Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The court of appeal consolidated appeals from three attorneys’ fees motions by a judgment creditor (Wertheim) seeking over $800,000 for its efforts to enforce a 2009 judgment entered after a jury awarded it approximately $39,000. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of fees as to the appeal bond fee motion but reversed, in part, the denial of fees as to post-judgment enforcement fees. The court noted that even standing alone, these fee claims are striking in relation to the amount of the underlying judgment and also must be considered in light of the more than 40 appeals occasioned by the parties’ competing businesses in the last 12 years. The court concluded that the motion for post-judgment enforcement fees was timely but characterized Wertheim’s litigation strategy as “unnecessary and objectively unreasonable.” View "Wertheim, LLC v. Currency Corp." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted the petition of The Florida Bar to enjoin Respondents, TIKD Services, LLC and Christopher Riley (collectively TIKD) from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, holding that TIKD was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and was permanently enjoined from engaging in such acts in the future.The Bar filed a two-count petition against TIKD alleging that it engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and that it held itself out to the public as qualified to provide legal services. The referee filed a report recommending that the Supreme Court dismiss the Bar's petition with prejudice, concluding that TIKD was not engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. The Supreme Court disapproved of the referee's recommendation and ordered that TIKD was permanently and perpetually enjoined from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in the State. View "Florida Bar v. TIKD Services LLC" on Justia Law

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The law firm Hepworth Holzer, LLP (“Hepworth Holzer” or “the firm”), petitioned the Idaho Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus or prohibition, seeking relief from a district court order disqualifying it as counsel for Dr. Gary Tubbs in a personal injury lawsuit against Bogus Basin Recreational Association, Inc. (“Bogus Basin”). Bogus Basin was represented by Elam & Burke in the proceedings. Elam & Burke moved to disqualify Hepworth Holzer after an associate attorney who worked at Elam & Burke when Tubbs initiated his lawsuit went to work for Hepworth Holzer and assisted the firm on a memorandum in support of a motion to reconsider filed in the case. The district court granted Elam & Burke’s motion. The district court ordered that “[a]ny attorney associated with Hepworth Holzer, LLP, including [the associate attorney], are disqualified from any further representation of [Dr.] Gary Tubbs in this matter and from providing any information from its files after January 21, 2021, and cannot relay any information discussed or received about this case after January 21, 2021[,] to Tubbs or any new attorney/firm representing Tubbs.” Hepworth Holzer contended the district court’s disqualification and gag order was clearly erroneous and unconstitutional. Finding the district court erred in issuing its disqualification order, the Supreme Court granted Hepworth Holzer's request for mandamus relief. The disqualification and gag order were vacated; and a new judge was ordered to preside over further proceedings. View "Hepworth Holzer, LLP v. Fourth Judicial District" on Justia Law

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The State of Louisiana alleged that in July 2015, defendant Walter Johnson, JaQuendas Octave, Jay Lyons, and Casey Johnson took jewelry, cell phones, wallets, money, and credit cards at gunpoint from Roussel’s Antiques on Airline Highway in Gonzales and from the store’s employees. In September 2015, the State charged defendant and the others with four counts of armed robbery committed with the use of a firearm. The State also charged defendant with possession of a firearm by a person convicted of certain felonies. Defendant’s trial was set for June 21, 2017, with a status hearing scheduled for April 17, 2017. However, defendant was not transported to court on April 17. The trial court reset trial for the week of January 22, 2018, and advised the parties that this was a special setting and no further continuances would be granted. For various reasons, such as witness unavailability, scheduling conflicts and other issues, none of which were attributable to the defense, trial was set for September 2019. After argument, the trial court granted defendant's motion to quash, finding the State had flaunted its authority to dismiss and reinstitute to, in effect, grant itself the continuance the trial court had denied, and that the State had done so as a dilatory tactic at defendant’s expense. While acknowledging that the unavailability of a material witness might ordinarily justify granting a continuance, the trial court determined that the witness unavailability was used a pretext and the State was simply unprepared for trial. The court of appeal reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded for further proceedings. The court of appeal found that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting the motion to quash because defendant was not prejudiced by the delay. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal, finding the appellate court erred in determining that the trial court abused its discretion in granting defendant’s motion to quash. "Under the unusual circumstances presented, we can find no abuse of discretion when the record supports the trial court’s determination that the absence of the witness was a pretext and that the State was simply unprepared for trial." View "Louisiana v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Alevy was an owner, officer, and board member of Amusement, a real estate company, engaged in the ongoing Stern Litigation. In 2010, Alevy offered Missakian employment as in-house counsel at Amusement, including working on the Stern Litigation. Under the Oral Contract, Missakian would receive a salary of $325,000, and, after the Stern Litigation ended, Missakian would receive a bonus of $6,250 for each month he had worked on that litigation plus 10 percent of the recovery, excluding ordinary litigation costs. The parties exchanged multiple written drafts but never signed a written contract. Missakian left Amusement in 2014. The Stern Litigation settled months later. Amusement received $26 million. Missakian never received the Monthly Bonus or the Stern Litigation Bonus.A jury issued a verdict in favor of Missakian on the claims for breach of oral contract and promissory fraud and made special verdict findings in favor of Alevy on promissory fraud. The trial court granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on Missakian’s promissory fraud claim against Amusement.The court of appeal reversed. The Oral Contract is void under Business and Professions Code section 6147, 2 which requires contingency fee agreements to be in writing. The jury’s special verdict on promissory fraud was inconsistent because it found Alevy did not make a false promise, but that Amusement (acting only through Alevy) did. Because the court cannot choose between the jury’s inconsistent responses, the court should have ordered a new trial. View "Missakian v. Amusement Industry, Inc." on Justia Law

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Isaac Zafft was fatally shot when a marijuana greenhouse in which he was sleeping was being robbed. In 2014, Nathan Philbrook and Daniel Devencenzi stole marijuana from multiple marijuana farms and greenhouses Philbrook’s wife, Amber N., helped locate on Google Earth. In July, Philbrook invited defendant Finley Fultz to a marijuana theft with him and Devencenzi. Philbrook and defendant drove to California from Nevada in defendant’s truck and Devencenzi followed in his truck. Philbrook entered the greenhouse’s back door, while Devencenzi stayed outside the back door and, according to Philbrook, defendant walked to the front of the greenhouse. Zafft awoke to the sound of Philbrook’s presence and saw the laser sight attached to Philbrook’s AR-15 style handgun. Zafft ran out the front door of the greenhouse where defendant was located. Defendant shot five times, hitting Zafft. The group fled back to Nevada. Upon their return to Nevada, defendant admitted to Amber he delivered the fatal shots, and Philbrook made statements inculpating defendant as the shooter. During the pendency of defendant’s, Devencenzi’s, and Philbrook’s joint criminal prosecution, Devencenzi and Philbrook pled guilty in exchange for reduced sentences. The prosecution failed to inform defendant that those bargains were offered as package deals, contingent on both Devencenzi and Philbrook accepting the plea bargains and fulfilling the bargains’ terms for either to benefit. The prosecution also failed to inform defendant the offers were contingent upon Philbrook and Devencenzi including in a written factual statement that they and defendant participated in a robbery and defendant killed Zafft. When making those bargains, Devencenzi and Philbrook agreed to be interviewed by the prosecution, which the prosecution failed to audio record. Finally, the prosecution continued its investigation of the case against defendant during trial and did not disclose material it intended to use against him until shortly before it was to be offered into evidence. Based on the government’s conduct throughout the investigation and trial, the trial court made several credibility findings rejecting the prosecution’s innocent explanations for the constitutional violations. The trial court then dismissed the case against defendant finding there was no possibility he could receive a fair trial considering the nature of the evidence against him and the violations surrounding his accomplices’ pleas and interviews. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court's finding was made in error: because the record demonstrated the trial court believed a fair trial could be had in the absence of the "Medina" error, it was appropriate to reverse the judgment and remand the matter to the trial court to "again tailor relief to neutralize the taint resulting from the prosecutor’s other misconduct." View "California v. Fultz" on Justia Law

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Wade filed her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income in 2015. An ALJ denied Wade’s claim in 2017, finding her not disabled. Following an unsuccessful administrative appeal, Wade filed suit, seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). The district court granted Wade’s IFP motion and, in 2020, entered judgment in the Commissioner’s favor. Wade proceeded IFP with her appeal. The Ninth Circuit found that the ALJ erred, reversed the order affirming the denial of benefits, and remanded for further administrative review. Wade then submitted a bill of appellate costs, seeking $169.65 from the government for copies of briefs and excerpts of record.The Ninth Circuit denied the request. A party who proceeds IFP and prevails on appeal is not entitled to recover taxable costs from the United States, 28 U.S.C. 1915(f)(1); “judgment may be rendered for costs at the conclusion of the suit or action as in other proceedings, but the United States shall not be liable for any of the costs thus incurred.” View "Wade v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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The law firm of Sirote & Permutt, P.C., and attorney C. Randall Caldwell, Jr., each claimed they were entitled to one-third of the attorneys' fees that were owed for a BP oil spill settlement. Sirote and Caldwell litigated their dispute against each other, and, following a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of Caldwell and awarded the funds to him. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court had sufficient evidence to find the existence of a valid referral agreement between Caldwell and Cunningham Bounds as well as the existence of an attorney-client relationship between Caldwell and the Woerner entities. Sirote was not entitled to replace Caldwell as referring counsel merely because the Woerner entities terminated their attorney-client relationship with Caldwell. And the trial court's finding that Caldwell earned his referral fees at the time he referred the Woerner entities' BP claims did not require reversal. Finally, it is clear that the trial court did not award postjudgment interest. In all respects, the Court affirmed the trial court. View "Sirote & Permutt, P.C. v. Caldwell" on Justia Law

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In a suit concerning oil and gas royalties, Poole, an attorney, represented only himself. Poole's interest in the royalties is “less than 1%,” the other owners were members of two families. Poole sought “$50,745 for fees and [$1,572.75] for costs for work successfully defending the trial court judgment on appeal” plus “$46,020 for fees and $1,269.29 for costs for work performed in the Superior Court.” Poole requested that payment be made from the interpleaded royalties, citing the equitable common fund theory, which allows a party, who has paid for counsel to prosecute a lawsuit that creates or preserves a fund from which others will benefit, to require those other beneficiaries to bear their fair share of the litigation costs. Other parties objected, reasoning that an award would deplete the royalties available for distribution to family members; one told the court that Poole’s involvement was "counterproductive.”The court of appeal affirmed the denial of an award of attorneys’ fees under the common fund theory. An attorney who represents only himself and does not pay or become liable to pay consideration in exchange for legal representation may not recover attorney fees under the equitable common fund doctrine but may seek recovery of legitimate, reasonable costs excluding attorney fees under that doctrine. View "Leiper v. Gallegos" on Justia Law

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The appointment of a guardian ad litem for a parent in a dependency proceeding radically changes the parent's role, transferring direction and control of the litigation from the parent to the guardian ad litem. While necessary to protect the rights of an incompetent parent—an individual incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of the proceeding or unable to assist counsel in a rational manner—appointment of a guardian ad litem is not a tool to restrain a problematic parent, even one who unreasonably interferes with the orderly proceedings of the court or who persistently acts against her own interests or those of her child.The Court of Appeal reversed the order appointing a guardian ad litem for mother, concluding that the appointment of a guardian ad litem for mother is not supported by substantial evidence and was not harmless. In this case, mother's clashes with counsel were not the result of any mental health disorder but were deliberate and strategic, designed to frustrate and delay proceedings she believed were going to be unfavorable to her. The court noted that, while mother is unquestionably a difficult party, a guardian ad litem cannot be appointed without any finding of her incompetence. View "In re Samuel A." on Justia Law