Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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In this case, a law firm (HFM) appealed a trial court's judgment denying its third-party claim to $585,000 held in its client trust account. The funds were received from HFM's client, Mann, under a flat fee agreement for future legal services. Mann's judgment creditor, Dickson, served HFM with a notice of levy, asserting that the funds belonged to Mann. HFM contended that the funds belonged to it under the flat fee agreement.The Superior Court of San Diego County denied HFM's third-party claim, concluding that the funds belonged to Mann because HFM had not yet earned the fee by providing legal services. The court also denied HFM's motion for reconsideration, which sought to retain $53,457.95 of the funds based on a prior agreement with Mann. The court found that HFM failed to present this evidence initially and did not act with reasonable diligence.The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, State of California, affirmed the trial court's judgment. The appellate court held that under the Rules of Professional Conduct, a flat fee is not earned until legal services are provided, and HFM presented no evidence that it had performed any services under the agreement. The court also found that the location of the funds in the client trust account was not dispositive of ownership. Additionally, the appellate court upheld the trial court's denial of the motion for reconsideration, noting that HFM failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for not presenting the evidence earlier.The main holding is that a flat fee paid in advance for legal services is not earned until the services are provided, and funds in a client trust account are presumed to belong to the client unless the law firm can prove otherwise. The judgment denying HFM's third-party claim was affirmed. View "Dickson v. Mann" on Justia Law

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In September 2021, the San Diego Unified School District (District) proposed a "Vaccination Roadmap" requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes and participate in extracurricular activities. Plaintiffs, including an organization and an individual parent, challenged the District's authority to impose this requirement, arguing that such decisions must be made at the state level. The trial court agreed, ruling that the Roadmap was preempted by state law, and judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiffs.The District appealed, and the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that the local vaccination requirement conflicted with state law and that the state had fully occupied the field of school vaccination mandates. Following this decision, the plaintiffs sought attorney’s fees under California's private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The trial court denied the motions, reasoning that the litigation did not enforce an important right affecting the public and that the District's actions were commendable and did not adversely affect the public interest.The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, reversed the trial court's denial of attorney’s fees. The appellate court held that the plaintiffs' lawsuit enforced an important public right by ensuring that the District complied with state law regarding school vaccination requirements. The court emphasized that the litigation conferred a significant benefit on the general public by upholding the state's comprehensive immunization policy. The court also rejected the trial court's rationale that the District's good intentions precluded an award of attorney’s fees, clarifying that the focus should be on the enforcement of public rights, not the subjective merits of the District's actions. The case was remanded to the trial court to determine the appropriate amount of attorney’s fees. View "Let Them Choose v. San Diego Unified School District" on Justia Law

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Linzi Labrum, the petitioner, sought a waiver of rules 14-704(c)(2) and 14-704(c)(3) of the Utah Supreme Court Rules of Professional Practice. These rules require graduates of non-ABA-accredited law schools to practice law in another state for ten years before becoming eligible to take the Utah bar exam. Labrum graduated from Concord Law School, an online, non-ABA-accredited institution, and was admitted to practice law in California in 2021. She has since worked in Utah as a law clerk, mediator, and supervised pro bono attorney.The Utah State Bar denied Labrum's application to take the Utah bar exam, citing her insufficient years of practice. Labrum petitioned the Utah Supreme Court for a waiver, arguing that her education and experience met the rules' purposes and that her circumstances were extraordinary.The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the case and held that Labrum satisfied the burden of proof established in Kelly v. Utah State Bar. The court found that Concord's education, while not on par with ABA-accredited schools, was sufficient when combined with Labrum's practical experience. Her work in Utah, including her roles as a law clerk, mediator, and pro bono attorney, demonstrated her competence and ethical standards. The court also noted the significant changes in the accreditation of online law schools and the strong recommendations from Utah legal practitioners who supervised her work.The court concluded that Labrum's case was extraordinary due to the unique challenges she faced, her commitment to serving an underserved area in Utah, and the substantial support from the legal community. The Utah Supreme Court granted her petition for waiver, allowing her to take the Utah bar exam. View "Labrum v. Utah State Bar" on Justia Law

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The defendant was convicted by a jury in the Allegan Circuit Court of multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct. During the trial, the presiding judge exchanged emails with the county prosecutor, expressing concerns about the police investigation. The defendant later discovered these communications and moved for a new trial, alleging judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The case was reassigned to a different judge, who granted the motion for a new trial due to the appearance of impropriety created by the emails. The prosecution appealed this decision.The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting a new trial. The appellate court concluded that the trial judge's ex parte communications were permissible for administrative purposes under the judicial conduct code and did not influence the jury's verdict. The defendant then sought leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.The Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case and held that the trial judge's ex parte communications violated the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct. The court found that these communications were not for administrative purposes and created an appearance of impropriety. However, the court concluded that the communications did not show actual bias or a high probability of bias that would violate the defendant's constitutional rights. The court also determined that the trial judge's failure to recuse herself did not result in a miscarriage of justice, as the jury was unaware of the communications and the trial prosecutor did not alter her strategy in response to them. Therefore, the court affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision, holding that the trial court had no legal basis to grant a new trial. View "People of Michigan v. Loew" on Justia Law

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Backertop Licensing LLC and Lori LaPray appealed the U.S. District Court of Delaware’s orders requiring LaPray to appear in-person for testimony regarding potential fraud and imposing monetary sanctions for her failure to appear. The District Court identified potential misconduct in numerous related patent cases involving IP Edge and Mavexar, which allegedly created shell LLCs, assigned patents for little consideration, and directed litigation without disclosing their ongoing rights. The court was concerned that this arrangement concealed the real parties in interest and potentially perpetrated fraud on the court.The District Court ordered LaPray, the sole owner of Backertop, to produce documents and appear in-person to address these concerns. LaPray moved to set aside the order, citing travel difficulties and requesting to appear telephonically, which the court denied. The court rescheduled the hearing to accommodate her schedule but maintained the requirement for in-person testimony to assess her credibility. LaPray did not attend the rescheduled hearing, leading the court to hold her in civil contempt and impose a daily fine until she appeared.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reviewed the case. The court held that the District Court’s orders were within its inherent authority and not an abuse of discretion. The court found that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45, which limits the geographic range of subpoenas, did not apply to the court’s sua sponte orders. The court affirmed the District Court’s orders, emphasizing the necessity of in-person testimony to investigate potential misconduct and assess credibility. The monetary sanctions for LaPray’s failure to appear were also upheld. View "BACKERTOP LICENSING LLC v. CANARY CONNECT, INC. " on Justia Law

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Marcellus Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death following a jury trial. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri, and his postconviction relief was denied. Williams sought additional DNA testing through a habeas corpus petition, which led to a temporary stay of execution and the appointment of a special master to oversee the testing. The results did not demonstrate his innocence, and his habeas petition was denied. Subsequent petitions for writs of habeas corpus and declaratory judgment were also denied.The St. Louis County prosecutor filed a motion to vacate Williams' conviction and death sentence, citing potential actual innocence based on DNA evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and racial discrimination in jury selection. This motion remains pending in the circuit court. Despite this, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued a warrant of execution for Williams, setting a new execution date.The Supreme Court of Missouri reviewed Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution, arguing that the prosecutor's motion constituted a state postconviction motion, which should bar setting an execution date. The court found that Rule 30.30(c) only refers to postconviction motions filed by the defendant, not the prosecutor. Since Williams had already exhausted his state postconviction remedies, the court held that the execution date was properly set. The court also noted that the pending prosecutor's motion did not automatically warrant a stay of execution and that Williams had not demonstrated the necessary factors for equitable relief. Consequently, the court overruled Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution. View "State v. Williams" on Justia Law

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The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder for the stabbing death of Jordan Baskin. After his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, claiming his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance during a police interview where incriminating evidence was obtained. The defendant argued that his trial counsel failed to provide effective representation and had a conflict of interest because filing a motion to suppress the evidence would have been against her own interests.The Superior Court judge allowed the motion for a new trial, finding that the trial counsel had an actual conflict of interest and that the defendant did not waive this conflict knowingly and intelligently. The judge concluded that the conflict alone warranted a new trial without needing to show additional prejudice.The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reviewed the case and affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that the trial counsel's personal interests materially interfered with her independent professional judgment, creating an actual conflict of interest. This conflict arose because the trial counsel's performance during the police interview was in question, and she could not provide detached advice or pursue a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the interview zealously. The court also determined that the defendant did not validly waive this conflict, as the colloquies before trial did not address the specific conflict related to the adequacy of counsel's performance at the police interview. Therefore, the court affirmed the order for a new trial. View "Commonwealth v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Lippa and Manmohan Grewal sold a gas station to Theodore Hansen, who later sold it to Junction Market Fairview, L.C. (JMF). The sale contract required Hansen to make regular installment payments, with the final balance due after three years. Hansen missed many payments and failed to pay the full balance when due. The Grewals initiated foreclosure proceedings over six years after Hansen's first missed payment. The applicable statute of limitations for a breach of contract action is six years, raising the question of when the statute begins to run for installment contracts.The Sixth District Court in Sanpete County granted partial summary judgment in favor of JMF, concluding that the statute of limitations began when Hansen missed the first payment, making the Grewals' foreclosure action too late. The court awarded sole control of the gas station to JMF and ordered the Grewals to release the title. When the Grewals failed to comply, JMF seized the station and sold it to a third party. The district court also awarded JMF attorney fees under the Public Waters Access Act and the reciprocal attorney fees statute.The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the case and found that the sale of the gas station to a third-party bona fide purchaser rendered the Grewals' appeal on the title issue moot, as no court action could affect the litigants' rights to the property. However, the issue of attorney fees was not moot. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees to JMF under the reciprocal attorney fees statute. The court affirmed the award of attorney fees and remanded to the district court to determine the amount of reasonable attorney fees JMF incurred in defending against the appeal. View "Grewal v. Junction Market Fairview" on Justia Law

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Anthony D. Lee, Sr. was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault in 1996 and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Lee's defense was that the victim had voluntarily entered his car and that any sexual activity was consensual. He later sought postconviction relief, arguing that his attorney, Richard Friedman, had failed to interview several potential witnesses who could have corroborated his testimony. Lee supported his motion with six affidavits from these potential witnesses. The trial court denied Lee's ineffective-assistance claim, and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the decision.Lee then sought relief in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied his petition, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the lower courts' decisions. The appellate court found that the state court had based its prejudice analysis on the flawed assumption that each witness would have merely repeated their affidavits and refused to say another word if called to testify. The appellate court vacated and remanded the case to the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on Lee's claim.After a three-day hearing, the district court again denied Lee's § 2254 petition. The court concluded that Lee failed to establish that Friedman's performance fell below an objective standard of professional competence. Alternatively, the court concluded that any errors Friedman might have committed did not meaningfully compromise Lee's defense given the strength of the state's case. Lee appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found that Lee failed to demonstrate a "reasonable probability" that the result of his trial would have been different had Friedman not committed professional errors. The court noted that none of the affidavits provided an explanation for the severity of the victim's injuries, and that the additional testimony from the witnesses may have ultimately weakened Lee's defense by contradicting his testimony or their own affidavits. View "Lee v. Galloway" on Justia Law

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The case involves East Central Water District ("East Central") and the City of Grand Forks ("City"). East Central alleged that the City unlawfully curtailed its water service area, violating federal and state laws. East Central sought to declare a water supply and service agreement with the City void from the beginning under a specific North Dakota statute. The agreement, entered into in 2000, was designed to avoid conflict in providing potable water as the City annexed territory in East Central's service area. The agreement was subject to a North Dakota statute that required the public lending authority to be a party to the agreement. However, the Bank of North Dakota, the public lending authority, was not a party to the agreement.The case was initially brought before the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota. The City answered East Central’s complaint and counterclaimed, and brought a third-party complaint against William Brudvik and Ohnstad Twichell, P.C. for legal malpractice in their representation of the City during negotiations and execution of the Agreement. The City then moved the federal district court to certify questions to the Supreme Court of North Dakota on the interpretation of the North Dakota statute.The Supreme Court of North Dakota was asked to answer two certified questions of law: whether the language “invalid and unenforceable” in the North Dakota statute means an agreement made without the public lending authority as a party is (1) void from the beginning or (2) voidable and capable of ratification. The court concluded that the language “invalid and unenforceable” means void from the beginning, and does not mean voidable and capable of ratification. The court reasoned that the statute speaks to the authority to contract on this subject matter, as opposed to the manner or means of exercising one’s power to contract. Therefore, none of the parties were authorized to contract for water services without the public lending authority being a party to the agreement. View "East Central Water District v. City of Grand Forks" on Justia Law