Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Wade filed her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income in 2015. An ALJ denied Wade’s claim in 2017, finding her not disabled. Following an unsuccessful administrative appeal, Wade filed suit, seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). The district court granted Wade’s IFP motion and, in 2020, entered judgment in the Commissioner’s favor. Wade proceeded IFP with her appeal. The Ninth Circuit found that the ALJ erred, reversed the order affirming the denial of benefits, and remanded for further administrative review. Wade then submitted a bill of appellate costs, seeking $169.65 from the government for copies of briefs and excerpts of record.The Ninth Circuit denied the request. A party who proceeds IFP and prevails on appeal is not entitled to recover taxable costs from the United States, 28 U.S.C. 1915(f)(1); “judgment may be rendered for costs at the conclusion of the suit or action as in other proceedings, but the United States shall not be liable for any of the costs thus incurred.” View "Wade v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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The law firm of Sirote & Permutt, P.C., and attorney C. Randall Caldwell, Jr., each claimed they were entitled to one-third of the attorneys' fees that were owed for a BP oil spill settlement. Sirote and Caldwell litigated their dispute against each other, and, following a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of Caldwell and awarded the funds to him. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court had sufficient evidence to find the existence of a valid referral agreement between Caldwell and Cunningham Bounds as well as the existence of an attorney-client relationship between Caldwell and the Woerner entities. Sirote was not entitled to replace Caldwell as referring counsel merely because the Woerner entities terminated their attorney-client relationship with Caldwell. And the trial court's finding that Caldwell earned his referral fees at the time he referred the Woerner entities' BP claims did not require reversal. Finally, it is clear that the trial court did not award postjudgment interest. In all respects, the Court affirmed the trial court. View "Sirote & Permutt, P.C. v. Caldwell" on Justia Law

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In a suit concerning oil and gas royalties, Poole, an attorney, represented only himself. Poole's interest in the royalties is “less than 1%,” the other owners were members of two families. Poole sought “$50,745 for fees and [$1,572.75] for costs for work successfully defending the trial court judgment on appeal” plus “$46,020 for fees and $1,269.29 for costs for work performed in the Superior Court.” Poole requested that payment be made from the interpleaded royalties, citing the equitable common fund theory, which allows a party, who has paid for counsel to prosecute a lawsuit that creates or preserves a fund from which others will benefit, to require those other beneficiaries to bear their fair share of the litigation costs. Other parties objected, reasoning that an award would deplete the royalties available for distribution to family members; one told the court that Poole’s involvement was "counterproductive.”The court of appeal affirmed the denial of an award of attorneys’ fees under the common fund theory. An attorney who represents only himself and does not pay or become liable to pay consideration in exchange for legal representation may not recover attorney fees under the equitable common fund doctrine but may seek recovery of legitimate, reasonable costs excluding attorney fees under that doctrine. View "Leiper v. Gallegos" on Justia Law

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The appointment of a guardian ad litem for a parent in a dependency proceeding radically changes the parent's role, transferring direction and control of the litigation from the parent to the guardian ad litem. While necessary to protect the rights of an incompetent parent—an individual incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of the proceeding or unable to assist counsel in a rational manner—appointment of a guardian ad litem is not a tool to restrain a problematic parent, even one who unreasonably interferes with the orderly proceedings of the court or who persistently acts against her own interests or those of her child.The Court of Appeal reversed the order appointing a guardian ad litem for mother, concluding that the appointment of a guardian ad litem for mother is not supported by substantial evidence and was not harmless. In this case, mother's clashes with counsel were not the result of any mental health disorder but were deliberate and strategic, designed to frustrate and delay proceedings she believed were going to be unfavorable to her. The court noted that, while mother is unquestionably a difficult party, a guardian ad litem cannot be appointed without any finding of her incompetence. View "In re Samuel A." on Justia Law

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Beach Blitz sued the City and individuals, asserting that the City’s enactment and enforcement of ordinances regulating the sale of liquor and requiring businesses selling liquor to obtain licenses violated its substantive and procedural due process rights and that the City’s closure of its store one day after it met with a City attorney constituted retaliation for Beach Blitz’s protected First Amendment conduct. The district court dismissed the due process claims on the merits, without prejudice, and without leave to amend, and the First Amendment retaliatory claim on the merits, without prejudice but with leave to amend. Beach Blitz did not amend its that claim by the stated deadline. The district court found the City to be the prevailing party on all five claims, determined that each of them was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” and awarded attorney fees for each.The Eleventh Circuit upheld the prevailing party determination because the City rebuffed Beach Blitz’s efforts to effect a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties and affirmed frivolity determination concerning the procedural and substantive due process claims. The court vacated in part. There was sufficient support in precedent for Beach Blitz’s position that its retaliation claim was not so groundless on causation as to be frivolous. View "Beach Blitz Co. v. City of Miami Beach" on Justia Law

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Milan and Dmitry Piterman were married in 1990. In 2013, Milan filed a petition for legal separation. Korchemny, a close friend of Dmitry’s, sued Dmitry, Milan, and Milan’s Trust based on two promissory notes. Dmitry filed a cross-complaint against Milan and the trust. After years of extensive litigation, Milan and the trust obtained summary judgment against Korchemny based on their affirmative defense of usury. They were later awarded $318,000 in attorney fees. Korchemny appealed both the judgment and the attorney fee order. On Dmitry’s cross-complaint, Milan and the trust obtained judgment on the pleadings against Dmitry.The court of appeal affirmed. When the payments made under the promissory notes are applied to reduce principal in accordance with California usury law, the result is that a 2000 note was fully paid off by May 2011 and the 2001 note fully paid off by January 2017. The attorneys’ fees award was fully supported. There was nothing for which Dmitry could be indemnified or get contribution; if Dmitry had acted like a defendant typically does, and fought against plaintiff Korchemny, Dmitry too, would have proven usury, and would thus not be liable to Korchemny. He would have been the prevailing party, entitled to his costs. View "Korchemny v. Piterman" on Justia Law

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Robbins defaulted on a debt to a hospital for services provided to her children. After MED-1, hired to collect the debt, filed a small-claims action, Robbins paid the $1,499 debt but refused to pay $375 attorney’s fees as required by the agreement she signed with the hospital. MED-1 then incurred more attorney’s fees (fees-on-fees) attempting to recover the initial attorney’s fees. The Indiana small-claims court ordered Robbins to pay both the initial attorney’s fees and the fees-on-fees. Robbins’s appeal initiated a de novo proceeding, so MED-1 filed a new complaint.Robbins filed a federal suit against MED-1 under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692–1692p. A magistrate stayed the case pending the outcome of the state case, which was eventually dismissed for failure to prosecute. In federal court, Robbins raised res judicata, arguing that the state court’s dismissal precluded MED-1 from claiming that the contract required her to pay attorney’s fees and fees-on-fees. Alternatively, she advanced an argument that she was not required to pay fees-on-fees and that MED-1 violated the Act by trying to collect sums she did not owe. The Seventh Circuit affirmed judgment for MED-1. The Indiana court’s dismissal does not have preclusive effect. Because Robbins’s contract with the hospital required her to pay all collection costs, including attorney’s fees, MED-1 did not violate the FDCPA by attempting to collect fees-on-fees. View "Robbins v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Supreme Court enjoined Robert Francis, whether acting individually or on behalf of a trust or some other entity, from ever again proceeding pro se as a proponent of a claim (i.e., as a plaintiff, third-party claimant, cross-claimant, or counter-claimant) in any present or future litigation in the state courts of Colorado. "While the Colorado Constitution confers upon every person an undisputed right of access to our state courts, that right isn’t absolute. A party’s constitutional right of access to the courts must sometimes yield to the constitutional right of other litigants and the public to have justice administered without denial or delay. Such is the case when courts are called upon to curb the deleterious impact that duplicative and baseless pro se litigation has on finite judicial resources." Francis abused the judicial process for the purpose of harassing his adversaries "for the better part of a decade." State courts warned, reprimanded, and sanctioned Francis. Even the suspension of his law license failed to deter his "appalling conduct." Under the circumstances, the Supreme Court concluded "the extraordinary injunction requested is amply justified. Of course, Francis may still obtain access to judicial relief—he just may not do so without legal representation." View "In re Francis v. Wegener" on Justia Law

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Judge Mark Watts of Jackson County, Mississippi acknowledged he made appearances or filed motions in nine cases in Jackson County Chancery Court more than six months after assuming office. He joined in the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance’s motion recommending a public reprimand and a fine of $2,500. To this, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and granted the Commission’s recommendation. View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Watts" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff John Hayes prosecuted his employment discrimination case to a favorable verdict and judgment. During trial, two instances of misconduct prompted Defendant SkyWest Airlines, Inc. to request a mistrial. But it was Defendant’s own misconduct. Thus, the district court tried to remedy the misconduct and preserve the integrity of the proceedings, but did not grant Defendant’s request. After the trial, exercising its equitable powers, the district court granted Plaintiff’s request for a front pay award. Following final judgment, Defendant moved for a new trial based, in part, on the district court’s handling of the misconduct incidents and on newly discovered evidence. The district court denied that motion. Defendant appealed, asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse and remand for a new trial or, at the very least, to vacate (or reduce) the front pay award. Finding the district court did not abuse its discretion or authority in this case, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the front pay award. View "Hayes v. Skywest Airlines" on Justia Law