Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiff Michael O’Shea hired attorney Susan Lindenberg to represent him in a child support action. After O’Shea’s ex-wife was awarded what he believed to be an excessive amount of child support, he filed this action, alleging Lindenberg should have retained a forensic accountant. The case went to trial and the jury concluded, in a special verdict, that Lindenberg owed a professional duty of care that she breached. The jury was unable to agree, however, on whether the breach of duty caused him damage, and the judge declared a mistrial. Lindenberg moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that the evidence presented at trial did not support a finding of causation, specifically, that without the alleged malpractice, O’Shea would have received a better result. The trial court agreed and directed a verdict in Lindenberg’s favor. After review, the Court of Appeal found O’Shea failed to present sufficient testimony on the issue of causation, and therefore affirmed the directed verdict. View "O'Shea v. Lindenberg" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court approved a stipulation of the Judicial Qualifications Commission and Twentieth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Scott Cupp agreeing to the discipline of a public reprimand, holding that a public reprimand was appropriate.In the stipulation, Judge Cupp admitted to violating Canons of Judicial Conduct 1, 2B, and 7B(1)(b) and damaged the integrity of the judiciary by creating the appliance that he was interceding in a judicial election. Judge Cupp also admitted to violating Canon 7 and Fla. Stat. Chapter 106 during his 2020 reelection campaign and that his conduct damaged the public's perception of the judiciary. The Supreme Court approved the stipulation and ordered Judge Cupp to appear before the Supreme Court for the administration of a public reprimand. View "In re Judge Scott Cupp" on Justia Law

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Triplett pleaded guilty to three charges of human trafficking, pimping and pandering, and possession of a firearm by a felon, in exchange for the dismissal of 17 charges (including attempted first-degree homicide and kidnapping), which were to be “read-in” at sentencing (essentially allowing the judge to consider them as relevant conduct), Triplett’s total sentencing exposure was reduced from 354 years to a maximum of 47.5 years. The judge confirmed with defense counsel that the dismissed charges would be read-in. Defense counsel noted that Triplett did not admit the truth of the charges. In signing his plea agreement, Triplett acknowledged that “although the judge may consider read-in charges when imposing sentence, the maximum penalty will not be increased.” The judge ordered Triplett to serve 11 years in prison followed by nine years of supervision.Triplett unsuccessfully moved to withdraw his plea. Without conducting a hearing, the court determined that even if Triplett was given incorrect advice about the read-charges, Triplett was not prejudiced. The plea questionnaire and waiver of rights warned Triplett that the court could consider those charges. The court also represented that it had not considered the read-in charges at sentencing. Wisconsin's Court of Appeals and Supreme Court upheld the decision. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. The Wisconsin court’s rejection of Triplett's ineffectiveness claim rests on an adequate, independent state ground--Triplett’s failure to allege objective facts in support of his claim of prejudice. View "Triplett v. McDermott" on Justia Law

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Four appellants: David Zabel, Sheri Catania, Kim Flannigan, and Terra Morehead, were Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) for the District of Kansas who testified in court about practices of the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO). At the close of the proceeding, the district court made statements reflecting negatively on the four AUSAs. They appealed, arguing the district court deprived them of due process. The Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeals for lack of appellate standing: as fact witnesses, the four AUSAs lacked a particularized and significant stake in the appeal. View "United States v. Carter" on Justia Law

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This appeal grew out of United States v. Black, et al., which involved allegations of drug crimes committed at a detention facility. In the course of this prosecution, the United States Attorney’s Office in Kansas (USAO) obtained video and phone call recordings from the detention facility. Some of the recordings involved attorney-client communications between detainees and their attorneys. After learning that the USAO had these recordings, the Federal Public Defender (FPD) intervened for the defendants in Black, who had been housed at the detention facility. After intervening, the FPD moved for return of the recordings containing attorney-client communications, invoking Rule 41(g) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. This motion spurred the district court to order an investigation into the USAO and its possession of the recordings. When the investigation ended, the district court: (1) dismissed the indictment against the last remaining defendant in Black (Defendant. Karl Carter); and (2) ordered the USAO to provide the FPD with all of the recordings of attorney-client communications in the USAO’s possession. In the course of these rulings, however, the district court made statements adverse to the USAO and found contempt based partly on a failure to preserve evidence. The investigation led over a hundred prisoners to file post-conviction motions. The USAO didn’t question the dismissal of Carter’s indictment or the order to furnish the FPD with the recordings. Instead, the USAO argued that the investigation was unlawful, the district court made erroneous statements and findings about possible violations of the Sixth Amendment, the district court clearly erred in its contempt findings, and the district judge erred by stating that she would reassign herself to the post-conviction cases. The Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction and prudential ripeness. View "United States v. Carter" on Justia Law

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Thill was convicted of sexual contact with A.M.M., his ex‐girlfriend’s eight‐year‐old daughter. A.M.M. testified that Thill had sexually assaulted her; Thill’s semen was found on her underwear. Thill’s defense was that his jilted ex‐girlfriend framed him by saving his semen for over a year, planting it on her daughter’s underwear, and coaching her to make false accusations. While cross‐examining Thill and in closing arguments, the prosecutor referenced Thill’s failure to tell the police during his initial interview that he believed his ex‐girlfriend had the means or motivation to frame him. In postconviction proceedings, Thill argued that the prosecutor impermissibly used his silence after receiving Miranda warnings to impeach him and that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded Thill had not demonstrated prejudice.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that conclusion not contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The state court correctly paraphrased Strickland’s prejudice standard and nothing in its analysis suggested it used a standard “‘substantially different’ from or ‘opposite to’” that standard. The state presented significant direct evidence of a specific sexual assault. Thill’s defense had significant holes that extended far beyond his failure to raise this defense to the police; it was “weak and unpersuasive” and largely rested on Thill’s “self‐serving testimony.” View "Thill v. Richardson" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's award of attorney fees to the Trust after the Trust successfully enforced the terms of a conservation easement. In this case, defendants owned land that is the subject of a conservation easement granted by previous owners in favor of the Trust and they intentionally violated the easement.The court rejected defendants' argument that, because the Trust's insurance policy covered its fees up to $500,000, the trial court was required to deduct that amount from the lodestar. Rather, the court concluded that the trial court was not required to reduce defendants' liability for attorney fees simply because the Trust had the foresight to purchase insurance. In any event, the court noted that the Trust will not receive a double recovery because, under the insurance policy, it must reimburse the insurer from any damage award. The court also rejected defendants' other challenges, concluding that the number of hours was not excessive; the lodestar was not disproportionate to the public benefit; and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by adding a fee enhancement. View "The Sonoma Land Trust v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412, requires that if statutory requirements are met, the federal government must reimburse attorneys’ fees of a party who prevails in a lawsuit against the government. Smith, dissatisfied with the VA’s decision regarding his claims for veterans’ benefits, took an appeal to the Veterans Court. He was successful on the merits in part of his case and requested an EAJA award for his appellate counsel. The Veterans Court agreed to an award which included fees for 18 hours the attorney spent on an initial review of the 9,389-page agency record. The court imposed a reduction in that part of the award because Smith prevailed on some but not all of the issues that were litigated. The Veterans Court reasoned that this reduction was required as a matter of law by the EAJA.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. The Veterans Court undervalued the importance of the initial review of the case, a review that is necessary before appellate counsel could determine what bases existed for an appeal. That decision was contrary to the purpose and law of the EAJA. The court noted that if Smith had brought only the successful claim, the hours would have been fully compensated. View "Smith v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Chicago Title and others for damages and to rescind the sale of his two-unit residence in San Francisco. After plaintiff resolved the case with other defendants and rescinded the sale, he sought to recover as damages against defendants the attorney fees he spent in securing and quieting his title due to the rescinded sale, attorney fees he incurred defending against his possible eviction from the property, the rent he paid to live in the property before the sale was rescinded, and rental income he lost for the time he was off title.The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the trial court erred by deciding that it was legally unforeseeable to defendants that plaintiff would suffer loss of damages following the close of escrow by defendants. The court explained that this is not one of those "occasional" cases where foreseeability may be decided by the trial court as a question of law. Rather, as with most issues related to foreseeability, it is a question of fact for a jury. The court also concluded that the trial court erred in denying plaintiff's motion to amend where the evidence did not support a finding that defendants were surprised or would be prejudiced by allowing plaintiff to amend his second amended complaint as requested. Finally, the court noted the continued viability of nonstatutory motions for judgment on the pleadings, like motion in limine No. 10, is unclear. The court merely flagged the issue for future reference and to highlight potential pitfalls these motions often create for trial judges, as happened in this case. View "Tung v. Chicago Title Co." on Justia Law

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Appellants Lee, Bennett, and the law firm challenge the district court's orders requiring the firm to pay $15,000 into the court's registry and directing that $7,000 of those funds be paid to the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) fund to cover the fees and expenses of defendants' court-appointed counsel. In this case, shortly after defendants were arraigned, the district court disqualified the attorneys and the law firm from representing any of the defendants based upon an actual or potential conflict of interest. The law firm had already collected a total of $21,000 from defendants.The Eleventh Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction appellants' challenge to the district court's determination that funds were available to defendants. The court explained that this argument does not fit within the narrow exception that permits the court to review a district court's compliance with 18 U.S.C. 3006A's procedures. The court affirmed in all other respects. The court concluded that there was no error in the district court sua sponte raising the question of whether a portion of the fees paid to appellants were available for payment from or on behalf of defendants; the district court performed a thoroughly appropriate inquiry before entering its order directing the payment of $15,000 into the court's registry; and appellants were able to seek further review in the district court when they filed objections to the magistrate judge's order. Even if the court assumed that the district court failed to afford appellants adequate notice and opportunity to be heard before directing them to pay money into the court's registry, the error was harmless. Finally, the district court committed no procedural error based on the timing of its order directing appellants to pay funds into the court's registry. View "United States v. Pacheo-Romero" on Justia Law