Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Bankruptcy
by
Jan Kowalski, an attorney, was accused of using her position to hide her brother's assets during his bankruptcy proceedings. She allegedly concealed around $357,000 in her attorney trust account and made false statements under oath to cover up the concealment. Kowalski was charged with four counts of bankruptcy fraud and one count of concealing assets from the bankruptcy trustee. She pleaded guilty to the charge of concealing assets.Prior to her trial, Kowalski had been involved in her brother's bankruptcy proceedings, where she used her attorney trust account to hide her brother's assets from his creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. She also made false statements under oath and fabricated documents to cover up her actions. The bankruptcy trustee confronted Kowalski with inconsistencies between her personal bank records and her earlier testimony, but she continued to lie under oath.Kowalski was sentenced to 37 months' imprisonment by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The court applied two sentencing enhancements: the § 2B1.1(b)(10)(C) sophisticated-means enhancement, and the § 3B1.3 abuse of position of trust enhancement. Kowalski appealed her sentence, arguing that the district court erred in applying these enhancements and that her sentence was substantively unreasonable.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Kowalski had indeed used sophisticated means to commit the offense and had abused her position of trust. The court also found her sentence to be substantively reasonable. View "United States v. Kowalski" on Justia Law

by
The case involves the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans ("Archdiocese") which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief due to numerous lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. The United States Trustee appointed an Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors ("Committee"), which included the appellants. The appellants' attorney, Richard Trahant, violated a protective order by disclosing confidential information related to abuse allegations against a priest. The bankruptcy court found Trahant's breach to be a disruption to the bankruptcy process and ordered the removal of Trahant's clients, the appellants, from the Committee.The appellants appealed their removal from the Committee to the district court, arguing that the district judge who was originally assigned their appeal should have recused himself earlier. The district court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the appellants lacked standing to appeal their removal from the Committee. The appellants then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. It found that the district court did not err in declining to vacate the judgment, and the appellants lacked standing under Article III to prosecute this appeal. The court held that the appellants failed to demonstrate an injury to any legally protected interest. Their substantive rights as creditors in the bankruptcy case were not impaired by their removal from the Committee. The court also noted that the bankruptcy court's order did not amount to a personal sanction against the appellants, but was a consequence of the conduct of their attorney. View "Adams v. Roman Catholic Church" on Justia Law

by
In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was tasked with determining whether a judgment against a self-represented litigant, Jon Buchholdt, was void due to improper service of process. Jeremy Nelson, Buchholdt's former client, had sued him for legal malpractice and won a judgment of $200,000, but Buchholdt argued that he was not properly served and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The main issue in this case was whether Buchholdt was properly served with the summons and complaint by certified, restricted mail sent to his law office, which was rerouted to his home and signed by his alleged agent, "Suz Miller." Buchholdt contended that he was not properly served as he never personally signed for the service, and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The court held that Buchholdt failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that the judgment was void. Despite his claims, Buchholdt did not provide any evidence to contradict Nelson's evidence of service or to show that Suz Miller was not authorized to receive service on his behalf. Additionally, Buchholdt had listed Nelson's lawsuit as a contingent liability when he filed for bankruptcy, indicating he had knowledge of the suit.Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of Buchholdt's motions to set aside the judgment and for reconsideration. The court did not find that the judgment was void due to a lack of personal jurisdiction resulting from improper service of process. View "Buchholdt v. Nelson" on Justia Law

by
Appellant, an attorney, represented debtor in proceedings before the United States Bankruptcy Court. After Appellant failed to comply with a series of discovery orders, the bankruptcy court imposed sanctions of $55,000 for 55 days of non-compliance and $36,600 in attorneys' fees. The orders were affirmed by the district court. Appellant appealed, arguing that, first, the bankruptcy court lacked inherent authority to issue civil contempt sanctions, and second, as a matter of due process, he was not provided with sufficient notice of the basis for the sanctions imposed against him.   The Second Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the civil contempt sanctions imposed against Appellant were within the scope of the bankruptcy court's discretion and that he had ample notice of the basis and reasons for the imposition of sanctions. The court explained that it appears that Appellant could not have been sanctioned under any express authority; the bankruptcy court was right to consider its inherent contempt authority. Nor was the bankruptcy court's exercise of its inherent contempt authority contrary to any provision of the Bankruptcy Code, including Section 105(a). Further, the court reasoned that the bankruptcy court found all the necessary elements -- that is, a finding of bad faith and satisfaction of the King factors -- to order contempt sanctions in the circumstances here, where Appellant was acting as an advocate. View "In re: Larisa Ivanovna Markus" on Justia Law

by
SE Property Holdings, LLC (“SEPH”) obtained a deficiency judgment against Neverve LLC (“Neverve”) after Neverve defaulted on loans secured by a mortgage on its property. Following this judgment, Neverve received the proceeds from an unrelated settlement. But Neverve transferred those proceeds to attorneys representing Neverve’s principal in payment of attorney’s fees relating to the principal’s personal bankruptcy proceedings. SEPH then sued Neverve based on Neverve’s allegedly fraudulent transfer of those settlement proceeds. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Neverve, finding that the Florida Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act’s (“FUFTA”) “catch-all” provision did not allow for (1) an award of money damages against the transferor, (2) punitive damages, or (3) attorney’s fees. The court also granted summary judgment in favor of Neverve on SEPH’s equitable lien claim, as Neverve no longer possessed the settlement proceeds at issue.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court held that based on the narrow interpretation of FUFTA in Freeman v. First Union National Bank, 865 So. 2d 1272 (Fla. 2004), the court believes the Florida Supreme Court would determine that FUFTA’s catch-all provision does not allow for an award of money damages against the transferor, an award of punitive damages, or an award of attorney’s fees. Thus, the district court was correct in granting summary judgment in favor of Neverve on SEPH’s FUFTA claims. And the court concluded that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Neverve on SEPH’s equitable lien claim. View "SE Property Holdings, LLC v. Neverve LLC" on Justia Law

by
Attorney and his law firm, Pesner Kawamato Conway, P.C. (collectively, Conway), appealed the district court’s order rejecting the bankruptcy court’s report and recommendation to enjoin Smith Development, Inc.’s legal malpractice suit against Conway and to impose sanctions for violating the Barton doctrine and the automatic stay.   The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal, finding that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the district court’s decision rests on the abstention principles. The court explained that Conway suggests the district court had no authority to enter an abstention order because, under Barton, the district court itself lacked jurisdiction over Smith Development’s malpractice claims. However, the court wrote that this argument fares no better than the first. Barton concerns subject-matter jurisdiction over a separate action, not jurisdiction over the proceedings in which a party seeks Barton protection in the first place. And even if the court accepted the argument’s doubtful premise, it fails on its own logic because the bankruptcy court issued a report and recommendation to the district court, thereby authorizing the district court to rule on the matter. Further, the court found that even if it recognized a narrow exception to Section 1334(d)’s clear jurisdictional bar, the district court’s order would not fall within it. View "Martin Conway v. Smith Development, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Peraica represented Dordevic in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding and submitted a Statement of Financial Affairs (Rule 2016 disclosure) in which he reported that Dordevic had paid him $5,000. As the Trustee learned during discovery, Dordevic had actually paid Peraica $21,500. The Trustee informed Peraica that he needed to file an updated Rule 2016 fee disclosure. Peraica instead sent the Trustee an informal accounting document listing $21,500 in fees. The Trustee responded: “The Rule 2016 disclosures actually need to be filed with the Court” by submitting “an official form.” Peraica repeatedly ignored the Trustee’s reminders. The Trustee filed a motion, 11 U.S.C. 329, to examine the fees. Peraica failed to respond; the Trustee then requested that all fees be forfeited. The bankruptcy court granted the motion.The district court and Seventh Circuit affirmed. Beyond Peraica’s brazen disregard of the Trustee’s advice, Peraica’s proffered explanation for not updating his fee disclosure lacking, if not false. Peraica had been involved in more than 350 bankruptcy cases in the Northern District of Illinois alone. The bankruptcy court ordered Peraica to disgorge all past fees as a penalty for his blatant lack of compliance with his obligations. There is no leeway for partial or incomplete disclosure. View "Peraica v. Layng" on Justia Law

by
Gold was the trustee of Biondo’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy estate. Before the bankruptcy filing, Biondo experienced an automobile accident. Biondo sought exemptions for that claim totaling $35,648.74, to prevent that sum from being distributed to her creditors. The statutory maximum exemption for “payment[s]” received “on account of personal bodily injury, not including pain and suffering or compensation for actual pecuniary loss,” 11 U.S.C. 522(d)(11)(D) was then $23,675. Gold did not object to the exemptions and retained the Ratton law firm, which sued Biondo’s insurer, Progressive, and the other driver, Peterson. Progressive settled its case for $48,500 to cover Biondo’s medical expenses, attorney’s fees, “lost wages,” and all “other forms of economic or non-economic loss.” Peterson's $70,000.settlement covered “pain and suffering.”Gold opposed Biondo's motion to compel Gold to release $23,675. The parties settled. Gold’s law firm sought $2,880 in fees for its work opposing the motion. Biondo objected. The bankruptcy court awarded the fees. The district court dismissed her appeal. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The fees compensated the attorneys for services reasonably likely to benefit Biondo’s bankruptcy estate, 11 U.S.C. 330(a)(1)(A). The Peterson settlement was outside section 522(d)(11)(D)'s exemption as covering pain and suffering; the Progressive settlement was also open to attack because it covered Biondo’s medical bills, her attorney’s fees, and lost wages. Gold did not act unreasonably in asking whether 522(d)(11)(D) covered Biondo’s settlements. View "Biondo v. Gold, Lange, Majoros & Smalarz" on Justia Law

by
The case arises out of the insolvency of the Crescent Bank and Trust Company (“Crescent”) and the conduct of its customer lawyer, a manager of his law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider, LLC (“Hardwick law firm”). In 2009, Crescent, a Georgia bank, made the lawyer a loan for $631,276.71. The lawyer, as his law firm’s manager, signed a security agreement that pledged, as collateral, his law firm’s certificate of time deposit (“CD”) for $631,276.71. When Crescent failed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), as receiver, took over and sold the lawyer’s loan and CD collateral to Renasant Bank. The lawyer then made loan payments to Renasant, and Renasant held the CD collateral. Landcastle sued Renasant (as successor to the FDIC and Crescent), claiming Renasant was liable for $631,276.71, the CD amount. Landcastle’s lawsuit seeks to invalidate the Hardwick law firm’s security agreement.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The court explained that Landcastle’s lack-of-authority claims are barred under D’Oench because they rely on evidence that was outside Crescent’s records when the FDIC took over and sold the lawyer’s loan and CD collateral to Renasant. The court concluded that the lawyer’s acting outside the scope of his authority did not render the security agreement void but, at most, only voidable. A voidable interest is sufficient to pass the CD security agreement to the FDIC and to trigger the D’Oench shield View "Landcastle Acquisition Corp. v. Renasant Bank" on Justia Law

by
A bankruptcy court imposed sanctions against Defendant. The sanctions arose from an adversary proceeding in the bankruptcy court brought by the United States Trustee against Defendant, UpRight Law LLC, Sperro LLC and other defendants. UpRight is a Chicago-based bankruptcy legal services company that operates through a nationwide network of “local partners.” After Defendant signed a partnership agreement with UpRight, he filed more than 30 bankruptcy cases as a partner. The bankruptcy court also found that Delafield violated Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 5.1 and 5.3. After the district court affirmed sanctions, Defendant appealed, asserting the sanctions order violated his due process rights.   The court explained that to be sure, a lawyer facing suspension or disbarment is entitled to notice of the charges for which such discipline is sought and an opportunity to be heard on those issues. The court explained that the complaint did not cite to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct that Defendant was ultimately found to have violated. Identifying such rules is certainly preferred in an action seeking suspension or disbarment. But this omission did not violate Defendant’s due process rights. The complaint adequately notified Defendant of the conduct for which he was being accused and the sanctions that were being sought. View "U. S. Trustee v. Darren Delafield" on Justia Law