Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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House owns an organic farm, adjacent to the Property, formerly owned by Moller. In 2002, House entered into a six-year lease with Moller for 35 farmable acres, containing a renewal option and a right of first refusal. House converted the Property to certified organic status. In 2007, Moller, with no notice to House, agreed to sell the Property to Foss. Foss, a licensed real estate agent, prepared the agreement, which did not contain a fixed closing date. House became aware of the agreement, notified Foss about the right of first refusal, and sued Moller. While the lease remained in effect, Foss entered the Property and sprayed nonorganic herbicides, cut down trees, and altered the fencing. House sued Foss. Moller filed for bankruptcy. The Property was foreclosed on and sold to a third party in 2015. The trial court found Foss liable for inducing a breach of contract, intentionally interfering with House’s prospective economic advantage, conversion, trespass, and negligence and awarded compensatory damages of $1,669,705 and $1,000 in punitive damages. House sought attorney fees and costs. The court denied the motion. The court of appeal remanded for a determination of reasonable attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure 1021.9, which refers to “any action to recover damages to personal or real property resulting from trespassing on lands either under cultivation or intended or used for the raising of livestock.” The damages award is supported by substantial evidence. View "Kelly v. House" on Justia Law

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Appellants Eric Early and his election committee, Eric Early for Attorney General 2018 (collectively, Early), appealed the denial of their petition for writ of mandate to preclude respondent Xavier Becerra from running for Attorney General in 2018. Early contended that Becerra, appointed Attorney General by former Governor Brown in 2016, was not eligible for the office under Government Code section 12503. Becerra was an “inactive” member of the California State Bar from 1991 to the end of 2016. Government Code section 12503 provided: “No person shall be eligible to the office of Attorney General unless he shall have been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the state for a period of at least five years immediately preceding his election or appointment to such office.” Early argues that an “inactive” attorney may not practice law in California and therefore is not “admitted to practice” under Government Code section 12503. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding both active and inactive attorneys were members of the State Bar. The phrase “admitted to practice” referred to the event of admission to the bar and the status of being admitted, and did not require engagement in the “actual” or “active” practice of law. Becerra did not cease to be “admitted to practice” in California when he voluntarily changed his status to “inactive.” View "Early v. Becerra" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial District holding State Public Defender Diane Lozano in contempt, holding that the circuit court erred in ruling that the public defender must accept all appointments to serve as counsel for indigent defendants unless and until the appointing court rules otherwise. In May 2019, Lozano notified the circuit court that the public defender was unavailable to take appointments to represent misdemeanor defendants due to a heavy caseload and shortage of attorneys in its Campbell County office. The circuit court subsequently entered orders appointing Lozano or her representative to represent misdemeanor defendants in two cases. The local public defender's office declined the appointments. Thereafter, the court held Lozano in contempt. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) section 105(b) of the Public Defender Act affords the public defender discretion to decline an appointment or appointments; (2) the circuit court's order mandating that the public defender accept the two misdemeanor appointments was not lawful because it disregarded the public defender's determination that no public defender was available; and (3) because there was no lawful order, the circuit court erred in finding Lozano in contempt. View "Lozano v. Circuit Court of Sixth Judicial District" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court held that the order issued by the Springfield District Court that required the attorney in charge of the Springfield office of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants and subsequent appointments of CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield public defender division (PDD) office pursuant to that order were invalid. Due to a high volume of cases, the First Justice of the Springfield District Court that CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield PDD office could not handle any more duty days in that court. In response, the First Justice issued the order at issue. The district court subsequently appointed PDD staff attorneys as defense counsel under the order. CPCS filed an emergency petition pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3 seeking to vacate the order and the appointments. The Supreme Judicial Court granted the petition, holding that the order and the appointments were invalid because they improperly infringed on CPCS's statutory authority to control assignments and to limit caseloads for its staff attorneys. View "Carrasquillo v. Hampden County District Courts" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reviewed the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) concerning five judges (Respondents) and approved the stipulated discipline entered into between Respondents and the JQC, holding that the JQC's findings were supported by clear and convincing evidence. The JQC Investigative Panel served a notice of formal charges on Respondents for violating Canons 1, 2, and 4 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Thereafter, the JQC and Respondents entered into a stipulation wherein Respondents admitted their wrongdoing and agreed that the alleged violations were demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence. The parties further stipulated to the recommended discipline in the form of a written public reprimand. The Supreme Court agreed with the JQC's findings of fact approved the stipulated discipline of a written reprimand. View "Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 18-572" on Justia Law

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Attorney Robert Reeve sued attorney Kenneth Meleyco to enforce a referral fee agreement after Reeve referred a client to Meleyco but Meleyco did not pay the referral fee. A jury found that Reeve was entitled to recover for breach of contract and also under a quantum meruit theory, and the trial court awarded Reeve prejudgment interest. Meleyco appealed, arguing among other things that Reeve could not recover for breach of contract because the client did not provide written consent to the arrangement, the quantum meruit claim was barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and Reeve was not entitled to prejudgment interest. The Court of Appeal determined Meleyco wrote a letter to the client explaining that the referral fee would not come from the client’s percentage of any settlement, and the client signed an acknowledgement at the bottom of the letter indicating that he received the letter and understood its contents. The client subsequently testified that his acknowledgement expressed his agreement that the referral fee could be paid to Reeve. The Court found the client’s written acknowledgement that he received and understood the letter did not constitute written consent to the referral fee agreement under former California Bar Rule of Professional Conduct 2-200, and the client’s subsequent testimony did not remedy the deficiency. The referral fee agreement was unenforceable as against public policy and Reeve could not recover for breach of contract. Furthermore, the Court agreed with Meleyco that Reeve’s quantum meruit claim was barred by the two-year limitations period. View "Reeve v. Meleyco" on Justia Law

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The Center lodged a FOIA request with the Department of Justice (DOJ) for records of communications between the Attorney General, the Office of the Attorney General and any Office of Immigration Litigation or Office of the Solicitor General lawyers related to 11 certified cases decided in 2002-2009. DOJ produced about 1,000 pages but withheld 4,000 pages, citing FOIA Exemption 5, which allows the withholding of agency memoranda not subject to disclosure in the ordinary course of litigation, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(5). Exemption 5 encompasses the attorney work product, attorney-client, and deliberative process privileges. DOJ submitted a Vaughn index describing each document withheld, identifying documents reflecting discussions between attorneys working within different offices of issues related to immigration cases under consideration or on certification for decision by the Attorney General. The Center unsuccessfully argued that the documents contained ex parte communications outside Exemption 5's scope because the DOJ attorneys’ eventual litigation role taints the advice they provide the Attorney General at the certification stage; removal proceedings end in federal court litigation where those same attorneys are opposite the immigrant. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Office of Immigration Litigation and Solicitor General attorneys do not hold interests adverse to the noncitizen at the stage at which the Attorney General certifies a case for decision. “ To conclude otherwise would chill the deliberations that department and agency heads like the Attorney General undertake in confidence to execute the weighty responsibilities of their offices.” View "National Immigrant Justice Center v. United States Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction of wire fraud and filing false tax returns. The jury found that defendant embezzled over $300,000 from the company for which he served as managing member and president. The panel overruled its prior decisions in light of the Supreme Court's intervening decision in Shaw v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 462 (2016), and held that wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. 1343 requires the intent to deceive and cheat, and that the jury charge instructing that wire fraud requires the intent to "deceive or cheat" was therefore erroneous. However, in this case, the panel held that the erroneous instruction was harmless. The panel noted that it was deeply troubled by an Assistant U.S. Attorney's disregard for elementary prosecutorial ethics, but that the misconduct did not entitle defendant to any relief. The attorney here had a personal and financial interest in the outcome of the case. The panel wrote that as soon as the Department of Justice became aware of the impropriety, it took every necessary step to cure any resulting taint, including turning over the entire prosecution of the case to disinterested prosecutors from the Southern District of California. Finally, the panel found defendant's remaining arguments to be without merit. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court's review centered on whether Respondent, the Murkin Group, LLC (Murkin), engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). In April 2017, the Wando River Grill (Restaurant) became dissatisfied with the service of its linen supplier (Cintas) and Cintas' ability to supply the type of linens Restaurant needed. Restaurant contacted another supplier to secure some or all of its required linens and notified Cintas of its need to suspend at least a portion of Cintas' services. Cintas claimed Restaurant's suspension of service constituted a breach of the parties' contract, invoked a liquidated damages provision in the contract, sought more than $8,000 in damages, and hired Murkin to collect the outstanding debt. Petitioner, a South Carolina attorney, represented Restaurant in the resulting dispute. In April 2018, Murkin sent a demand-for-payment letter to Restaurant. Because a Murkin-prepared reinstatement agreement materially altered the terms of the parties' original contract and imposed new obligations on Restaurant and because the agreement's terms were contrary to discussions Cintas personnel had directly with Restaurant, Restaurant sent the proposed reinstatement agreement to Petitioner. All further communications were handled through Murkin. Ultimately, Restaurant did not sign the reinstatement agreement, and no South Carolina counsel for Murkin or Cintas contacted Petitioner. Further, Murkin threatened litigation of the dispute was not resolved. Petitioner then asked Murkin for the South Carolina Bar numbers of several Murkin employees, but Murkin felt Petitioner's desire to deal with Murkin's local counsel "means nothing, since that is a decision made between our client and our office." Murkin further claimed authority to bind any attorney to whom Murkin referred the matter to settle for no less than Murkin demanded. Petitioner lodged a petition with the Supreme Court, alleging UPL. A special master appointed by the Court determined Murkin went beyond the "mere collection of debt" and crossed into UPL by negotiating the contract dispute; purporting to advise Cintas as to what legal action it should take; advising the parties as to whether to take a settlement offer; and purporting to control whether and when the case would be referred to an attorney. The Supreme Court concurred Murkin's actions constituted UPL. View "Westbrook v. Murkin Group" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Christynne Lili Wrene Wood contacted the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to report alleged gender discrimination by her Crunch fitness club, which was owned and operated by CFG Jamacha, LLC and John Romeo (collectively, Crunch). After an investigation, DFEH filed a lawsuit against Crunch alleging unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression (Wood intervened as a plaintiff in the lawsuit). During discovery, Crunch requested that Wood produce all communications with DFEH relating to Crunch. As relevant here, Wood refused to produce one such communication, a prelitigation email she sent to DFEH lawyers regarding her DFEH complaint, on the grounds of attorney-client privilege. Crunch moved to compel production of the email, and the trial court granted the motion. Wood petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate, arguing the trial court erred by overruling her objection based on the attorney-client privilege and compelling production of the email. The Court summarily denied the petition. The California Supreme Court granted review and transferred the matter back to the appellate court with directions "to vacate [our] order denying mandate and to issue an order directing the superior court to show cause why the relief sought in the petition should not be granted." The Court of Appeal issued the order to show cause as directed, and these proceedings followed. After further review, the Court concluded Wood did not show the attorney-client privilege applied to the email at issue. "DFEH lawyers have an attorney-client relationship with the State of California. Wood has not shown DFEH lawyers formed an attorney-client relationship with her. As such, any communications between Wood and DFEH lawyers were not made in the course of an attorney-client relationship and were not privileged." Therefore, the petition for mandamus relief was denied. View "Wood v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law