Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Ronald Smithberg petitioned the North Dakota Supreme Court for a supervisory writ following the district court’s denial of his demand for a jury trial. Ronald, Gary, and James Smithberg were brothers who were shareholders in Smithberg Brothers, Inc. In July 2016, Ronald filed a “complaint and jury demand,” suing Gary, James and Smithberg Brothers, Inc., seeking damages and to have the corporation and his brothers purchase his shares. After a jury trial was scheduled for October 1, 2018, the parties stipulated to “waive their right to a jury trial and to schedule a court trial.” The stipulation also stated “the Court should schedule a three-day Court trial for February 2018, or as soon as possible thereafter.” In January 2018, the district court granted summary judgment dismissing all of Ronald’s claims for damages. After a bench trial was held on several remaining claims, the court determined the value of Ronald’s interest in the corporation, ordered the corporation to pay Ronald for his interest, and entered judgment. Ronald appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed judgment and remanded for a trial, holding the district court erred by granting summary judgment dismissing Ronald’s claims for damages On remand, Ronald requested a jury trial and defendants opposed his request. The district court ordered a bench trial, noting the stipulation to waive the jury trial did not state that it was contingent on any circumstance. Ronald argued the Supreme Court should exercise its supervisory jurisdiction to rectify the district court’s error of denying his request for a jury trial and to prevent an injustice. The Supreme Court concluded that when a case is reversed and remanded for a trial without limitation, a party who stipulated to waive the right to a jury trial before the original trial may demand a jury trial on remand, unless the parties intended their stipulation to apply to any future trials or the right is otherwise limited by law. Ronald had a right to a jury trial on remand. The district court erred by deciding it had discretion in determining whether to order a jury trial on remand and by denying Ronald’s request. The Court granted Ronald’s petition for a supervisory writ and instructed the district court to schedule a jury trial. Ronald also asked the Supreme Court to remand this case to a different judge, but did not explain why a different judge should have been assigned. “To the extent he is asserting judicial impropriety based on the judge’s misapplication of the law, we have stated that ‘[a]n erroneous opinion as to the merits of the case or the law relating to the proceedings is not evidence of bias.’” View "Smithberg v. Jacobson, et al." on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of attorney's fees to both parties, because both parties prevailed in this case. The court found two prevailing parties where Genesis obtained the $722,346.35 that materially alters the relationship between the parties and placed Hornbeck in Genesis's debt. Furthermore, Hornbeck obtained a $117,284.54 judgment that forced Genesis to pay an amount of money it otherwise would not pay. View "Genesis Marine, LLC v. Hornbeck Offshore Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a). The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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Patricia petitioned for the dissolution of her marriage to Thomas in 2001. A dissolution judgment entered in 2002; a judgment on reserved issues entered in 2008. In 2005, trial court Commissioner Oleon determined, based Thomas’s conduct in the dissolution proceedings and two separate civil actions, that Thomas was a vexatious litigant, and issued an order, prohibiting him from filing any new litigation or motion in propria persona without obtaining leave of the presiding judge. Thomas was also ordered to cover Patricia's attorney fees. In 2006, Thomas unsuccessfully moved (Code of Civil Procedure 170.1) to have Oleon disqualified. Weeks later, Thomas filed another section 170.1 challenge; the court failed to timely respond. Months later, notwithstanding his disqualification, Oleon reentered his previous vexatious litigant orders, effective from 7/29/05 because, when entering his original orders, he neglected to file a mandatory form. In 2018, Thomas complained to the presiding judge regarding Oleon’s post-disqualification involvement. The court issued an order to show cause, then reaffirmed that Thomas qualifies as a vexatious litigant and reimposed the pre-filing order. The court of appeal affirmed, noting that “Thomas appears to have used the opportunity ... to make implicit threats against various members of the California judiciary and State Bar.” The court upheld the 2018 orders as supported by substantial evidence and rejected an argument that a nonplaintiff litigant cannot be designated a vexatious litigant. View "Marriage of Deal" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff successfully challenged in bankruptcy court a tax penalty assessed against him by the IRS that exceeded $40 million, plaintiff filed suit against the IRS and three IRS agents, in their individual capacities, pleading a claim for damages against the individual defendants under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), for allegedly violating his Fifth Amendment right to procedural due process. Plaintiff also sought attorney's fees he incurred litigating the penalty issue in his Chapter 11 bankruptcy case under 26 U.S.C. 7430 and the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of defendants' Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion and dismissal of the action with prejudice. The court held that the district court properly concluded that this case was a new Bivens context and that special factors existed under Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843 (2017). The court also held that plaintiff was not entitled to recover attorney's fees because his request was untimely under 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(B) and he was not a "prevailing party" under 26 U.S.C. 7430(c)(4)(A)(ii). View "Canada, Jr. v. United States (Internal Revenue Service)" on Justia Law

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In a 2007 RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs under a contingent fee agreement. The Illinois attorneys withdrew; Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. They eventually settled the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. The attorneys also disagreed over the division of the fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the district court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle, ultimately following the written fee agreement. The Seventh Circuit affirmed an award of attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, with Needle 60 receiving percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. During the dispute, Needle was without counsel and was on the verge of a default judgment, when three partners from the O’Connor law firm stepped in to represent Needle P.C. Less than three months after appearing as counsel, O’Connor “understandably” withdrew due to irreconcilable differences and a total breakdown of the attorney-client relationship. O’Connor sought compensation under a quantum meruit theory and perfected an attorney’s lien. The district court granted O’Connor’s petition to adjudicate and enforce the lien. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. O’Connor is entitled to recover in quantum meruit and the district court properly concluded that the petitioned fees were reasonable. View "Michael Needle, P.C. v. Cozen O'Connor" on Justia Law

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In the underlying 2007 civil RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and two Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs. The attorneys executed a contingent fee agreement with their clients. The Illinois attorneys later withdrew from the representation, so Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. Needle and Royce agreed to split half of any fee equally and the other half proportional to the time each spent on the matter. Needle and Royce litigated the suit for several years before successfully settling the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. All payments were made to Royce as escrow agent. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. Needle and Royce also disagreed over the division of the attorney’s fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. The Seventh Circuit described what followed as “a long, tortured history” based on an “objectively frivolous" position; Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle for “obstructionist and vexatious” tactics. The district court followed the written fee agreement and awarded attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, then awarded Needle 60 percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. The Seventh Circuit affirmed: The district court’s rulings were correct, the sanctions were appropriate, and Needle’s other arguments are baseless. View "Royce v. Needle" on Justia Law

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Fourstar, a federal prisoner, filed a Tucker Act Complaint with a Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis. He claimed that the government is mismanaging certain Indian properties and resources. The Claims Court denied his motion to proceed in forma pauperis, citing 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), which provides: In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal ... under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury,” Prison Litigation Reform Act, 110 Stat. 1321. Fourstar did not pay the filing fee. The court dismissed his complaint. Fourstar was released from prison and later filed a Notice of Appeal. He later filed a statement that he was subsequently arrested and detained and unsuccessfully moved to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal. Because Fourstar was not a prisoner at the time of filing his appeal, section 1915 is not applicable. The Federal Circuit affirmed that the three-strikes rule was met by Fourstar’s litigation history and that Fourstar was not subject to the “imminent danger” exception. View "Fourstar v. United States" on Justia Law

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Glen Ward appealed an order and final judgment of the district court granting the State’s motion for summary dismissal and dismissing his petition for post-conviction relief. In 2014, Ward was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor under 16 years of age after he pleaded guilty to all elements of the crime except for the sexual intent element, to which he entered an Alford plea. He was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment with a 7-year fixed term. Ward asked for, and was granted, appointment of counsel to represent him in the post-conviction relief proceedings. After granting the motion, the district court appointed a conflict public defender to represent Ward in the action. Although he had secured new counsel, Ward subsequently filed numerous pro se documents. Ward argued the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion to proceed pro se as moot. Ward also argued the district court erred in denying his motion to proceed pro se because a post-conviction petitioner has a right to proceed pro se. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court vacated in part and affirmed. The Court held that the district court should have refused to entertain Ward’s independent filings in the first place; to the extent that the district court entertained the filings made by Ward as opposed to by his attorney, it was error to do so. However, having come to the conclusion that the district court erred, not by ruling incorrectly on Ward’s purported motion, but by ruling on it at all, the Supreme Court did not need to reverse the district court’s separate order and final judgment granting summary dismissal. "Because we hold that there was no motion properly before the district court to be ruled upon in the first place, the district court’s denial of the purported motion has no impact on the propriety of its final decision and judgment dismissing Ward’s post-conviction petition on the merits." View "Ward v. Idaho" on Justia Law

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For tax reasons ISN Software Corporation wanted to convert from a C corporation to an S corporation. But four of its eight stockholders, representing about 25 percent of the outstanding stock, could not qualify as S Corporation stockholders. ISN sought advice from Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A. (RLF) about its options. RLF advised ISN that before a conversion ISN could use a merger to cash out some or all of the four stockholders. The cashed-out stockholders could then accept ISN’s cash-out offer or exercise appraisal rights under Delaware law. ISN did not proceed with the conversion, but decided to use a merger to cash out three of the four non-qualifying stockholders. After ISN completed the merger, RLF notified ISN that its advice might not have been correct. All four stockholders, including the remaining stockholder whom ISN wanted to exclude, were entitled to appraisal rights. ISN decided not to try and unwind the merger, instead proceeding with the merger and notified all four stockholders they were entitled to appraisal. ISN and RLF agreed that RLF would continue to represent ISN in any appraisal action. Three of the four stockholders, including the stockholder ISN wanted to exclude, eventually demanded appraisal. Years later, when things did not turn out as ISN had hoped (the appraised value of ISN stock ended up substantially higher than ISN had reserved for), ISN filed a legal malpractice claim against RLF. The Superior Court dismissed ISN’s August 1, 2018 complaint on statute of limitations grounds. The court found that the statute of limitations expired three years after RLF informed ISN of the erroneous advice, or, at the latest, three years after the stockholder ISN sought to exclude demanded appraisal. On appeal, ISN argued its legal malpractice claim did not accrue until after the appraisal action valued ISN’s stock because only then could ISN claim damages. Although it applied a different analysis, the Delaware Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court that the statute of limitations began to run in January 2013. By the time ISN filed its malpractice claim on August 1, 2018, the statute of limitations had expired. Thus, the Superior Court’s judgment was affirmed. View "ISN Software Corporation v. Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A." on Justia Law