Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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This case arose out of a dispute between two sets of lawyers who provided legal work for a mutual client. Thomas Tufts and the Tufts Law Firm, PLLC appealed the district court's order granting a motion to dismiss on grounds of subject matter jurisdiction. Edward Hay and Pitts, Hay & Hugenschmidt, P.A. also filed a second motion to dismiss Tufts's action against them on the additional ground that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction over them. After the district court found personal jurisdiction, Hay and his firm cross appealed.The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court erred by dismissing the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Barton Doctrine. In this case, Tufts counsel initiated their action against Hay—court-approved counsel—and Tufts did not obtain leave of the bankruptcy court before doing so. The court held that the Barton doctrine has no application when jurisdiction over a matter no longer exists in the bankruptcy court. Thus, the bankruptcy court was properly vested with jurisdiction to consider this action if it could conceivably have an effect on the client's bankruptcy estate. Here, the action could not conceivably have an effect on the client's bankruptcy estate and thus the Barton doctrine does not apply. The court also held that the district court properly exercised personal jurisdiction over Hay. The court reversed the district court's ruling on subject matter jurisdiction and remanded. View "Tufts v. Hay" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeals affirmed the determination of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that Petitioner, a Judge of the Family Court, Broome County, committed certain acts of misconduct and should be removed from office, holding that Petitioner's pattern of misconduct warranted removal.The Commission unanimously determined that Petitioner's actions violated sections 100.1, 100.2(A), 100.2(C), 100.3(B)(3), 100.3(C)(1) and 100.4(H)(2) and 100.4(I) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. A majority of the Commission members concluded that removal from office was the appropriate sanction under the facts. On appeal, Petitioner challenged the sanction of removal. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding (1) considering Petitioner's misconduct in the aggregate along with his prior disciplinary history, Petitioner exhibited a pattern of injudicious behavior that cannot be viewed as acceptable conduct by one holding judicial office; and (2) therefore, the determined sanction should be accepted. View "In re Miller" on Justia Law

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Attorney Craig Wise appealed a district court’s determination that he breached a duty of care owed to Billy Kyser, Jr., as a beneficiary of Carolyn Kyser’s will. Wise represented Billy’s mother, Carolyn, in divorce proceedings from Bill Kyser, Sr., and in preparing a will that bequeathed her entire estate in equal shares to Billy and his brother Brent Kyser. As part of the divorce proceedings, and before Carolyn’s will was completed, Carolyn and Bill Sr. executed a property settlement agreement in which Bill Sr. and Carolyn agreed to retain sequential life estates in the family home, with the remainder going to Brent and Billy as tenants in common upon the death of the last surviving parent. Wise prepared a deed memorializing the terms of the property settlement agreement. After Bill Sr. and Carolyn both passed away, Brent retained Wise to represent him as the personal representative of Carolyn’s estate. Brent also hired Wise independently to prepare a quitclaim deed transferring Billy’s interest in the home to Brent. Wise sent the deed to Billy, who then executed it. David Kalb, Billy’s court-appointed conservator, then filed a malpractice suit against Wise. After a court trial, the district court held Wise breached the duty he owed to Billy as a beneficiary of Carolyn’s will by preparing the deed because it frustrated Carolyn’s testamentary intent that her estate be divided equally between her two sons. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court reversed the district court’s legal determination that Wise owed Billy a duty of care when Wise was acting as counsel for the personal representative of Carolyn’s estate, Brent. "Although Wise owed Billy a duty of care in drafting and executing Carolyn’s will, the district court impermissibly extended that duty by requiring that Wise ensure an asset outside the probate estate complied with Carolyn’s intent in her will." View "Kalb v. Wise" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of respondent's motion to disqualify appellant's attorney, who is also appellant's mother and respondent's ex-wife, from representing appellant in all phases of tort litigation based primarily on the advocate-witness rule. In this case, appellant alleged that respondent sexually abused her from the time she was nine to 13 years old.The court held that the trial court reasonably concluded that the attorney is nearly certain to be a key witness at trial and thus the trial court acted within its discretion by effectuating the advocate-witness rule's purpose of avoiding factfinder confusion. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in applying the rule to disqualify the attorney not only at trial, but also in depositions and pretrial evidentiary hearings at which the attorney is likely to testify. The trial court also acted within its discretion in disqualifying the attorney from representing appellant in all other phases of the litigation on the ground of the attorney's potential misuse of confidential information obtained through her 17-year marriage with respondent. View "Doe v. Yim" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court extended an August 27, 2020 order for first circuit criminal matters, which was extended pursuant to a September 11, 2020 order, until November 16, 2020, determining that changing conditions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic required flexibility and vigilance regarding the need to protect the health and safety of court users and Judiciary personnel.In July 2020, there was a surge of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, included cases in community correctional centers and facilities, particularly at the O'ahu Community Correctional Center. As a result, the time requirements for preliminary hearings under Haw. R. Pen. P. (HRPP) 5(c)(3) was impacted. In August 2020, the Supreme Court entered an order providing that the first circuit may temporarily extend the time requirements for preliminary hearings no longer than reasonably necessary to protect public health and safety. In September, the order was extended. Because the transports of custody defendants from all O'ahu correctional facilities remained suspended and the exponential number of citations issued for Haw. Rev. Stat. ch. 127A violations remained high, the Supreme Court extended the August order for first circuit criminal matters until November 16, 2020. View "In re Judiciary’s Response to COVID-19 Outbreak" on Justia Law

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Skaff sued the Roadhouse restaurant and grill, located in Sonoma County, alleging that the Roadhouse and parking lot were inaccessible to wheelchair users. Skaff cited Health and Safety Code section 19955 and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Civ. Code section 51. Under section 19955, public accommodations must comply with California Building Code disability access standards if repairs and alterations were made to an existing facility, triggering accessibility mandates. No evidence was presented that the Roadhouse's owner had undertaken any triggering alterations. The owner nonetheless voluntarily remediated the identified barriers to access. The court entered judgment against Skaff on his Unruh Act claim but ruled in his favor on the section 19955 claim, reasoning that he was the prevailing party under a “catalyst theory” because his lawsuit was the catalyst that caused the renovations. Skaff was awarded $242,672 in attorney fees and costs.The court of appeal reversed the judgment and fee award. A plaintiff cannot prevail on a cause of action in which no violation of law was ever demonstrated or found. Nor is the catalyst theory available when a claim lacks legal merit. That a prelitigation demand may have spurred action that resulted in positive societal benefit is not reason alone to award attorney fees under the Civil Code. View "Skaff v. Rio Nido Roadhouse" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court held that trust funds on deposit in an Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account (IOLTA) do not fall within the statutory definition of "abandoned property," and therefore, the disposition of these funds is not governed by the abandoned property statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 200A.Attorney was temporarily suspended from the practice of law. Attorney's attorney later notified the Office of Bar Counsel that there were unidentified funds in Attorney's two IOLTA accounts and moved to order the transfer of the unidentified funds to the IOLTA committee. The Treasurer and Receiver General moved to intervene, requesting that the funds be remitted to the treasury as "abandoned property" under chapter 200A. The IOLA committee subsequently moved to intervene, requesting that the funds be remitted to it. The Supreme Judicial Court held that unidentified client funds on deposit in an IOTLA account do not fall within the statutory definition of "abandoned property" under chapter 200A and that such funds be transferred to the IOLTA committee for disposition under the conditions set forth in this opinion. View "In re Olchowski" on Justia Law

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The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) found by clear and convincing evidence that respondent Carlia Brady, formerly a Judge of the Superior Court, violated Canon 1, Rule 1.1; Canon 2, Rules 2.1 and 2.3(A); and Canon 5, Rule 5.1(A) of the Code of Judicial Conduct (Code). The ACJC unanimously recommended the sanction of removal from judicial office. On June 11, 2013, officers of the Woodbridge Township Police Department (WTPD) arrested respondent at her home in Woodbridge. She was charged in a complaint warrant with hindering the apprehension of another, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3, by “knowingly harboring Jason Prontnicki, a known fugitive,” in her residence. Respondent was indicted on three charges: second-degree official misconduct; third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution; and third-degree hindering apprehension. The trial court granted respondent’s motion to dismiss the official misconduct charge but denied her motion to dismiss the hindering apprehension or prosecution charges. The State appealed the dismissal of the official misconduct charge, and respondent appealed the denial of her motion to dismiss the other charges. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determinations and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. The State later moved to dismiss with prejudice the remaining two counts of the indictment. The trial court granted that motion, thus concluding the criminal proceedings against respondent. On March 6, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated respondent to her duties as a Superior Court judge. Several months later, the ACJC issued its complaint. After review, the New Jersey Supreme Court modified the sanction of removal recommended by the ACJC and imposed a three-month suspension on respondent. "We view that sanction to be commensurate with the conduct proven by clear and convincing evidence and to further our disciplinary system’s purpose of preserving public confidence in the judiciary." View "In the Matter of Carlia M. Brady" on Justia Law

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QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise ("QHG"), appealed a circuit court's judgment awarding Amy Pertuit ("Amy") $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages. Leif Pertuit ("Leif") had been married to Deanna Mortensen; they had one child, Logan. Leif and Mortensen divorced in 2007. At some point, Mortensen was awarded sole physical custody of Logan, and Leif was awarded visitation. Leif later married Amy, a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Leif and Amy resided in Mobile, Alabama, and Mortensen resided in Enterprise. Eventually, tensions arose between Leif and Mortensen regarding the issue of visitation. In March 2014, Mortensen began sending text messages to Leif accusing Amy of being addicted to drugs. Around that time, Mortensen visited the attorney who had represented her in divorce from Leif. Mortensen expressed concern that Logan was in danger as a result of the visitation arrangement and asked her attorney to assist with obtaining a modification of Leif's visitation. In April 2014, Mortensen contacted Dr. Kathlyn Diefenderfer, a physician whom QHG employed as a hospitalist at Medical Center Enterprise. Mortensen had been Dr. Diefenderfer's patient, and Dr. Diefenderfer's son played sports with Logan. Mortensen informed Dr. Diefenderfer that Logan was scheduled to ride in an automobile with Amy from Enterprise to Mobile for Leif's visitation and expressed concern regarding Amy's ability to drive, given her belief that Amy was using drugs and had lost her nursing license. Dr. Diefenderfer used a hospital computer to check on Amy's drug prescriptions. After reviewing that information,Dr. Diefenderfer told Mortensen: "All I can tell you is I would not put my son in the car." Mortensen went back to her attorney, informing him that Dr. Diefenderfer had acquired the necessary proof of Amy's drug use. Amy received a copy of the modification petition, and was convinced her private health information had been obtained in violation of HIPAA, and filed complaints to the Enterprise Police Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Alabama Bar Association, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. A grand jury indicted Mortensen and Dr. Diefenderfer, which were later recalled, but the two entered diversion agreements with the district attorney's office. Amy then filed suit alleging negligence and wantonness, violation of her right to privacy, the tort of outrage and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by denying QHG's motion for a judgment as a matter of law with respect to Amy's asserted theories of respondeat superior; ratification; and negligent and wanton training, supervision, and retention because there was not substantial evidence indicating that QHG was liable to Amy as a consequence of Dr. Diefenderfer's conduct under any of those theories. The trial court's judgment awarding Amy $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages was reversed, and judgment rendered in favor of QHG. View "QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise v. Pertuit" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit dismissed bankruptcy appeals filed by attorney Breuer of Moffa & Breuer, who purported to represent the Trust. The bankruptcy court disqualified attorney Moffa and Moffa & Breuer from representing the Trust. Because the Trust was a 50 percent shareholder of the debtor created to ensure that Moffa & Breuer would collect its legal fees, the bankruptcy court concluded that Moffa & Breuer’s representation of a shareholder in which it had a business interest conflicted with its simultaneous representation of the debtor. Moffa & Breuer repeatedly ignored the disqualification order. Moffa, purportedly pro se in his capacity as trustee of the Trust and as an attorney for related entities, filed a competing plan of reorganization that would have released the debtor’s claims against his firm and made him president of the reorganized debtor.There has been no indication of an intent to appeal from any qualified agent of the Trust, only from disqualified attorneys. Moffa had no authority to act pro se in the bankruptcy court, so his filings do not suggest that the Trust intended to appeal. There is no justification for excusing these defective notices of appeal. When an appeal is taken on behalf of an artificial entity by someone without legal authority to do so, the appeal should be dismissed. View "J.J. Rissell, Allentown PA, Trust v. Kapila" on Justia Law