Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Braden and Strong used the Tennessee state courts to resolve the dissolution of their business partnership. During that process, Strong believed she was the victim of legal malpractice. She hired the Parrish Law Firm to represent her in a lawsuit against her original attorney. Strong’s malpractice case was later dismissed when the Parrish Firm did not comply with discovery deadlines. Strong assigned some of her rights in the partnership dissolution action to the Parrish Firm for costs and expenses in the malpractice action. When the Parrish Firm sued to recover $116,316 under the assignment, Strong filed counterclaims, which were resolved in state court. A jury awarded Strong $2,293,878.70. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed. The Firm filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment, alleging that the Tennessee Court of Appeals judges made false statements in a judicial opinion violating its rights to a “fair trial” under the Due Process Clause and “to access justice” under the Equal Protection Clause. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit and directed the Firm and its counsel to show cause why sanctions should not be assessed. The suit is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; the complaint essentially sought another round of state appellate review. The complaint failed to present a justiciable case or controversy. Federal courts “are not in the business of pronouncing that past actions which have no demonstrable continuing effect were right or wrong.” View "Larry E. Parrish, P.C. v. Bennett" on Justia Law

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In 2002, GTL, a mutual reserve company that underwrites insurance policies, engaged Platinum to market its insurance products. After a customer sued both parties, GTL terminated the marketing agreement. In 2015, the lawsuit settled. GTL sued Platinum for breaching the marketing agreement. In 2017, in arbitration, GTL and Platinum entered a settlement agreement, resolving all the claims that had and could have been brought in that litigation and providing for “reasonably proportionate” attorneys fees to the prevailing party in any future litigation. Weeks before the parties executed the 2017 settlement, another customer sued GTL in Missouri. After the 2017 settlement agreement took effect, GTL filed a third-party complaint against Platinum in that Missouri lawsuit, claiming that Platinum breached the marketing agreement by failing to ensure its contractors’ compliance with regulations, GTL's guidelines, and requirements for advertising its insurance products, and GTL's Code of Ethical Market Conduct.Platinum sued GTL in federal court, arguing that the Missouri third-party complaint mirrored claims resolved by the 2017 settlement agreement and was therefore barred. The district court granted Platinum summary judgment and awarded $108,445.10 in attorneys fees (150% of the underlying damages award). The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The 2017 agreement bars the third-party complaint and the award of attorneys fees is “reasonably proportionate” to the underlying damages. View "Platinum Supplemental Insurance, Inc. v. Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Dr. Arunachalam sued multiple defendants alleging patent infringement and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. 1962, violations. The case was assigned to Judge Andrews. Arunachalam added defendants, including Judge Andrews, and moved for the judge's recusal. The court referred the matter to Chief Judge Stark. Arunachalam then moved to recuse Stark, who denied that motion and dismissed Judge Andrews as a defendant. Judge Andrews denied Arunachalam’s motion to recuse and dismissed several counts, explaining that “[p]atent infringement is not a crime,” and not a RICO predicate. Arunachalam unsuccessfully moved to vacate the dismissal and, again, to recuse Andrews. A motion for leave to amend was denied as violating local rules, “in bad faith.” Only the infringement claims remained. Meanwhile, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) found the claims at issue unpatentable. After the appeals period expired, Arunachalam opposed a motion to dismiss, arguing that “the lawless misconduct and ... fraud by the PTAB and the Federal Circuit . . . voids their rulings.”In a motion for sanctions, the defendants noted that Arunachalam had re-asserted her RICO claim in another district court. The court awarded attorneys’ fees for “defending against a baseless racketeering lawsuit,” but did not rule on the specific amounts. Arunachalam continued to file motions and questions that required responses, including requests that Judge Andrews and “attorneys of record” produce their oaths of office, “foreign registration statements,” and “bond” and “insurance information.” The Federal Circuit affirmed awards totaling about $150,000, and denial of Arunachalam’s “frivolous” motions. Arunachalam’s “abusive” litigation conduct warranted monetary sanctions and her later-filed motions were baseless and untimely. View "Arunachalam v. International Business Machines Corp." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against the Oregon State Bar, alleging First Amendment violations arising from the Oregon State Bar's (OSB) requirement that lawyers must join and pay annual membership fees in order to practice in Oregon. Specifically, plaintiffs contend that (1) the two statements from the April 2018 Bulletin are not germane; (2) compelling them to join and maintain membership in OSB violates their right to freedom of association; and (3) compelling plaintiffs to pay—without their prior, affirmative consent—annual membership fees to OSB violates their right to freedom of speech. Furthermore, the Crowe Plaintiffs alone contend that the Bar's constitutionally mandated procedural safeguards for objecting members are deficient, and the Gruber Plaintiffs alone continue to argue on appeal that OSB is not entitled to sovereign immunity from suit. The district court dismissed all of plaintiffs' claims.The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that precedent forecloses the free speech claim, but neither the Supreme Court nor this court has resolved the free association claim now before the panel. Even assuming both statements at issue were nongermane, the panel concluded that plaintiffs' free speech claim failed. As alleged, the panel also concluded that the OSB's refund process is sufficient to minimize potential infringement on its members' constitutional rights. However, the panel explained that plaintiffs may have stated a viable claim that Oregon's compulsory Bar membership requirement violates their First Amendment right of free association. On remand, the panel noted that there are a number of complicated issues that the district court will need to address. First, the district court will need to determine whether Janus v. Am. Fed'n of State, Cnty., & Mun. Emps., Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2477, 2481 (2018), supplies the appropriate standard for plaintiffs' free association claim and, if so, whether OSB can satisfy its "exacting scrutiny standard." Given that the panel has never addressed such a broad free association claim, the district court will also likely need to determine whether Keller v. State Bar of California's, 496 U.S. 1, 13–14 (1990), instructions with regards to germaneness and procedurally adequate safeguards are even relevant to the free association inquiry. Finally, the panel concluded that the district court erred by determining that OSB was an arm of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Accordingly, the panel affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the district court with instructions. View "Crowe v. Oregon State Bar" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court ordered that F. William Cullins, a district judge in the Fourteenth Judicial District be suspended from his judicial duties in the state of Kansas for one year, concluding that the charges against Cullins were supported by clear and convincing evidence.After a hearing, the Commission on Judicial Qualifications found that Cullins had engaged in conduct that violated Canon 1, Rule 1.2 and Canon 2, Rules 2.3 and 2.8 the Kansas Code of Judicial Conduct. The Commission recommended that Cullins be disciplined for the violations by public censure and that the Supreme Court refrain from making any future appointment of Cullins as chief judge. The Supreme Court ordered that Cullins be suspended from his judicial duties for one year and that the suspension be stayed after sixty days provided that Cullins enters into an approved plan for training and counseling. View "In re Cullins" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's order denying plaintiff's motion seeking to recover reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and expenses from Montgomery County, Maryland. This case arose from the County's failure to reasonably accommodate plaintiff's disability. The district court concluded that plaintiff is not eligible for such an award because she was not a prevailing party under 29 U.S.C. 794a(b).The court found this case similar to Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 433 F.2d 421 (8th Cir. 1970), and concluded that plaintiff is even more of a prevailing party than the Parham plaintiff. The court explained that plaintiff is not a prevailing party because she catalyzed the County to change its behavior by filing a lawsuit; rather, she is a prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the County capitulated by transferring her to another call center. Furthermore, the transfer was key to the district court's subsequent finding that the County reasonably accommodated plaintiff and thus the district court's ultimate denial of plaintiff's request for equitable relief. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Maryland" on Justia Law

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LHO owns a downtown hotel that it rebranded as “Hotel Chicago” in 2014. In 2016, Rosemoor renamed its existing westside hotel as “Hotel Chicago.” LHO sued Rosemoor for trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act and for deceptive advertising and common-law trademark violations under Illinois law. The district court denied preliminary injunctive relief, finding that “LHO has failed, at this juncture, to show that it is likely to succeed in proving secondary meaning" and was unlikely to show that “Hotel Chicago” was a protectable trademark. LHO appealed but successfully moved to voluntarily dismiss its claims with prejudice before briefing.Rosemoor requested more than $500,000 in attorney fees, arguing that the case qualified as “exceptional.” The district court denied the request under the Seventh Circuit's “abuse-of-process” standard. The Seventh Circuit held that the district court should have evaluated Rosemoor’s attorney-fee request under the Supreme Court’s “Octane Fitness” holding. On remand, Rosemoor filed a renewed request for more than $630,000 in fees, arguing that the weakness of LHO’s position on the merits, LHO’s motives in bringing suit, and its conduct in discovery, made the case exceptional under Octane Fitness. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the request. The district court applied the Octane Fitness standard and reasonably exercised its discretion in weighing the evidence before it. View "LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Rosemoor Suites, LLC" on Justia Law

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An employee sued her former employer for wrongful termination. The employee died, but her attorney continued to litigate, negotiate, and mediate the case for another year before informing the court or opposing counsel of her death. The superior court concluded the attorney had committed serious ethical violations related to this delay and disqualified him from the case. Post-disqualification, the attorney filed a motion to substitute the personal representative of the employee’s estate as plaintiff. The superior court issued an order dismissing the case on several grounds. The Alaska Supreme Court found the court did not abuse its discretion by disqualifying the attorney and denying the motion for substitution he submitted. The superior court was correct to dismiss the case, as only one party remained, but the Supreme Court concluded granting summary judgment in favor of the former employer and supervisor was error. "The estate is not entitled to appeal the court’s refusal to enforce a draft settlement agreement signed by the employee before her death and does not have standing to appeal the sanctions imposed against the attorney. But because the estate was not allowed to participate as a party, we conclude that awarding affirmative relief against it was error." View "Bunton v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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In an action challenging the voluntary and intelligent nature of appellant's plea as to certain drug and drug-related offenses, the DC Circuit concluded that the appointment of counsel was not in the interest of justice under the Criminal Justice Act given her unwaived and material conflict of interest.The court explained that, under controlling Supreme Court precedent, the only legally viable avenue for challenging the plea apparent on the record would have been for counsel to argue that her own and/or her husband's representation of appellant in the decision to plead guilty was constitutionally ineffective. In this case, the fact that counsel chose to pursue a challenge to appellant's guilty plea that was plainly foreclosed by precedent rather than the only potentially viable legal avenue recognized by case law—an ineffective assistance of counsel claim against herself and her spouse—presents an untenable direct and plain conflict of interest between attorney and client. Furthermore, counsel, when she re-inserted herself into appellant's case to file this Section 2255 motion, did not obtain any waiver of the conflict—even assuming a conflict like this is waivable at all. The court explained that counsel never advised appellant that, to be legally viable, a challenge to the voluntary and intelligent nature of his plea based on the suppression of the other wiretaps would require him to level an ineffective assistance of counsel claim aimed at her and/or her husband. Therefore, the court concluded that the conflict of interest persisted throughout and permeated counsel's representation of petitioner in these Section 2255 proceedings. The court reversed and remanded for the appointment of conflict-free counsel to assist with appellant's Section 2255 petition. View "United States v. Scurry" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-client Stephen Aguiar claimed attorney David Williams failed to turn over files related to plaintiff’s 2009 criminal prosecution. The civil division of the superior court granted summary judgment in favor of attorney, and client appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court held client owned the entire contents of the file, subject to certain exceptions. The Court agreed with the trial court that attorney had substantial grounds to refuse to disclose certain materials to client, and that client failed to demonstrate an ownership interest in an iPod containing recordings of wiretap evidence However, the Court concluded summary judgment was premature regarding two issues: whether client was entitled to a paper copy of the discovery file that attorney allegedly created for use at trial, and whether client has been provided with certain trial exhibits. The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded for further proceedings on those issues. View "Aguiar v. Williams" on Justia Law