Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying plaintiff's motion seeking to recover reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and expenses from Montgomery County, Maryland. This case arose from the County's failure to reasonably accommodate plaintiff's disability. The district court concluded that plaintiff is not eligible for such an award because she was not a prevailing party under 29 U.S.C. 794a(b).The court found this case similar to Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 433 F.2d 421 (8th Cir. 1970), and concluded that plaintiff is even more of a prevailing party than the Parham plaintiff. The court explained that plaintiff is not a prevailing party because she catalyzed the County to change its behavior by filing a lawsuit; rather, she is a prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the County capitulated by transferring her to another call center. Furthermore, the transfer was key to the district court's subsequent finding that the County reasonably accommodated plaintiff and thus the district court's ultimate denial of plaintiff's request for equitable relief. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Maryland" on Justia Law

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LHO owns a downtown hotel that it rebranded as “Hotel Chicago” in 2014. In 2016, Rosemoor renamed its existing westside hotel as “Hotel Chicago.” LHO sued Rosemoor for trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act and for deceptive advertising and common-law trademark violations under Illinois law. The district court denied preliminary injunctive relief, finding that “LHO has failed, at this juncture, to show that it is likely to succeed in proving secondary meaning" and was unlikely to show that “Hotel Chicago” was a protectable trademark. LHO appealed but successfully moved to voluntarily dismiss its claims with prejudice before briefing.Rosemoor requested more than $500,000 in attorney fees, arguing that the case qualified as “exceptional.” The district court denied the request under the Seventh Circuit's “abuse-of-process” standard. The Seventh Circuit held that the district court should have evaluated Rosemoor’s attorney-fee request under the Supreme Court’s “Octane Fitness” holding. On remand, Rosemoor filed a renewed request for more than $630,000 in fees, arguing that the weakness of LHO’s position on the merits, LHO’s motives in bringing suit, and its conduct in discovery, made the case exceptional under Octane Fitness. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the request. The district court applied the Octane Fitness standard and reasonably exercised its discretion in weighing the evidence before it. View "LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Rosemoor Suites, LLC" on Justia Law

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An employee sued her former employer for wrongful termination. The employee died, but her attorney continued to litigate, negotiate, and mediate the case for another year before informing the court or opposing counsel of her death. The superior court concluded the attorney had committed serious ethical violations related to this delay and disqualified him from the case. Post-disqualification, the attorney filed a motion to substitute the personal representative of the employee’s estate as plaintiff. The superior court issued an order dismissing the case on several grounds. The Alaska Supreme Court found the court did not abuse its discretion by disqualifying the attorney and denying the motion for substitution he submitted. The superior court was correct to dismiss the case, as only one party remained, but the Supreme Court concluded granting summary judgment in favor of the former employer and supervisor was error. "The estate is not entitled to appeal the court’s refusal to enforce a draft settlement agreement signed by the employee before her death and does not have standing to appeal the sanctions imposed against the attorney. But because the estate was not allowed to participate as a party, we conclude that awarding affirmative relief against it was error." View "Bunton v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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In an action challenging the voluntary and intelligent nature of appellant's plea as to certain drug and drug-related offenses, the DC Circuit concluded that the appointment of counsel was not in the interest of justice under the Criminal Justice Act given her unwaived and material conflict of interest.The court explained that, under controlling Supreme Court precedent, the only legally viable avenue for challenging the plea apparent on the record would have been for counsel to argue that her own and/or her husband's representation of appellant in the decision to plead guilty was constitutionally ineffective. In this case, the fact that counsel chose to pursue a challenge to appellant's guilty plea that was plainly foreclosed by precedent rather than the only potentially viable legal avenue recognized by case law—an ineffective assistance of counsel claim against herself and her spouse—presents an untenable direct and plain conflict of interest between attorney and client. Furthermore, counsel, when she re-inserted herself into appellant's case to file this Section 2255 motion, did not obtain any waiver of the conflict—even assuming a conflict like this is waivable at all. The court explained that counsel never advised appellant that, to be legally viable, a challenge to the voluntary and intelligent nature of his plea based on the suppression of the other wiretaps would require him to level an ineffective assistance of counsel claim aimed at her and/or her husband. Therefore, the court concluded that the conflict of interest persisted throughout and permeated counsel's representation of petitioner in these Section 2255 proceedings. The court reversed and remanded for the appointment of conflict-free counsel to assist with appellant's Section 2255 petition. View "United States v. Scurry" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-client Stephen Aguiar claimed attorney David Williams failed to turn over files related to plaintiff’s 2009 criminal prosecution. The civil division of the superior court granted summary judgment in favor of attorney, and client appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court held client owned the entire contents of the file, subject to certain exceptions. The Court agreed with the trial court that attorney had substantial grounds to refuse to disclose certain materials to client, and that client failed to demonstrate an ownership interest in an iPod containing recordings of wiretap evidence However, the Court concluded summary judgment was premature regarding two issues: whether client was entitled to a paper copy of the discovery file that attorney allegedly created for use at trial, and whether client has been provided with certain trial exhibits. The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings on those issues. View "Aguiar v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Carrie Thompson-Widmer appealed the dismissal of her claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship against Kimberly Larson, Wells County, Eddy County, and Foster County. In January 2017, Larson filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Social Work Examiners against Thompson-Widmer on the basis of Thompson-Widmer’s actions in two child protection services cases. Larson alleged Thompson-Widmer misrepresented information about a child’s home environment in one case, and altered a report about methamphetamine in an infant’s meconium in the other case. Larson also met with a state’s attorney about Thompson-Widmer’s actions. The attorney referred the matter to a special prosecutor for consideration of potential criminal charges. Because the complaint to the State Board was filed while Thompson-Widmer was a Tri-County employee, Larson placed the complaint and the supporting documents in Thompson-Widmer’s employee personnel file. After the criminal investigation into Thompson-Widmer’s action was suspended, she became employed with Catholic Charities in April 2017. Tri-County worked with Catholic Charities on adoption placement cases. Larson’s staff informed her they did not feel comfortable working with Thompson- Widmer. Larson notified Catholic Charities that Tri-County would rather work with someone other than Thompson-Widmer. Catholic Charities submitted an open records request for Thompson-Widmer’s personnel file, and Larson fulfilled the request on Tri-County’s behalf. In May 2017, after receiving the personnel file, which included Larson’s complaint against Thompson-Widmer, Thompson-Widmer was terminated because she was not forthcoming about her issues while employed by Tri-County. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding Larson’s communications were privileged and therefore not subject to liability for defamation. View "Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2010, Appellants Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC and Meso Scale Technologies, LLC (collectively “Meso”) filed suit in Delaware against Appellee entities Roche Diagnostics GmbH, Roche Diagnostics Corp., Roche Holding Ltd., IGEN LS LLC, Lilli Acquisition Corp., IGEN International, Inc., and Bioveris Corp. (collectively “Roche”), all of which were affiliates or subsidiaries of the F. Hoffmann -- La Roche, Ltd. family of pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies. Meso alleged two counts of breach of contract. Roche prevailed at trial, and the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in 2014. Then in 2019, Meso brought a new action asking the court to reopen the case, vacate the judgment entered after trial, and order a new trial. Meso alleged that the Vice Chancellor who decided its case four years earlier had an undisclosed disabling conflict, namely, that Roche’s counsel had been simultaneously representing him in an unrelated federal suit challenging the constitutionality of Delaware’s law providing for confidential business arbitration in the Court of Chancery (“Section 349”). In that federal litigation, which ended in 2014, the Chancellor and Vice Chancellors of the Court of Chancery, as the parties responsible for implementing the challenged statute, were nominal defendants. The Court of Chancery denied relief and dismissed the action. Meso appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed dismissal. View "Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented was a legal negligence case arising from the preparation of a premarital agreement. Plaintiff-Appellant Dean Sherman, appealed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Appellee Stephen P. Ellis, Esquire. The appeal presented two issues: (1) whether the traditional “but for” test for proximate cause applied in a “transactional” legal negligence case, or whether it is sufficient that the alleged negligence creates an increased risk of future damages; and (2) whether the evidence satisfied the summary judgment requirement that there be no genuine issue as to any material fact. As to the first issue, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the traditional “but for” test, not a risk of future damages test, was the appropriate test for determining proximate cause. As to the second issue, the Court concluded the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Mr. Sherman, raised a genuine issue of material fact and that summary judgment should have been denied. In light of the Court's second conclusion, the Superior Court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Sherman v. Ellis" on Justia Law

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Linda Battise was the mother of Joseph Aucoin, deceased. Joseph and Sheila Aucoin were married and had two daughters. After Joseph’s death, Sheila began restricting Linda’s visitation with the children because Linda was not abiding by Sheila’s parental decisions. Through counsel, Linda petitioned for grandparent visitation. The chancellor encouraged the parties to confer because Sheila made some statements showing that they could come to a visitation agreement without court involvement. Linda and Sheila reached an agreement; however, the chancellor declined to sign the agreed order. The chancellor advised Sheila to retain an attorney because she did not believe that Sheila fully understood the implications of the agreement. Furthermore, the chancellor told Sheila that she was entitled to attorney’s fees. Shiela hired an attorney, and filed a motion to dismiss or stay proceedings until fees were paid in advance. The chancellor denied Linda’s motion to recuse, and ordered Linda to pay $3,500 to Sheila for attorney’s fees within thirty days or else she could not proceed with her case. Linda appealed, arguing that: (1) the chancellor erred by requiring her to prepay attorney’s fees to Sheila before Linda’s case could be heard; (2) the chancellor erred by not entering a final judgment; and (3) the chancellor erred by not recusing. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancellor's denial of the motion to recuse. The Court reversed the prepayment order, and remanded for further proceedings on the merits. View "Battise v. Aucoin" on Justia Law

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The Laniers were charged with a scheme to fraudulently obtain government contracts. During deliberations, a juror contacted assistant district attorney Nelson—a social acquaintance, not involved with the Laniers's case. Nelson informed the district judge that Juror 11 called her and said that there was a “problem” with the deliberations. No juror alerted court personnel to any problems. Convicted, the Laniers unsuccessfully requested to interview the jurors and moved for a mistrial. No one interviewed the jurors nor questioned Nelson in open court. The Sixth Circuit remanded for a Remmer hearing in 2017.On remand, the district court summoned the jurors and Nelson, ordering them not to discuss or research the case. Juror 11 nonetheless texted Nelson, suggesting that the juror had researched the case online. Nelson reported the texts to the district judge, who failed to notify the Laniers but ordered Juror 11 to preserve her texts and web-browsing history. Weeks later, the court ordered Juror 11 to turn over her phone and laptop and asked his IT staffer and law clerk to examine the devices. They discovered that the web-browsing data had been deleted. The Laniers unsuccessfully sought a full forensic exam. After Sixth Circuit intervention, the court allowed the Laniers’ expert to forensically examine the devices. Juror 11 revealed that she had discarded her phone months earlier; any potentially deleted texts and web-browsing data are unrecoverable.The district court denied the Laniers’ motions for a new trial. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Laniers were deprived of a “meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate juror bias and are entitled to a new trial to be held before another district judge. View "United States v. Lanier" on Justia Law