Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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After wrecking his car while intoxicated, Ziegler falsely, unsuccessfully claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney in an attempt to avoid charges and retrieve his impounded car. He made those claims to deputies, the magistrate judge, and the towing company. In his prosecution for impersonating a federal officer, 18 U.S.C. 912.1, Ziegler, though not a lawyer waived his right to counsel and represented himself.The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction, rejecting Ziegler’s claims that the court erred in permitting Ziegler to represent himself because he was incapable of doing so and failed to make necessary inquiries into his mental competency and that the evidence does not show that he “acted” as a federal officer. The district judge thoughtfully evaluated Ziegler’s request to represent himself. The public defender, initially appointed to Ziegler’s case, said that he did not “have any questions with [Ziegler’s] legal competency” based on Ziegler’s “base of experience.” The court repeatedly counseled Ziegler that he should allow the public defender to represent him. Ziegler claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney and told police officers that, as a result of this position, the officers lacked jurisdiction over him, the charges would get dismissed, and he did not need a license. This is a sufficient show of authority to “act” as an official. View "United States v. Ziegler" on Justia Law

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Brace, a farmer, owns hundreds of acres in Erie County, Pennsylvania. He cleared 30 acres of wetlands, draining it to grow crops. In 1994, the Third Circuit affirmed that Brace had violated the Clean Water Act. In 2012, Brade bought 14 additional acres of wetlands. Again, he engaged in clearing, excavation, and filling without required permits. During a second suit under the Act, Brace’s counsel submitted perfunctory pleadings and failed to cooperate in discovery, repeatedly extending and missing deadlines. Counsel submitted over-length briefs smuggling in extra-record materials. The court repeatedly struck Brace’s materials but generally chose leniency. Eventually, the court struck Brace’s opposition to summary judgment after analyzing the “Poulis factors,” then granted the government summary judgment on liability, holding that Brace had violated the Act. The court ordered Brace to submit a proposed deed restriction and restoration plan.The Third Circuit rejected Brace’s appeal. While “it stretches credulity [to believe that Brace had] no idea how counsel [wa]s conducting this case,” the court gave Brace the benefit of the doubt. Brace’s lawyer’s misconduct forced the government to waste time and money “deciphering incomprehensible pleadings, scouring through noncompliant briefs, and moving again and again for compliance" to no avail. Counsel acted in bad faith; repeated orders to show cause, warnings, and threats of sanctions did not deter counsel’s chronic misbehavior. The sanction “was hardly an abuse of discretion.” View "United States v. Brace" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court ordered that Respondent, C. Randy Pool, a Judge of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division, Judicial District 29A, be censured for conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3A(4), and 3A(5) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 7A-376(b) for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.The Judicial Standards Commission filed a Recommendation of Judicial Discipline recommending that Respondent be censured for sexual misconduct. The Supreme Court concluded that the Commission's findings of fact were supported by clear and convincing evidence and that the Commission's conclusions of law were supported by those facts. The Court then ordered that Respondent be censured. View "In re Pool" on Justia Law

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The Law Offices of Jeffrey Sherbow, PC, brought an action against Fieger & Fieger, PC (the Fieger firm), asserting that the Fieger firm breached its referral- fee contract with plaintiff when the Fieger firm refused to pay plaintiff 20% of a contingent fee that the Fieger firm had received after it successfully represented several clients in a personal- injury and no-fault action related to an automobile accident in Ohio. The primary question in this case was whether, in order to enforce a fee- splitting agreement, MRPC 1.5(e) required the referring attorney to have an attorney-client relationship with the individual he or she refers. The Michigan Supreme Court held that it does but that the relationship could be limited to the act of advising the individual to seek the services of the other attorney if the referring attorney and client expressly or impliedly demonstrate their intent to enter into a professional relationship for this purpose. Consequently, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ judgment to the extent that it held to the contrary. The Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court, however, that the defendant bore the burden of proving noncompliance with MRPC 1.5(e) when the defendant raised the violation of the rule as a defense against enforcement of the referral agreement. The result in this case was that the trial court properly instructed the jury that an attorney-client relationship was required but erroneously instructed the jury about the burden of proof. This error required a new trial as to only one of the potential clients at issue. View "Law Offices of Jeffrey Sherbow v. Fieger & Fieger, PC" on Justia Law

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Cameron filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) on behalf of an Army veteran in August 2005. The VA denied Cameron attorney’s fees under 38 C.F.R. 14.636(c), which permits an attorney to charge fees for services provided before a final Board decision only where a NOD was filed on or after June 20, 2007. Before the law was amended, attorneys representing veterans in veterans’ benefits cases before the VA were prohibited from charging fees for services provided before a final Board decision.The Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial, holding that section 14.636(c) is consistent with its authorizing statute, 38 U.S.C. 5904. Congress considered eliminating all fee restrictions under section 5904(c)(1) by repealing subsection (c)(1) entirely but made a legislative choice between the competing purposes of liberalizing the availability of attorney’s fees and avoiding disruption to the veterans’ benefits system, and “adopted a delayed and staggered effective date . . . [to] allow a deliberate and gradual implementation of these policies in order to minimize any disruption to the VA system.” In denying Cameron attorney’s fees, the VA has done no more than give effect to that legislative choice. View "Cameron v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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After a jury awarded plaintiff $16 in unpaid minimum wages and $16 in liquidated damages and found against her on causes of action alleging she had been raped by her employer, the trial court determined that plaintiff was the prevailing party for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure section 1032 and awarded her $19,523 in costs, as well as $3.20 in attorney fees based on the formula in section 1031 that multiples the wages recovered by 20 percent.In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal concluded that, in this case where plaintiff lost all of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) claims, lost some non-FEHA claims, and prevailed on some non-FEHA claims, the award of costs is governed by the interaction of section 1032 and Government Code section 12965, subdivision (b). The court concluded that section 12965, subdivision (b) bars plaintiff from recovering the costs caused solely by the inclusion of the FEHA causes of action in this lawsuit. Furthermore, the other costs incurred in the lawsuit are recoverable under section 1032, subject to the discretionary exception in section 1033, subdivision (a). The court directed the trial court on remand to determine which cost items, if any, are barred by section 12965, subdivision (b) before entering an award in accordance with sections 1032 and 1033.The court also concluded that the parties' dispute over attorney fees requires an interpretation of section 1031 and Labor Code section 1194. The court explained that the literal terms of these attorney fees provisions cover this case because of the recovery of minimum wages. In situations where these statutes overlap, the court concluded that section 1194 controls because it is the more specific statute and its attorney fees provision is the most recently enacted. Therefore, the trial court court should have exercised the discretion granted by section 1194 and awarded plaintiff reasonable attorney fees, rather than applying section 1031 and awarding 20 percent of the wages recovered. The court remanded for reasonable attorney fees. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings on the issues of attorney fees and costs. View "Moreno v. Bassi" on Justia Law

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Three clients filed separate discrimination cases, which were consolidated for discovery. The defendants obtained summary judgment. The clients filed a notice of appeal, then hired Paddick, who entered into a contingency fee agreement with each client, providing that Paddick would serve as counsel on remand and promising Paddick a 40 percent fee of any trial or settlement proceeds. Paddick prevailed in the appeal, then took 24 depositions, presented two oral arguments, attended two settlement conferences, and filed nine substantive motions or responses. When it came time to retain an expert witness, Paddick was unable to advance the necessary funds. The clients terminated their relationship with Paddick and retained Thompson to pursue their claims for a 35 percent contingent fee. Paddick informed Thompson of his work, noting that “fees remain due.” Thompson did not respond. The case settled for $380,000; Thompson’s share was $133,000. The district court acknowledged the settlements and dismissed the cases.A month later, Paddick successfully moved to intervene to enforce an attorney’s charging lien against the settlement proceeds. The Third Circuit affirmed an order that Thompson pay Paddick $54,562.73 from Thompson’s portion of the recovery. The district court had ancillary enforcement jurisdiction to resolve Paddick’s lien motion. The clients did not produce clear and convincing evidence of duress; imperfect representation does not necessarily bar Paddick from recovery. A client “should never be made to pay twice.” View "Butt v. United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America" on Justia Law

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In this matter concerning vicarious disqualification of a prosecutor's office, the Supreme Court held that a trial court has broad discretion to vicariously disqualify a prosecutor's office based on an appearance of impropriety.Darren Goldin was indicted for first-degree murder. Goldin sought to disqualify the entire Tuscon branch of the Attorney General's office based on ethical violations committed by Richard Wintory, the assistant attorney general. Wintory was removed from the case. Goldin accepted a plea agreement, the plea was revoked, and charges were reinstated after Goldin prevailed on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Upon his return to the trial court, Golden again attempted to vicariously disqualify the Tuscon office. The superior court granted the motion based on the appearance of impropriety and the importance of Defendant's constitutional right to counsel. The court of appeals overturned the superior court's disqualification order. The Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals' opinion, holding that, where actual misconduct may have tainted the proceeding, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in disqualifying the Tucson office. View "State v. Honorable Goldin" on Justia Law

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The Orlans law firm, sent a letter on law-firm letterhead, stating that Wells Fargo had referred the Garland loan to Orlans for foreclosure but that “[w]hile the foreclosure process ha[d] begun,” “foreclosure prevention alternatives” might still be available if Garland contacted Wells Fargo. The letter explained how to contact Wells Fargo “to attempt to be reviewed for possible alternatives,” the signature was typed and said, “Orlans PC.”Garland says that the letter confused him because he was unsure if it was from an attorney and “raised [his] anxiety” by suggesting “that an attorney may have conducted an independent investigation and substantive legal review ... such that his prospects for avoiding foreclosure were diminished.” Garland alleges that Orlans sent a form of this letter to thousands of homeowners, without a meaningful review of the homeowners’ foreclosure files, so the communications deceptively implied they were from an attorney. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits misleading debt-collection communications that falsely imply they are from an attorney.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the purported class action for lack of jurisdiction. Garland lacks standing. That a statute purports to create a cause of action does not alone create standing. A plaintiff asserting a procedural claim must have suffered a concrete injury; bare allegations of confusion and anxiety do not qualify. Whether from an attorney or not, the letter said nothing implying Garland’s chance of avoiding foreclosure was “diminished.” View "Garland v. Orlans, PC" on Justia Law

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Jensen was charged as a coconspirator in a felony indictment alleging a scheme under which members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department issued hard-to-obtain concealed firearms permits in exchange for substantial donations to an independent expenditure committee supporting the reelection campaign of Sheriff Smith. Jensen is a sheriff’s department captain identified as the individual within the sheriff’s department who facilitated the conspiracy. Jensen unsuccessfully moved to disqualify the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him, alleging that that office leaked grand jury transcripts to the press days before the transcripts became public which created a conflict of interest requiring disqualification. He also joined in codefendant Schumb’s motion to disqualify the office due to Schumb’s friendship with District Attorney Rosen and Rosen’s chief assistant, Boyarsky.The court of appeal rejected Jensen’s arguments for finding a conflict of interest requiring disqualification: the grand jury transcript leak, Schumb’s relationships with Rosen and Boyarsky, and a dispute between Rosen and Sheriff Smith about access to recordings of county jail inmate phone calls. The trial court could reasonably conclude Jensen did not demonstrate that the district attorney’s office was the source of the leak. Jensen himself does not have a personal relationship with Rosen or Boyarsky. The trial court could reasonably conclude that Jensen did not establish a conflict of interest based on the existence of a dispute between the district attorney and the elected official with supervisory power over Jensen. View "Jensen v. Superior Court" on Justia Law