Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Congress enacted an appropriations rider in 2009 prohibiting the District of Columbia from paying more than $4,000 in attorneys' fees for any past proceeding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). At issue in these 11 consolidated cases was whether the District must pay interest on amounts that exceed the payment cap.After determining that the District did not forfeit the interest issue, the court held that the District cannot be compelled to pay interest on the portion of fee awards that it has been legally prohibited from paying off. The court explained that this case implicates a well-established common-law principle: If the law makes a debt unpayable, then interest on the debt is also unpayable. Furthermore, the court had no basis to conclude that 28 U.S.C. 1961(a) abrogated this background rule. The court reversed the district court's judgment requiring payment of interest on above-cap fees, affirmed the district court's judgment in all other respects, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Allen v. District of Columbia" on Justia Law

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A confidential source, “Bonz” told Champaign Police that he knew a crack cocaine dealer named Moe. Over a few months, the department conducted five controlled buys from Moe, consistent with information from Bonz. After reviewing the video of the transactions, officers identified Moe as Orr, who was on parole after being convicted of unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Bonz identified a picture of Orr. Officers tied the involved vehicle and apartment to Orr. Pursuant to a warrant, officers searched Orr’s apartment. They found a semi-automatic pistol with ammunition, approximately 22 grams of crack cocaine, approximately 15 grams of powdered cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. Orr voluntarily admitted that the gun and cocaine were his. Indicted for possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), Orr unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, asserting Bonz was an unreliable source.Orr testified that he had no reason to possess a firearm. The prosecutor presented evidence of Orr’s drug involvement. The jury found Orr guilty. Before sentencing, the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit determined that Judge Bruce had breached the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges by engaging in improper ex parte communications in other cases with members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Although the Council found no evidence that those communications affected the outcome of any case, it suspended Bruce from all criminal matters involving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for one year. Orr’s case was transferred to another judge. The Seventh Circuit vacated Orr’s conviction. Judge Bruce’s conduct “cast a pall over certain decisions" that "required the exercise of substantial discretion.” This was not harmless error. View "United States v. Orr" on Justia Law

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After Sanmina claimed a worthless stock deduction on its federal tax return, the IRS issued a summons for the memoranda authored by Sanmina in-house counsel. Sanmina objected on the basis that they were protected both by attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine. On subsequent remand, the district court determined that the memoranda were covered by both attorney-client privilege and work-product protection, but that those privileges had been waived.The Ninth Circuit held that Sanmina waived the attorney-client privilege when it disclosed the Attorney Memos to DLA Piper. However, the panel held that such disclosure did not automatically waive work-product protection over the Attorney Memos and, rather, waiver of work-product immunity requires either disclosure to an adversary or conduct that is inconsistent with the maintenance of secrecy against its adversary. In this case, the panel held that Sanmina did not expressly waive work-product immunity merely by providing the Attorney Memos to DLA Piper, but its subsequent use of the DLA Piper Report to support its tax deduction in an audit by the IRS was inconsistent with the maintenance of secrecy against its adversary. Therefore, the panel explained that Sanmina's implied waiver of the work-product protection only extends to the factual portions of the Attorney Memos. The panel granted in part and denied in part the IRS's petition to enforce its summons. View "United States v. Sanmina Corp." on Justia Law

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While living in California, Jefri and Debbie Davis sought to purchase a home in northern Idaho, and hired Charles Tuma and Tuma’s broker, Donald McCanlies, to help them. Tuma and McCanlies both worked for Johnson House Company, which in turn was doing business as Coldwell Banker Resort Realty. Some years after purchasing the property in question, the Davises learned that the road they believed provided access to their home, did not in fact do so. The Davises filed suit against Tuma, McCanlies, and Coldwell Banker Resort Realty (collectively, the Defendants), alleging fraud and constructive fraud. The Defendants moved for summary judgment against the Davises. The Davises responded, filing several declarations, portions of which the Defendants moved to strike. The Davises also sought to amend their complaint to add claims for unlicensed practice of law, surveying, or abstracting; and breach of contract and violation of contractual duties. The district court granted the Defendants’ motions for summary judgment and to strike, but did not specifically identify which statements were being stricken. The district court also denied the Davises’ motion to amend their complaint without explanation of the reasoning behind the decision. The Idaho Supreme Court found genuine issues of material facts to preclude the grant of summary judgment to Defendants. Further, the Court concluded the district court abused its discretion in denying the Davises' motion to amend their complaint. The Court vacated the trial court judgment entered and remanded for further proceedings. View "Davis v. Tuma" on Justia Law

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Nonprofit organizations that have downloaded public court records via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system brought a class action, alleging that the incurred PACER fees “exceeded the amount that could lawfully be charged” under a note to 28 U.S.C. 1913 because the fees did not reflect the cost of operating PACER alone. Asserting subject-matter jurisdiction under the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. 1346, the plaintiffs sought the “return or refund of the excessive PACER fees.” After denying the government’s motion to dismiss, the district court certified an opt-out class consisting of all individuals and entities who had paid PACER fees, April 21, 2010-April 21, 2016, excluding federal government entities and present class counsel.The Federal Circuit affirmed. The statute authorizes the government to collect a fee for certain purposes. It is alleged that the government collected fees in excess of the statutory authorization, so the “necessary implication” is that the fees can be recovered through an illegal exaction claim. There is no need for a separate express money damages provision in the fee-authorizing statute for a plaintiff to proceed under the Little Tucker Act. The Section 1913 Note limits PACER fees to the amount needed to cover expenses incurred in services providing public access to federal court electronic docketing information. Those fees cannot be used to promote access purely for select entities or individuals. View "National Veterans Legal Services Program v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Navy began a program to design and build littoral combat ships (LCS) and issued a request for proposals. During the initial phase of the LCS procurement, FastShip met with and discussed a potential hull design with government contractors subject to non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. FastShip was not awarded a contract. FastShip filed an unsuccessful administrative claim, alleging patent infringement. The Claims Court found that the FastShip patents were valid and directly infringed by the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed.The Claims Court awarded FastShip attorney’s fees and expenses ($6,178,288.29); 28 U.S.C. 1498(a), which provides for a fee award to smaller entities that have prevailed on infringement claims, unless the government can show that its position was “substantially justified.” The court concluded that the government’s pre-litigation conduct and litigation positions were not “as a whole” substantially justified. It unreasonable for a government contractor to gather information from FastShip but not to include it as part of the team that was awarded the contract and the Navy took an exceedingly long time to act on FastShip’s administrative claim and did not provide sufficient analysis in denying the claim. The court found the government’s litigation positions unreasonable, including its arguments with respect to one document and its reliance on the testimony of its expert to prove obviousness despite his “extraordinary skill.” The Federal Circuit vacated. Reliance on this pre-litigation conduct in the fee analysis was an error. View "FastShip, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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Two counties sued Sherwin-Williams in state court, seeking abatement of the public nuisance caused by lead-based paint. Anticipating suits by other counties, Sherwin-Williams sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Sherwin-Williams claimed that “[i]t is likely that the fee agreement between [Delaware County] and the outside trial lawyers [is] or will be substantively similar to an agreement struck by the same attorneys and Lehigh County to pursue what appears to be identical litigation” and that “the Count[y] ha[s] effectively and impermissibly delegated [its] exercise of police power to the private trial attorneys” by vesting the prosecutorial function in someone who has a financial interest in using the government’s police power to hold a defendant liable. The complaint pleaded a First Amendment violation, citing the company’s membership in trade associations, Sherwin-Williams’ purported petitioning of federal, state, and local governments, and its commercial speech. The complaint also argued that the public nuisance theory would seek to impose liability “that is grossly disproportionate,” arbitrary, retroactive, vague, and “after an unexplainable, prejudicial, and extraordinarily long delay, in violation of the Due Process Clause.”The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Sherwin-Williams failed to plead an injury in fact or a ripe case or controversy because the alleged harms hinged on the County actually filing suit. View "Sherwin Williams Co. v. County of Delaware" on Justia Law

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Paul Copenbarger and Kent McNaughton formed Newport Harbor Offices & Marina, LLC (NHOM) in 2003 to acquire an office building in Newport Beach. McNaughton and Copenbarger were equal owners and the sole members of NHOM. Copenbarger delegated to McNaughton “management of the day-to-day operations of the commercial real property owned by the Company,” and McNaughton delegated to Copenbarger “management and handling of all legal affairs of the Company.” These delegations were “[s]ubject to revocation” by the delegating members. McNaughton later leased several office suites in NHOM’s building for his separate real estate business. McNaughton signed the rental agreement on behalf of both himself and NHOM. In early 2008, after learning McNaughton had unilaterally increased his monthly NHOM management payments to himself, Copenbarger revoked McNaughton’s delegated authority to manage NHOM’s day-to-day operations. In response, McNaughton stopped paying rent to NHOM. NHOM hired attorney Elaine Alston and her firm, Alston, Alston & Diebold (collectively, Alston), to file unlawful detainer actions against McNaughton. In June 2008, while the unlawful detainer actions and arbitration were pending, McNaughton formally revoked Copenbarger’s delegated right to manage NHOM’s legal affairs. He also filed a motion to compel arbitration of the lease dispute. The arbitrator issued an interim award in 2011, finding largely in Copenbarger’s favor. He further found McNaughton had breached his leases with NHOM by improperly withholding rent. Copenbarger petitioned to confirm the arbitration award with the trial court, and McNaughton filed a motion to disqualify Alston. The court denied McNaughton’s disqualification motion, granted Copenbarger’s petition to confirm the arbitration award, and confirmed the award in all respects. McNaughton filed an action seeking declaratory relief against Alston, "vaguely alleging" Alston was impermissibly representing NHOM in litigation matters now adverse to McNaughton. The trial court sustained Alston's demurrer without leave and granted her anti-SLAPP motion, citing the collateral estoppel effect of the first case. Alston then filed the underlying malicious prosecution action against McNaughton and his attorneys, who each filed anti-SLAPP motions. The Court of Appeal affirmed that portion of the trial court's order granting McNaughton's anti-SLAPP motion as to Alston's fraud claim; the portion of the order granting McNaughton’s and his attorney's anti-SLAPP motions as to Alston’s malicious prosecution claim was reversed. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Alston v. Dawe" on Justia Law

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Terrance Fredericks appealed a district court order dismissing his lawsuit against the Vogel Law Firm and its attorneys Monte Rogneby and Maurice McCormick, McCormick Inc., and Northern Improvement Company. In the earlier (2016) lawsuit Northern Improvement and McCormick, individually and on behalf of Native Energy, sued Fredericks for breaching contractual and fiduciary duties. Fredericks counterclaimed, alleging McCormick breached fiduciary duties. The jury found that McCormick and Northern Improvement did not breach duties owed to Native Energy or Fredericks. Vogel represented McCormick and Northern Improvement in the 2016 lawsuit. Fredericks sought to disqualify Vogel after testimony revealed Vogel may have indirectly provided services to Native Energy in 2010 and 2011 when it reviewed certain agreements that were later executed by Native Energy and third-party oil companies. The district court declared a mistrial and disqualified Vogel from representing McCormick. McCormick moved for reconsideration of the court’s decision to disqualify Vogel. After a hearing, the court did not disqualify Vogel, ruling it had not represented Native Energy by reviewing the agreements. In December 2017, Fredericks moved to add Vogel as a third-party defendant, claiming it committed legal malpractice by breaching fiduciary duties owed to Native Energy and Fredericks. Fredericks’ motion also sought to amend his counterclaims against McCormick and Northern Improvement. In April 2018, the district court allowed Fredericks to amend his claims against McCormick and Northern Improvement, but denied his motion to join Vogel as a third-party defendant. In February 2019, Fredericks, individually and derivatively on behalf of Native Energy Construction, filed the instant lawsuit against Vogel, McCormick, and Northern Improvement. Fredericks’ complaint alleged that Vogel had a conflict of interest because it had provided legal services to Native Energy in 2010 and 2011, and its current representation of McCormick was adverse to Native Energy and Fredericks. Fredericks alleged Vogel committed legal malpractice by disclosing Native Energy’s and Fredericks’ confidential information to McCormick. Fredericks also alleged McCormick and Northern Improvement breached fiduciary duties owed to Native Energy and Fredericks. The district court concluded res judicata barred Fredericks’ claims. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Fredericks, et al. v. Vogel Law Firm, et al." on Justia Law

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Quincy’s Prevagen® dietary supplement is sold through brick‐and‐mortar stores and online. Ellishbooks, which was not authorized to sell Prevagen® products, sold dietary supplements identified as Prevagen® on Amazon.com, including items that were in altered or damaged packaging; lacked the appropriate markings that identify the authorized retail seller; and contained Identification and security tags from retail stores. Quincy sued under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1114. The court entered a $480,968.13 judgment in favor of Quincy, plus costs, and permanently enjoined Ellishbooks from infringing upon the PREVAGEN® trademark and selling stolen products bearing the PREVAGEN® trademark.The Seventh Circuit affirmed and subsequently awarded $44,329.50 in sanctions under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 38. Ellishbooks’s arguments “had virtually no likelihood of success” on appeal and it appeared that Ellishbooks attempted to draw out the proceedings for as long as possible. View "Quincy Bioscience, LLC v. Ellishbooks" on Justia Law