Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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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

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Canyon Crest filed suit challenging the approval of a conditional use permit and an oak tree permit granted to real party in interest Stephen Kuhn. Canyon Crest, a nonprofit organization established by Kuhn's immediate neighbors, alleged that defendants violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by granting the permits. Kuhn subsequently requested that the county vacate the permit approvals, because he could not afford to continue the litigation. Canyon Crest then sought attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's finding that Canyon Crest failed to establish any of the requirements for a right to fees under the statute. In this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the litigation did not enforce an important right affecting the public interest. Furthermore, Canyon Crest failed to establish that this action conferred a significant benefit on the general public. View "Canyon Crest Conservancy v. County of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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Natalie Shubert sued her former public defender, Michael Lojek, former Ada County chief public defender Alan Trimming, and Ada County (collectively the “Ada County Defendants”). In 2008, Shubert was charged with two felonies and pleaded guilty to both charges. Her sentences were suspended in each case, and she was placed on probation. After a probation violation in 2011, the Ada County district court entered an order extending Shubert’s probation beyond the time period allowed by law. The mistake was not caught. After Shubert’s probation should have ended in both cases, she was charged and incarcerated for a subsequent probation violation in 2014. Thereafter, in 2016, Shubert was charged with a new probation violation. Shubert was assigned a new public defender, who discovered the error that unlawfully kept Shubert on probation. Shubert’s new public defender filed a motion to correct the illegal sentence, raising the error that had improperly extended her probation. The district court granted Shubert’s motion to correct the illegal sentence and released Shubert from custody. Shubert then sued the Ada County Defendants, alleging false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence per se, negligence, and state and federal constitutional violations. The district court dismissed all of Shubert’s claims except for negligence. In denying the Ada County Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the district court held that public defenders were not entitled to common law quasi judicial immunity from civil malpractice liability, and two provisions of the Idaho Tort Claims Act (ITCA) did not exempt public defenders from civil malpractice liability. The Ada County Defendants petitioned the Idaho Supreme Court pursuant to Idaho Appellate Rule 12. Finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Shubert v. Ada County" on Justia Law

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The Attorney General sought an accounting relating to the Trust, alleging that Shine, a trustee, failed to fulfill his duties and failed to create a charitable organization, the “Livewire Lindskog Foundation.” The court removed without prejudice Shine and the other trustees. The other trustees were later dismissed from the case. During his trial, Shine agreed to permanently step down. Addressing whether Shine should be disgorged of fees he was paid as trustee, the court found “that Shine violated most, if not all of his fiduciary responsibilities and duties.” The court nonetheless entered judgment in favor of Shine on many of the examples of his alleged breaches because the Attorney General either failed to prove that Shine was grossly negligent or failed to prove specific damages. Based on instances in which the Attorney General met its burden of proof, the court ordered Shine to reimburse the Trust for $1,421,598. The Attorney General sought (Government Code section 12598) reasonable attorney fees and costs of $1,929,757.50. The court of appeal affirmed an award of $1,654,083.65, finding that Shine is precluded from seeking indemnification from the Trust. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to reduce the award based on the difference between the Attorney General’s goals and its results. View "Becerra v. Shine" on Justia Law

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In this case concerning the State's refusal to produce the results of an investigation into the Office of the Auditor based in part on the lawyer-client privilege the Supreme Court held that the State may not exclude a government record from disclosure under the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) on the basis of a lawyer-client relationship between two State entities that is asserted but not proved. Honolulu Civil Beat Inc. (Civil Beat) contacted the Department of the Attorney General (the Department) requesting under the UIPA access to copies of investigative reports related to the State Auditor's Office. The State refused to produce any documentation based in part on the lawyer-client privilege and the professional rule protecting confidential lawyer-client communications. Civil Beat filed a complaint alleging that the Department had denied Civil Beat its right to access government records under the UIPA. The circuit court granted summary judgment for Civil Beat. The Supreme Court vacated the circuit court's judgment, holding that the circuit court erred in concluding that the requested record was protected from disclosure under the UIPA by Haw. Rev. Stat. 92F-13(4). Because the court did not address the two other disclosure exceptions asserted by the Department, the Supreme Court remanded the case. View "Honolulu Civil Beat Inc. v. Department of the Attorney General" on Justia Law