Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's order awarding plaintiff attorney fees following the settlement of her action against Hyundai. Plaintiff moved for a fee award using the lodestar method for a total of $191,688.75, but the district court only awarded $73,864. The court held that the trial court did not engage in an inappropriate proportionality analysis; the trial court did not abuse its discretion by cutting fees billed by six of eleven attorneys; and plaintiff has shown no abuse of discretion in the trial court's reductions of the attorneys' hourly rates. View "Morris v. Hyundai Motor America" on Justia Law

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Attorney-defendant Peter Porter represented plaintiff Elise Sharon in a lawsuit resulting in a 2008 default judgment entered in favor of Sharon. In October 2015, a judgment debtor wrote to Sharon, claiming the judgment was void. In November 2015, Sharon’s new attorney correctly opined that the judgment was indeed void. In September 2016, the debtor filed a motion to vacate the judgment, which was granted the following month. In May 2017, Sharon filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Porter. During a court trial on stipulated facts, the trial court found the judgment had been valid until it was vacated. The court also found the statute of limitations applicable to Sharon’s lawsuit had been tolled until “actual injury” first occurred in September 2016, when Sharon began incurring hourly attorney fees to oppose the judgment debtor’s motion to vacate the judgment. After review, the Court of Appeal reversed, finding the default judgment was void independent of it being vacated. "Discovery of the void judgment and whatever injury resulted therefrom occurred at least by November 2015 when the judgment debtor wrote to Sharon and her new attorney claiming the judgment was void. The statute ran one year from that date. Sharon’s 2017 lawsuit was time-barred." View "Sharon v. Porter" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a malpractice action against Zbylut, Cox and LPS alleging they had violated their professional duties by undertaking representation of Purposeful Press without her consent, and rendering legal advice in the underlying lawsuits that was adverse to her interests. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of defendants' motions for summary judgment, holding that plaintiff did not dispute that she lacked standing to seek reimbursement of Purposeful Press's funds, and plaintiff failed to present any evidence that would support a finding of an implied attorney-client relationship with the firm. In this case, plaintiff has not identified any harm that defendants' representation of Purposeful Press was alleged to have caused her in her representative capacity as a shareholder. Furthermore, even if there were circumstances under which a corporate attorney might owe such a duty to individual shareholders, no such circumstances were present here. View "Sprengel v. Zbylut" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment entered in favor of the law firm in an action where defendant entered a written settlement and release from a 2008 judgment to the plaintiff in the underlying lawsuit. The settlement and release released the attorney fees and costs due to the law firm pursuant to the firm's retainer agreement with plaintiff. The law firm then brought this action against defendant, seeking attorney fees and costs, plus interest, awarded in the underlying litigation and incorporated into the judgment. The court held that defendant's act of executing the memorandum was communicative, but it was one act in a course of tortious conduct to deprive the law firm of its attorney fees. Therefore, defendant's noncommunicative conduct was not protected by the litigation privilege. The court also held that there was sufficient evidence to establish that defendant knew of the law firm's attorney fee lien and that he intended to interfere with the firm's collection of its attorney fees and costs. View "Mancini & Associates v. Schwetz" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs sued Kissler and her medical marijuana collective (Alternatives), alleging defendants failed to pay them for their contract work growing marijuana. The summons and complaint were served: defendants actively participated in the case but failed to file any responsive pleading. They did not move to quash service. At a case management conference, the judge warned defendants their response to the complaint was long-overdue and that challenging the validity of service required a motion. The court ordered the plaintiffs to take the defendants’ default by a specified date or else be sanctioned. Weeks later, plaintiffs took their default. Meanwhile, Kissler was pursuing cases she had filed against plaintiffs: an unlawful detainer action in which she obtained a writ to remove plaintiffs from her property, and a breach of contract action that alleged plaintiffs, not Kissler had breached the contract. Kissler obtained a discovery ruling in her separate contract action that, contrary to her complaint allegations, deemed plaintiffs to have admitted Kissler was not a party to that contract. Kissler sought to set the default aside. The court of appeal affirmed the denials of discretionary relief from default under Code of Civil Procedure 473(b)) on the ground of excusable mistake. Kissler was capable of ascertaining the rules and using them to her advantage when it suited her. Alternatives was “one and the same” party as Kissler, an attorney. The attorney declaration of fault she filed was of no legal effect for purposes of granting mandatory relief from default under section 473(b). View "McClain v. Kissler" on Justia Law

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After appellants obtained a judgment in their favor, the trial court declared Greene the prevailing party and awarded him attorney fees under a contractual attorney fee provision. Greene appealed, contending that the trial court erred in calculating his damages. Greene later voluntarily dismissed his appeal. Respondent then moved for an award of attorney fees incurred on appeal. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that the trial court erred in awarding respondent her attorney fees because Greene was the prevailing party in the action. The court explained that the fact that the court awarded respondent costs in connection with the prior appeal did not conclusively establish her entitlement to attorney fees under Civil Code section 1717. Furthermore, respondent was not entitled to attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 128.5 where Greene's appeal was not frivolous. View "De la Carriere v. Greene" on Justia Law

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Nicole, age 13 became a dependent of the juvenile court. Nicole suffered from emotional and behavioral problems and later became “[a] dependent minor who turns 18 years of age” with a permanent plan of long-term foster care, continuing under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction because she agreed that she would continue her education. The designation continued despite her noncompliance, a pregnancy, and living in an unapproved home with a boyfriend who had a history of selling illegal drugs and committing domestic violence. When Nicole turned 20, the Agency recommended that the court dismiss Nicole’s dependency, citing failure to participate in services. In a special writ proceeding, the court of appeal directed the juvenile court to vacate its order requiring Nicole’s therapist to testify about confidential communications relating to whether Nicole has a qualifying mental condition. The juvenile court later terminated its dependency jurisdiction because she had reached the age of 21. The court dismissed Nicole’s case. In her dependency case, Nicole sought an award of attorney’s fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which codifies the private attorney general doctrine exception. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the motion; section 1021.5 fees are not recoverable in a dependency proceeding. View "In re Nicole S." on Justia Law

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Taeb’s attorney, Trigger, failed to appear for trial in Taeb’s dissolution case. The court entered a Code of Civil Procedure section 128.5 sanctions order. The court of appeal reversed as to Taeb and affirmed as to Trigger, abrogating a 2016 holding that an objective standard applied when determining whether a party’s or an attorney’s conduct is sanctionable under section 128.5, as it did under section 128.7 and that section 128.5 did not incorporate the safe harbor provisions of section 128.7. Section 128.5 has since been amended to specifically overrule the decision on those points. The law concerning the kind of conduct sanctionable under sections 128.5 and 128.7 has largely returned to its previous state; a more stringent standard requiring subjective bad faith applies to section 128.5, and a lesser standard, requiring only objective bad faith, applies to section 128.7. The conduct for which Trigger was sanctioned can support the requisite finding of bad faith. Taab, however, did appear on the scheduled trial date and only relayed what Trigger told him. There is no evidence Taab was even aware Trigger had misrepresented her readiness for trial or that she made no effort to correct what she had told the court. View "In re: Marriage of Sahafzadeh-Taeb & Taeb" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's restitution order imposed after defendant pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and injuring another person, and admitted allegations that he had a blood-alcohol content in excess of 0.20 percent, injured more than one person, and suffered a prior conviction for driving under the influence. The court held that the trial court properly ordered defendant to pay $178,000 in restitution because there was a rational, factual basis for that order: the injured party incurred those costs to settle her civil lawsuit. In this case, there were no conflicting policies that would constitute compelling and extraordinary reasons to refuse to order restitution and thus the district court did not abuse its discretion when it ordered defendant to pay for the injured party's attorney fees. The court also held that the trial court did not err by declining to apportion the attorney fee award between fees the injured party incurred to collect economic damages and those incurred to collect noneconomic damages. Finally, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in choosing the method to calculate the restitution award. View "People v. Grundfor" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's grant of O'Gara Coach's motion to disqualify Richie Litigation and its attorneys from representing plaintiff, a former sales advisor at O'Gara Coach, in plaintiff's action against O'Gara Coach for race discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and other employment-related misconduct. The court held that O'Gara Coach failed to present evidence Richie possessed privileged information materially related to the pending litigation. The court also held that Richie's likely testimony as a percipient witness did not justify disqualification of Richie Litigation or other attorneys at the firm under the advocate-witness rule. View "Wu v. O'Gara Coach Co., LLC" on Justia Law