Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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After a conflict of interest between an attorney and a long-time client arose during settlement negotiations, the attorney filed a confidential motion with the superior court criticizing his client. The client discharged the attorney and hired new counsel. But the attorney continued to control the settlement funds and disbursed himself his fee, even though the amount was disputed by the client. The court found that the attorney’s actions had violated the rules of professional conduct and ordered forfeiture of most of his attorney’s fees. Finding no reversible error in the superior court's order, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Kenneth P. Jacobus, P.C. v. Kalenka" on Justia Law

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In November 2013, three men robbed a Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania bank. A bank employee, Kane, later admitted to assisting them. The next morning, the three were pulled over in North Carolina. Wilson stated they were driving to Georgia and admitted that they had a lot of cash in the car. The officer, suspecting that they were going to buy drugs in Atlanta, searched the car, found the stolen cash, turned it over to federal agents, then released the men. A week later, three men robbed a Phoenixville, Pennsylvania bank. The police got a tip from Howell, whom Wilson had tried to recruit for the heists. Howell provided Wilson's cell phone number. Police pulled his cell-site location data, which put him at the Bala Cynwyd bank right before the first robbery and showed five calls and 17 text messages to Kane that day. Howell identified Wilson and Moore from a video of the robbery. Kane and Foster took plea bargains. Wilson and Moore were tried for bank robbery, conspiracy, and using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Moore was sentenced to 385 months’ imprisonment. Wilson received 519 months. The Third Circuit affirmed. Counsel’s stipulation that the banks were federally insured did not violate the Sixth Amendment, which does not categorically forbid stipulating to a crime’s jurisdictional element without the defendant’s consent or over the defendant’s objection. View "United States v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal held that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding any attorney fees to plaintiff. Labor Code section 218.5 mandates an attorney fee award in any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, if any party requests them at the initiation of the action. Furthermore, Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1244, 1255, held that a plaintiff cannot obtain attorney fees in an action for failure to provide rest breaks or meal periods. In this case, there was no basis for the trial court's award of fees where the only wage and hour claims alleged and litigated were for rest break and meal period violations. The court held that plaintiff's claim that it must affirm the judgment because defendants presented an inadequate record for judicial review is unfounded. The court also rejected plaintiff's contention that the predicate misconduct of her wage and hour claims was not rest period violations, but rather failure to pay earned wages. The court explained that this theory was reflected nowhere in the record of the attorney fee proceedings—until plaintiff filed her reply papers. In those reply papers, plaintiff cited no evidence of any work performed before the settlement that referred to or suggested the existence of a claim or cause of action for failure to pay earned wages. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment to the extent it awarded attorney fees to plaintiff, remanding for entry of a new and different judgment denying recovery of attorney fees. View "Betancourt v. OS Restaurant Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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Richard and Debra Plein sued USAA Casualty Insurance Company, alleging insurance bad faith. The Pleins hired three attorneys, two of whom were members of the Keller Rohrback LLP lawfirm (Keller), to represent them. But Keller had previously defended USAA in bad faith litigation for over 10 years. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct, Keller would have been barred from representing the Pleins if the prior representation was in a matter "substantially related" to the Plein matter. Interpreting the "substantially related" language in the Rules of Professional Conduct was one of first impression for the Washington Supreme Court. The Court held that under RPC 1.9(a), USAA failed to show a "substantial risk" that Keller obtained 'confidential factual information" that would 'materially advance" the Pleins’ case. Accordingly, Keller did not represent former client USAA on any matter "substantially related" to the instant case. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals decision that disqualification was required, and reinstated the trial court’s order that disqualification was not required. View "Plein v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Green, was convicted of two counts of the first-degree murder for the gang-related shooting death of Lewis and was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment on one of those convictions. The conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. The trial court rejected a post-conviction petition alleging that Green’s trial counsel, Ritacca, labored under a per se conflict of interest because his trial counsel had previously represented Williams, the intended victim of the murder, who was in the vehicle with Lewis at the time of the shooting. Green neither knew about the conflict nor waived the conflict was rejected. The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, finding no per se conflict of interest. Only three situations establish a per se conflict of interest: where defense counsel has a prior or contemporaneous association with the victim, the prosecution, or an entity assisting the prosecution; where defense counsel contemporaneously represents a prosecution witness; and where defense counsel was a former prosecutor who had been personally involved with the prosecution of the defendant. Ritacca’s representation of both defendant and Williams did not fit within any of those three per se conflict situations. View "People v. Green" on Justia Law

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Reyes-Romero was prosecuted for unlawful reentry, 8 U.S.C. 1326. The district court dismissed the indictment, finding that irregularities in Reyes-Romero’s removal proceeding constituted fundamental errors that caused him prejudice. The court stated that the government’s subjective motivation for its motion to dismiss was a desire to rely on the 2011 removal order in future immigration proceedings, which“taint[ed]” the Government’s effort. The court then awarded Reyes-Romero fees pursuant to the Hyde Amendment, under which a prevailing defendant in a federal criminal prosecution can apply to have his attorney’s fees and costs covered by the government if the defendant shows that “the position of the United States” in the prosecution “was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith,” 18 U.S.C. 3006A. The Third Circuit reversed. “Although assuredly born of good intentions and understandable frustration with faulty processes in the underlying removal proceeding,” the award was not based on the type of pervasive prosecutorial misconduct with which the Amendment is concerned. Reyes-Romero’s 2011 expedited removal proceeding deviated from the required ordered, sensible process and reasonable minds may differ about how the prosecution should have reacted once those issues became apparent. Where reasonable minds may differ, however, and where the government made objectively reasonable and defensible choices, there can be no Hyde Amendment liability. View "United States v. Reyes-Romero" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's award of attorneys' fees and litigation expenses to class counsel, following approval of two rounds of settlements in consumer class action litigation. The litigation stemmed from claims of civil antitrust violations based on price-fixing within the optical disk drive industry. The panel held that it has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1291. In a separately filed memorandum disposition, the panel affirmed the district court's approval of the first- and second-round settlements. Here, the panel vacated the awards of fees and litigation expenses, holding that when class counsel secures appointment as interim lead counsel by proposing a fee structure in a competitive bidding process, that bid becomes the starting point for determining a reasonable fee. The district court may adjust fees upward or downward depending on circumstances not contemplated at the time of the bid, but the district court must provide an adequate explanation for any variance. In this case, class counsel argues that an upward departure from its bid was warranted in part because it did not anticipate the need to litigate a second class certification motion or interlocutory appeals. Without more, the panel held that these factors are insufficient to justify a variance of the magnitude approved in the first- and second-round fee awards. Accordingly, the panel remanded for a more complete explanation of the district court's reasoning. View "Indirect Purchaser Class v. Panasonic Corp." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of a single justice of the court granting the Commonwealth's petition under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3 and ordering that a certain superior court judge be recused from acting on Defendant's postjudgment motion to dismiss the indictments against him or for a new trial in his criminal case, holding that the single justice did not err or abuse her discretion. Defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree. The Supreme Judicial Court remanded the case for consideration of whether Defendant was prejudiced by trial counsel's potential conflicts of interest. On remand, Defendant moved to dismiss the indictments against him or for a new trial on the basis of Brady violations. The motion judge raised the question whether she could be impartial because the prosecutor had since been appointed as a superior cour judge and was now her judicial colleague. The Commonwealth subsequently filed a motion in support of recusal. The judge denied the motion, concluding that she could be fair and impartial. The Commonwealth filed a Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3 petition. A single justice allowed the petition. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that the prudent and legally correct result under the circumstances was for the judge to recuse herself. View "Commonwealth v. Cousin" on Justia Law

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Dustin Irwin died in 2014, in the Ward County, North Dakota jail. The circumstances of his death led to an investigation and criminal charges against Ward County Sheriff Steven Kukowski. Initially, Divide County State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan was appointed to handle the criminal proceeding. Jordan determined the circumstances justified a petition for removal of Sheriff Kukowski from office. Governor Jack Dalrymple appointed Jordan as the special prosecutor for the removal. Ultimately, Jordan requested to withdraw and Governor Burgum appointed attorney Daniel Traynor as the special prosecutor. After completion of the removal proceedings, Traynor submitted his bill to the State on May 1, 2017. The State forwarded the bill to Ward County. Ward County refused to pay the bill. Traynor sued the State and Ward County to recover the unpaid fees. The State responded to Traynor’s complaint by filing a motion to dismiss. Ward County answered Traynor’s complaint and cross-claimed against the State. The State moved to dismiss Ward County’s cross-claim. Traynor moved for judgment on the pleadings. The district court entered judgment in Traynor’s favor against the State, and awarded interest at 6% per annum. The State argued Ward County had to pay Traynor’s bill because Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., failed to address who should pay for the special prosecutor fees in a county official’s removal proceeding, and therefore the catch-all provision in N.D.C.C. 54-12-03 applied. Ward County argues neither Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., nor Chapter 54- 12, N.D.C.C., imposes an obligation upon a county to pay the fees of an attorney appointed by the Governor for proceedings for the removal of a public official. The North Dakota Supreme Court concurred with the district court that Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., was silent regarding the payment of special prosecutor fees in a removal proceeding, and it was not necessary or required to import N.D.C.C. 54-12-03 into Chapter 44-11. Based on these facts, the Supreme Court concluded the district court did not err in finding a contract existed for legal services between Traynor and the State. The Court agreed with Traynor that the district court erred by awarding 6% per annum interest instead of the 1.5% monthly interest rate stated on its bill. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. View "Traynor Law Firm v. North Dakota, et al." on Justia Law

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Nguyen worked as a dentist until she was terminated. Nguyen hired attorney Ford, who filed a discrimination lawsuit. The federal district court entered judgment against Nguyen. Ford’s retainer agreement with Nguyen specifically excluded appeals. Nguyen hired Ford to represent her in an appeal and signed a separate retainer agreement. Nguyen alleges that during the appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Ford charged exorbitant fees and costs, and caused unnecessary delays. In April 2015, Ford successfully moved to withdraw as counsel. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment against Nguyen. Nguyen sued Ford for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty, stating “Although [Ford] continued to represent [Nguyen] in the district court tribunal, [Nguyen] had to retain new appellate counsel” and that, but for Ford’s untimely filing of a brief in the district court case, summary judgment would not have been granted against her. The trial court dismissed the action as untimely (Code Civ. Proc., 340.6(a)). The court of appeal affirmed. No reasonable factfinder could conclude it was objectively reasonable for Nguyen to believe Ford continued to represent her in the district court action. Once Ford filed notices in that case describing herself as Nguyen’s former attorney and stating she was placing a lien for on any judgment in Nguyen’s favor, any objectively reasonable client would have understood that Ford was no longer representing Nguyen. View "Nguyen v. Ford" on Justia Law