Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law

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The bankruptcy court found nondischargeable (1) indebtedness arising from a disbarred attorney’s obligation to reimburse the State Bar for payments made by the Bar’s Client Security Fund to victims of his misconduct while practicing law and (2) the costs for the disciplinary proceedings conducted against the attorney, a Chapter 7 debtor.   The Ninth Circuit filed (1) an order denying Appellant’s petition for panel rehearing, granting Appellee’s petition for panel rehearing, and denying, on behalf of the court, the parties’ petitions for rehearing en banc; and (2) an amended opinion affirming in part and reversing in part the bankruptcy court’s judgment in an adversary proceeding.   Reversing in part, the panel held that the indebtedness arising from the attorney’s obligation to reimburse the State Bar for the payments made to victims of his misconduct was not excepted from discharge under 11 U.S.C. Section 523(a)(7), which provides that a debtor is not discharged from any debt that “is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss.” Considering the totality of the Client Security Fund program, the panel concluded that any reimbursement to the Fund was payable to and for the benefit of the State Bar and was compensation for the Fund’s actual pecuniary loss in compensating the victims for their actual pecuniary losses. View "ANTHONY KASSAS V. STATE BAR OF CALIFORNIA" on Justia Law

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Kimberlyn Seals and her counsels of record, Felecia Perkins, Jessica Ayers, and Derek D. Hopson, Sr., appealed a Chancery Court’s contempt order entered on April 8, 2020, the Temporary Order entered on April 28, 2020, the Jurisdictional Final Judgment entered on June 16, 2020, the Final Judgment on Motion for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law entered on June 18, 2020, and the Amended Final Judgment entered on June 18, 2020. Seals argued the chancellor lacked jurisdiction and erroneously found them to be in contempt of court. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part. The Court found the Chancery Court had jurisdiction, and: (1) Perkins and Ayers were in direct criminal contempt for their failure to appear at a scheduled April 7 hearing; (2) the $3,000 sanction was vacated because it exceeded the penalties prescribed by statute; (3) the chancellor erred by finding Hopson to be in direct criminal contempt for his failure to appear because his failure to appear was constructive criminal contempt that required notice and a hearing; (4) the chancellor erroneously found the attorneys to be in direct criminal contempt for violation of the September 2019 Temporary Order: if proved, such acts were civil contempt. View "Seals, et al. v. Stanton" on Justia Law

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Crane filed a complaint for retaliatory discharge, alleging that his employment with Midwest was terminated after he reported numerous health and safety violations to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Crane was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $625,000 in punitive damages. The appellate court affirmed. After losing the underlying action and paying damages to its former employee, Midwest filed a legal malpractice complaint against its attorneys and the Sandberg law firm, alleging that the attorneys failed to list all witnesses intended to be called at trial in compliance with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 213(f), resulting in six defense witnesses being barred from testifying, and several other errors.The circuit court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss but certified a question for immediate appeal: Does Illinois’ public policy on punitive damages and/or the statutory prohibition on punitive damages [in legal malpractice actions, 735 ILCS 5/2-1115] bar recovery of incurred punitive damages in a legal malpractice case where the client alleges that, but for the attorney's negligence in the underlying case, the jury in the underlying case would have returned a verdict awarding either no punitive damages or punitive damages in a lesser sum?” The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court answered the question in the negative and affirmed the judgment. View "Midwest Sanitary Service, Inc. v. Sandberg, Phoenix & Von Gontard, P.C." on Justia Law

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In 2016, McLaughlin, the head of a business, was arrested based on an alleged domestic dispute with his former girlfriend, Olivia. In 2018, an Illinois court ordered all records in that case expunged, and the destruction of McLaughlin’s arrest records and photographs. McLaughlin sought an order of protection against Olivia. The terms of the parties’ subsequent settlement were incorporated in a judgment, which was sealed. Doe nonetheless posted multiple Twitter messages about McLaughlin’s arrest with McLaughlin’s mugshot, tagging McLaughlin’s business contacts and clients, and media outlets. Twitter suspended Doe’s accounts. The Illinois court issued a subpoena requiring the production of documents related to Doe’s Twitter accounts and issued “letters rogatory” to the San Francisco County Superior Court. Under the authority of that court, McLaughlin's subpoena was to be served on Twitter in San Francisco, requesting information personally identifying the account holders. In a motion to quash, Doe argued he had a First Amendment right to engage in anonymous speech and a right to privacy under the California Constitution. Doe sought attorney fees, (Code of Civil Procedure1987.2(c))The court of appeal affirmed orders in favor of McLaughlin. No sanctions were awarded. Doe failed to establish he prevailed on his motion to quash or that “the underlying action arises from [his] exercise of free speech rights on the Internet.” Doe presented no legally cognizable argument that McLaughlin failed to make a prima facie showing of breach of the settlement agreement. View "Doe v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

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The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to decide whether the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s grant of a directed verdict in favor of Appellees, a court administrator and two municipal court case managers, based on quasi-judicial immunity. Appellees failed to remove a bind-over order from a stack of case files bound for the state court solicitor’s office, catalyzing a chain reaction that eventually led to the improper arrest and jailing of Appellant. The Supreme Court held that Appellees were not protected by quasi-judicial immunity because their alleged negligence was not committed during the performance of a “function normally performed by a judge.” The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. View "Stanley v. Patterson et al." on Justia Law

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The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to determine whether a trial court’s order denying a motion to withdraw as counsel based on alleged conflicts of interest was immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine. Defendants Diane Buckner-Webb, Theresia Copeland, Sharon Davis-Williams, Tabeeka Jordan, Michael Pitts, and Shani Robinson were indicted by a grand jury, along with 35 other educators and administrators of the Atlanta Public Schools (“APS”), for conspiracy to violate the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act and other crimes arising out of their alleged participation in a conspiracy to alter students’ standardized test scores. Of the 35 indicted, 12 APS employees, including Defendants, were tried together between August 2014 and April 2015. In April 2015, the jury found Defendants and five others guilty of at least one count of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act. In April and May 2015, Defendants moved for a new trial through their respective trial attorneys. Despite the fact that each Defendant was represented by a separate attorney at trial, the Circuit Public Defender appointed only one attorney, Stephen R. Scarborough, to jointly represent Defendants as appellate counsel, and he formally entered an appearance on Defendants’ behalf on April 26, 2017. More than two years after Scarborough’s appointment as appellate counsel for Defendants and around the time Defendants’ particularized motions for new trial were due for filing, Scarborough filed a “Motion for Rule 1.7[1] Determinations” to address alleged conflicts of interest arising from his joint representation of Defendants. Scarborough also filed a motion to withdraw as counsel based upon this conflict of interest. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that such orders did not fall within “the very small class” of trial court orders that were appealable under the collateral source doctrine, and thus affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision in Buckner-Webb v. State, 360 Ga. App. 329 (861 SE2d 181) (2021), but for different reasons. View "Buckner-Webb et al. v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson retained Respondents Willoughby & Hoefer, P.A., and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters, P.A., (collectively, the Law Firms) to represent the State in litigation against the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Wilson and the Law Firms executed a litigation retention agreement, which provided that the Law Firms were hired on a contingent fee basis. When the State settled its claims with the DOE for $600 million, Wilson transferred $75 million in attorneys' fees to the Law Firms. Appellants challenged the transfer, claiming it was unconstitutional and unreasonable. The circuit court dismissed Appellants' claims for lack of standing, and the South Carolina Supreme Court certified the case for review of the standing issue. The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's finding that Appellants lacked public importance standing and remanded the case for the circuit court to consider the merits of Appellants' claims. View "South Carolina Public Interest Foundation, et al. v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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Class Counsel discovered the Social Security Administration's (SSA’s) systemic failure to perform “Subtraction Recalculations” and recovered over $106 million in past-due disability benefits. After performing the Subtraction Recalculations for all the claimants, the SSA argued that the district court did not have authority under the Social Security Act’s judicial-review provision, 42 U.S.C. 405(g), to order the Subtraction Recalculations and that Class Counsel cannot recover attorney fees under section 406(b) for representation of the claimants.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the award of $15.9 million in attorney fees to Class Counsel. SSA “may not hide behind” the statutory provisions merely because it erred at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the benefits-award process. The district court appropriately exercised judicial review under section 405(g), properly ordered the SSA to perform the Subtraction Recalculations, and properly awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees. The SSA failed to award claimants additional past-due benefits to which they were entitled. Counsel successfully sought judicial assistance to obtain those benefits. Congress did not create a statute that allows attorneys to recover fees when the SSA initially fails to award benefits, only to foreclose fee recovery when the SSA later unlawfully withholds additional benefits. View "Steigerwald v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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A class action claimed that BMW knowingly manufactured and sold vehicles equipped with defective engines and included 20 causes of action, including alleged breach of warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C. 2301 (a federal fee-shifting statute), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, violations of state consumer fraud and deceptive trade practice statutes, and unjust enrichment. The parties reached a settlement to reimburse class members for expenses incurred and provide them with extended warranties. The district court concluded the settlement was worth at least $27 million. BMW stipulated that it would not object to Settlement Class Counsel’s application for an award of attorneys’ fees of up to $1,500,000 in the aggregate. The parties agreed that Counsel could apply for an award of attorneys’ fees not to exceed $3,700,000 in the aggregate. Class counsel sought $3.7 million.Applying the lodestar approach (multiplication of the hours counsel reasonably billed by a reasonable hourly rate) the district court adopted Class Counsel’s requested lodestar amount of $1,934,000, then applied a requested multiplier of 1.9 to reach a total fee award of $3.7 million. The Third Circuit vacated. The lodestar was based on an insufficient record. The charts provided by Counsel do not establish whether certain hours are duplicative or whether the total hours billed were reasonable for the work performed. View "Gelis v. BMW of North America LLC" on Justia Law