Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Keith sued its former employee, Butterfield, after he filed a patent application for what eventually issued as the 520 patent. The employer alleged that the patent was based on inventions made during Butterfield’s employment and sought declaratory judgments of noninfringement and invalidity; alleged breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets; and sought correction of inventorship. Butterfield later sent the employer a covenant not to sue and moved to dismiss in part, arguing that the covenant not to sue mooted the declaratory judgment claims and that the applicable statutes of limitation and the doctrine of laches barred the state-law claims. The court dismissed the declaratory judgment claims but allowed the state-law claims to proceed. The parties later filed a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice (Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii)), which required no court order. Days later, Butterfield moved for attorney’s fees under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d). In denying the motion, the court cited the 2017 Supreme Court decision, “Microsoft” and held that Rule 54 requires a judgment, “a decree and any order from which an appeal lies,” and that the parties’ stipulation to dismiss did not satisfy Rule 54’s judgment requirement because it was not an appealable order. The Federal Circuit vacated, holding that Microsoft did not apply. Judgment in the context of Rule 54 does not raise the same concerns about finality and piecemeal litigation that motivated the Microsoft opinion. View "Keith Manufacturing Co. v. Butterfield" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff filed suit against Portfolio under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and state law, the parties reached a settlement that forgave plaintiff's debt and awarded him $1,000 in damages. The district court then determined that plaintiff's attorneys did not settle his lawsuit quickly enough and consequently sanctioned them. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's sanction order, holding that the district court abused its discretion by awarding attorney's fees sua sponte under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. Furthermore, the reasons the district court proffered for sanctions were meritless. Because the district court judge was not biased against plaintiff, the court affirmed the denial of plaintiff's recusal motion. In this case, the judge's ire was clearly directed at the attorneys, not plaintiff. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, remanding for further proceedings. View "Tejero v. Portfolio Recovery Assoc., LLC" on Justia Law

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House owns an organic farm, adjacent to the Property, formerly owned by Moller. In 2002, House entered into a six-year lease with Moller for 35 farmable acres, containing a renewal option and a right of first refusal. House converted the Property to certified organic status. In 2007, Moller, with no notice to House, agreed to sell the Property to Foss. Foss, a licensed real estate agent, prepared the agreement, which did not contain a fixed closing date. House became aware of the agreement, notified Foss about the right of first refusal, and sued Moller. While the lease remained in effect, Foss entered the Property and sprayed nonorganic herbicides, cut down trees, and altered the fencing. House sued Foss. Moller filed for bankruptcy. The Property was foreclosed on and sold to a third party in 2015. The trial court found Foss liable for inducing a breach of contract, intentionally interfering with House’s prospective economic advantage, conversion, trespass, and negligence and awarded compensatory damages of $1,669,705 and $1,000 in punitive damages. House sought attorney fees and costs. The court denied the motion. The court of appeal remanded for a determination of reasonable attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure 1021.9, which refers to “any action to recover damages to personal or real property resulting from trespassing on lands either under cultivation or intended or used for the raising of livestock.” The damages award is supported by substantial evidence. View "Kelly v. House" on Justia Law

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Appellants Eric Early and his election committee, Eric Early for Attorney General 2018 (collectively, Early), appealed the denial of their petition for writ of mandate to preclude respondent Xavier Becerra from running for Attorney General in 2018. Early contended that Becerra, appointed Attorney General by former Governor Brown in 2016, was not eligible for the office under Government Code section 12503. Becerra was an “inactive” member of the California State Bar from 1991 to the end of 2016. Government Code section 12503 provided: “No person shall be eligible to the office of Attorney General unless he shall have been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the state for a period of at least five years immediately preceding his election or appointment to such office.” Early argues that an “inactive” attorney may not practice law in California and therefore is not “admitted to practice” under Government Code section 12503. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding both active and inactive attorneys were members of the State Bar. The phrase “admitted to practice” referred to the event of admission to the bar and the status of being admitted, and did not require engagement in the “actual” or “active” practice of law. Becerra did not cease to be “admitted to practice” in California when he voluntarily changed his status to “inactive.” View "Early v. Becerra" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial District holding State Public Defender Diane Lozano in contempt, holding that the circuit court erred in ruling that the public defender must accept all appointments to serve as counsel for indigent defendants unless and until the appointing court rules otherwise. In May 2019, Lozano notified the circuit court that the public defender was unavailable to take appointments to represent misdemeanor defendants due to a heavy caseload and shortage of attorneys in its Campbell County office. The circuit court subsequently entered orders appointing Lozano or her representative to represent misdemeanor defendants in two cases. The local public defender's office declined the appointments. Thereafter, the court held Lozano in contempt. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) section 105(b) of the Public Defender Act affords the public defender discretion to decline an appointment or appointments; (2) the circuit court's order mandating that the public defender accept the two misdemeanor appointments was not lawful because it disregarded the public defender's determination that no public defender was available; and (3) because there was no lawful order, the circuit court erred in finding Lozano in contempt. View "Lozano v. Circuit Court of Sixth Judicial District" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court held that the order issued by the Springfield District Court that required the attorney in charge of the Springfield office of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants and subsequent appointments of CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield public defender division (PDD) office pursuant to that order were invalid. Due to a high volume of cases, the First Justice of the Springfield District Court that CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield PDD office could not handle any more duty days in that court. In response, the First Justice issued the order at issue. The district court subsequently appointed PDD staff attorneys as defense counsel under the order. CPCS filed an emergency petition pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3 seeking to vacate the order and the appointments. The Supreme Judicial Court granted the petition, holding that the order and the appointments were invalid because they improperly infringed on CPCS's statutory authority to control assignments and to limit caseloads for its staff attorneys. View "Carrasquillo v. Hampden County District Courts" on Justia Law

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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