special Counsel of the Commission, asserting that Respondent failed to respond to constituents in his district, and likewise failed to respond to letters or calls from the Attorney General's office. In 2019, Hannah Zaunbrecher filed a complaint, asserting: (1) Respondent was difficult to reach; (2) he overcharged Ms. Zaunbrecher for an eviction she filed; (3) he did not set a court date in the eviction matter despite repeated requests from Ms. Zaunbrecher after the eviction was filed; and (4) Respondent failed to refund the unearned filing fee. The OSC sent letters to Respondent notifying him of each complaint. Respondent did not reply despite later acknowledging that he received them. After a hearing on these charges, the Commission filed a recommendation with the Louisiana Supreme Court concluding that the above violations had been proven. To this, the Supreme Court agreed with the Commission’s recommendation, and ordered the removal of Respondent from office, that he reimburse the Commission the costs incurred in the investigation and prosecution of the case, and further, that he pay restitution for an unearned filing fee he failed to return to Parish Leasing Company, LLC. View "In re: Justice of the Peace Cody King, Ward 6, Morehouse Parish" on Justia Law
Ewing v. Westport Ins. Co., et al.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted this writ application to determine whether “collectibility” was a relevant consideration in a legal malpractice action. Specifically, the issue presented was whether plaintiff’s damages in this legal malpractice action were limited to the amount she could have actually collected on a judgment against the tortfeasor in the underlying lawsuit. Elaine Ewing was injured in an automobile accident in 2015, when her vehicle was hit by a vehicle driven by Marc Melancon. Her counsel failed to forward the original petition for damages within seven days as required by La. R.S. 13:850. The original petition was filed on April 22, 2016, after the one-year prescriptive period had passed. Ms. Ewing’s suit was dismissed on an exception of prescription. Ms. Ewing subsequently filed a legal malpractice action against her attorney and Westport Insurance Corporation, counsel's malpractice insurer. Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment asserting the court should apply the “collectibility rule.” Defendants alleged Ms. Ewing’s recovery could be no greater than her potential recovery in the underlying personal injury lawsuit, and recovery in this case should have been capped at Mr. Melancon’s insurance policy limits. The Supreme Court held that proof of collectibility of an underlying judgment was not an element necessary for a plaintiff to establish a claim for legal malpractice, nor could collectibility be asserted by an attorney as an affirmative defense in a legal malpractice action. View "Ewing v. Westport Ins. Co., et al." on Justia Law
Zander v. Carlson
Fox Lake patrol officer Zander was charged with misconduct arising from multiple job-related incidents. The chief recommended termination. Zander's union, FOP, assigned Attorney Carlson, an FOP employee. Zander had no input into the choice of an attorney, had no retainer agreement with Carlson, and was not charged for Carlson’s services. Under the Illinois Municipal Code (65 ILCS 5/1-1-1), police officers who face removal or discharge are entitled to a hearing before the local board of fire and police commissioners unless a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provides for arbitration. The CBA between Fox Lake and FOP gave officers the option of pursuing either avenue. On Carlson’s advice, Zander chose arbitration. The arbitrator upheld the termination. Zander sued, alleging legal malpractice and that FOP has no right to employ attorneys to furnish legal services under its direction to FOP members, and cannot control what attorneys assigned to help FOP members may do and “should be vicariously liable.”The circuit court dismissed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s "Atkinson" holding, which immunizes union members and officers against personal liability for actions taken while acting as a union representative in the context of the collective bargaining process. The court noted the parallels between federal labor law and the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. But for the collective bargaining agreement. FOP would have owed Zander no duty. Zander’s claim against the union fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Illinois Labor Relations Board. View "Zander v. Carlson" on Justia Law
Alemarah v. General Motors, LLC
Alemarah sued her former employer, GM, in both state and federal court, claiming employment discrimination based upon identical factual allegations. The state suit asserted state claims, the federal suit, federal claims. The state court dismissed that case after a case evaluation ($400,000); the federal district court granted GM summary judgment. Alemarah challenged the court’s grant of summary judgment, its denial of her motion to recuse the judge, and an award ($4,715) of costs.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court properly granted summary judgment. Under Michigan law, the state court’s order dismissing her claims after acceptance of the case evaluation was a judgment on the merits, Alemarah and GM were parties in both case, and the matter in the second case could have been resolved in the first, so res judicata bars every claim arising from the same transaction that the parties, exercising reasonable diligence, could have raised. The court acknowledged that a reasonable observer could conclude that the district judge’s statement in a letter to Alemarah’s counsel expressed anger and another of the judge’s actions could be seen as punitive but those actions were not “so extreme as to display clear inability to render fair judgment.” GM submitted as costs the amount it paid for deposition transcripts that it attached to its summary judgment motion; the costs were allowable. View "Alemarah v. General Motors, LLC" on Justia Law
In re Grundstein
Robert Grundstein appealed the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners’ determination that he failed to establish his eligibility for admission to the Vermont bar in connection with his 2019 application for admission by examination. He argued that, for numerous reasons, the Board erred in evaluating his application pursuant to the Rules of Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court in effect at the time his application was submitted. After its review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the Board correctly applied the Rules and affirmed. View "In re Grundstein" on Justia Law
Moore v. Superior Court
While representing a client at a mandatory settlement conference (MSC) before a temporary judge, petitioner Kevin Moore was rude and unprofessional. Among other things, Moore: (1) persistently yelled at and interrupted other participants; (2) accused opposing counsel of lying while providing no evidence to support his accusation; (3) refused to engage in settlement discussions; and (4) effectively prevented the settlement officer from invoking the aid and authority of the supervising judge by asserting this would unlawfully divulge settlement information. To make matters worse, Moore later acknowledged that his contemptuous behavior was the result of a tactical decision he had made to act in such a manner in advance of the MSC. After a hearing, respondent court convicted Moore of four counts of civil contempt, imposed a $900 fine for each count ($3,600 total), and ordered the payment of attorney fees and costs to the opposing party. Moore challenged all four contempt convictions and the associated sanctions. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the record and applicable law required that three of Moore’s convictions be overturned; the Court affirmed one conviction and the punishment required for that offense. The clerk of the appeallate court was ordered to make the required notification to the State Bar for whatever additional action the Bar may consider appropriate. The award of attorney fees and costs here was precluded by statute. View "Moore v. Superior Court" on Justia Law
Inquiry Concerning Judge Robert M. Crawford
The Hearing Panel of the Judicial qualifications Commission ("JQC") recommended that Judge Robert "Mack" Crawford be "removed from office" for violating Rule 1.1 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct ("CJC") which said "Judges shall respect and comply with the law." Judge Crawford resigned as Superior Court judge of the Griffin Judicial Circuit upon investigation by the JQC. The complaint alleged that Crawford violated CJC Rule 1.1 in two ways: (1) by “impermissibly converting money from the registry of the Superior Court of Pike County . . . when he ordered the Pike County Clerk via handwritten note to disburse $15,675.62 in funds from the court registry to him via check” and “then cashed and used a portion of the check for his personal benefit and deposited the remainder of this money in his personal checking account,” although he later returned the funds; and (2) by “failing to follow the proper procedure for the disbursement of funds, even if the money had been his, as required by law,” noting the certification requirement for withdrawal of funds from a court registry contained in Uniform Superior Court Rule 23. In 2002, when Crawford was in private practice, he had deposited the funds into the registry from his client trust account in connection with a lawsuit. The JQC complaint acknowledged that Crawford claimed that at least some of the money was owed to him as attorney fees and expenses.The Hearing Panel did not recommend that Crawford be permanently barred from seeking or holding judicial office. The JQC Director did not file a notice of exceptions, thereby accepting the Hearing Panel’s recommendation. Under rules promulgated by the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court had to file a written decision either dismissing this matter or imposing a sanction. The Court elected to dismiss. View "Inquiry Concerning Judge Robert M. Crawford" on Justia Law
Hermanson v. Multicare Health Sys., Inc.
The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review related to the boundaries of the corporate attorney-client privilege and how it operated when in conflict with a plaintiff’s physician-patient privilege. In 2015, Doug Hermanson sideswiped an unoccupied vehicle and crashed into a utility pole. Hermanson was transported to Tacoma General Hospital, which was owned by MultiCare Health System Inc. Hermanson was treated by several MultiCare employees, including two nurses and a crisis intervention social worker. However, the physician who treated Hermanson, Dr. Patterson, was an independent contractor of MultiCare pursuant to a signed agreement between MultiCare and Trauma Trust, his employer. Trauma Trust was created by MultiCare; Dr. Patterson had his own office at Tacoma General Hospital and was expected to abide by MultiCare’s policies and procedures. During Hermanson’s treatment, an unidentified person at Tacoma General Hospital conducted a blood test on Hermanson that showed a high blood alcohol level. As a result, someone reported this information to the police, and the police charged Hermanson with first degree negligent driving and hit and run of an unattended vehicle. Based on this disclosure of his blood alcohol results, Hermanson sued MultiCare and multiple unidentified parties for negligence, defamation/false light, false imprisonment, violation of Hermanson’s physician-patient privilege, and unauthorized disclosure of Hermanson's confidential health information. MultiCare retained counsel to jointly represent MultiCare, Dr. Patterson, and Trauma Trust, reasoning that while Dr. Patterson and Trauma Trust were not identified parties, Hermanson’s initial demand letter implicated both parties. Hermanson objected to this joint representation and argued that MultiCare’s ex parte communications with Dr. Patterson violated Hermanson’s physician-patient privilege. The Supreme Court determined that Dr. Patterson still maintained a principal-agent relationship with MultiCare, and served as the "functional equivalent" of a MultiCare employee; therefore MultiCare could have ex parte communications with the doctor. The nurse and social worker privilege were "essentially identical in purpose" to the physician-patient privilege, making ex parte communications permissible between MultiCare and the nurse and social worker. View "Hermanson v. Multicare Health Sys., Inc." on Justia Law
Gronquist v. Dep’t of Corrections
At issue before the Washington Supreme Court in this matter was whether trial courts had discretion to impose remedial sanctions under RCW 7.21.030(3) in the absence of ongoing, continuing contempt. Derek Gronquist was convicted of violent sexual offenses in 1988. While confined, he participated in a sex offender treatment program until 1991. That same year, former participants of the program brought a class action against the Department of Corrections (Department) to enjoin the release of their treatment files, which contained extensive medical and personal information. Gronquist was not a named class member. The case resulted in a permanent injunction in 1993 that prohibited the Department from releasing certain documents from any class member’s file. Though not a named party, Gronquist fell within the class of persons protected by the injunction. As Gronquist approached his earned early release date, the Department referred him to the King County prosecutor for possible commitment as a sexually violent predator. Under then-current statutory law, the prosecutor sought all records relating to Gronquist’s treatment. Gronquist filed a civil contempt motion against the Department and the King County prosecutor for releasing his treatment records. He also sought an accounting for all breaches of the injunction, an order transferring him to community custody, destruction of all improperly disclosed confidential information, at least $500 a day per contemnor, disqualification of a potential expert witness, and attorney fees and costs under RCW 7.21.030(3). The Department and the prosecutor may have shared some of Gronquist’s files in direct contravention of a valid injunction. On the Department's motion, but before considering Gronquist's contempt motion, the trial court prospectively invalidated the injunction as to Gronquist. The Department them moved to dismiss the contempt motion as moot. The Washington Supreme Court determined courts had discretion to impose remedial sanctions in the absence of contempt, but in this case, Gronquist failed to establish he suffered any compensable losses. With no ongoing contempt, any claim for sanctions here was moot. View "Gronquist v. Dep't of Corrections" on Justia Law