Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Rozanova, self-represented, sued her neighbors, the respondents, in 2019. Rozanova had previously asserted claims involving the same property in 2013. The respondents unsuccessfully moved to have Rozanova declared a vexatious litigant and to require her to post bond or dismiss the action. The trial court later granted their motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding the action was “barred by res judicata/collateral estoppel and the statute of limitation.”Respondents filed a memorandum of costs, seeking $2,905.69 from Rozanova: $1,080 in filing and motion fees, $90 in court reporter fees, $1,253.04 for preparing photocopies of exhibits, and $482.65 in electronic filing or service fees. Among her objections, Rozanova claimed that recovery for photocopies “is limited to trial exhibits” under Code of Civil Procedure section 1033.5(a)(13). The trial court reduced the amount for electronic filing and service fees and approved an award of $2,743.04. The court found the motions to declare Rozanova a vexatious litigant and for an order restricting discovery “were made in good faith.” The court of appeal affirmed. The costs are recoverable outside the context of trial under section 1033.5(a)(13), View "Rozanova v. Uribe" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Sayedeh Sahba Amjadi appealed the dismissal entered after a settlement was entered by her attorney on her behalf and over her objection with defendant Jerrod West Brown, and appealed an order denying her subsequent motion to vacate the judgment. The settlement was entered by plaintiff’s attorney pursuant to a provision in the attorney’s contingent fee agreement, which purported to grant the attorney the right to accept settlement offers on the client’s behalf in the attorney’s “sole discretion,” so long as the attorney believed in good faith that the settlement offer was reasonable and in the client’s best interest. The Court of Appeal determined such a provision violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and was void to the extent it purported to grant an attorney the right to accept a settlement over the client’s objection. Accordingly, the Court held the settlement to be void and reversed the resulting judgment. The Court also referred plaintiff’s former attorneys to the State Bar for potential discipline, as required by law and by Canon 3D(2) of the Code of Judicial Ethics. View "Amjadi v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and her late husband, Grant Tinker, signed a premarital agreement (PMA) that in relevant part governed the ownership and testamentary disposition of their marital home. Respondents, Larry Ginsberg and his law firm, represented plaintiff in connection with the PMA and approved the PMA as to form on her behalf. Non-attorney Sidney Tessler, Tinker's longtime accountant and business manager, negotiated terms and approved the PMA as to form on Tinker's behalf. Plaintiff, the estate, and Tinker's children subsequently litigated plaintiff's and the children's claims, which were ultimately resolved in a global settlement.Plaintiff then filed suit against Ginsberg for legal malpractice in connection with the preparation and execution of the PMA, alleging that the PMA was unenforceable due to Ginsberg’s failure to ensure that Tinker signed a waiver of legal representation. The trial court granted Ginsberg's motion for summary judgment on the ground that Tinker ratified the PMA.The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that there is a triable issue of material fact as to the threshold issue of whether Tinker satisfied the requirements of Family Code section 1615 when he executed the PMA. The court explained that, if the factfinder determines that Tinker did not comply with section 1615, and the PMA was therefore not enforceable, the question becomes whether Tinker's subsequent amendments to his estate plan could ratify the PMA and thereby rectify the statutory violation. The court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding that they could and did. The court held that a premarital agreement that is not enforceable under section 1615 is void, not voidable, and accordingly cannot be ratified. Because none of the other grounds asserted in the summary judgment motion support the trial court's ruling, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on plaintiff's malpractice claim. The court denied plaintiff's request for judicial notice as moot. View "Knapp v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law

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Hom rented a San Francisco building to Entertainment for a restaurant. The lease allowed Entertainment to encumber its leasehold in favor of its lenders. A lender with an encumbrance could do anything required of Entertainment under the lease, foreclose on the leasehold, receive copies of notices, cure any breach by Entertainment, and enter into a new lease following any default by Entertainment; the parties were not allowed to modify or cancel the lease without the lender's consent. The lease stated that the prevailing party in any dispute is entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees. Entertainment later signed promissory notes with Lenders and pledged all of its assets as security. A dispute arose between Entertainment and Hom that resulted in litigation. Entertainment sued for breach of contract. Hom’s cross-complaint alleged that Lenders interfered with Hom’s ability to collect rent and evict Entertainment, that the loans were a sham.The court enforced a settlement between Hom and Entertainment, dismissing the cross-complaint with prejudice. Lenders sought attorney’s fees based on the lease. The court of appeal affirmed the award of approximately $150,000 in fees. Because the lease goes into such detail regarding lenders’ rights, it was reasonably foreseeable that disputes involving lenders would arise over those rights. It is natural to conclude that the landlord and tenant intended to give lenders the same rights to attorney’s fees as the direct parties. View "Hom v. Petrou" on Justia Law

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Retired superior court judges who have participated in the Temporary Assigned Judges Program (TAJP) challenged recent changes to the program made by the Chief Justice, including limits on the duration of service in the program with some exceptions. Plaintiffs, claiming these changes discriminate against “older” retired judges, filed suit, alleging disparate impact age discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court dismissed without leave to amend on the ground legislative immunity bars the suit.The court of appeal reversed and remanded to allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. Legislative immunity shields the Chief Justice and the Judicial Council from suit, regardless of the nature of the relief sought, to the extent plaintiffs’ discrimination claim is based on the Chief Justice’s promulgation of changes to the TAJP. Legislative immunity does not foreclose suit to the extent the claim is based on the defendants’ enforcement of the challenged provisions through individual judicial assignments. Judicial immunity applies to the Chief Justice’s assignment of individual judges under the new TAJP provisions, and while judicial immunity forecloses monetary relief, it does not foreclose prospective declaratory relief. The plaintiffs’ current allegations are insufficient but a disparate impact age discrimination claim can be based on disparate impact on an older subgroup within the class of persons protected under the Act--employees 40 years of age and older. View "Mahler v. Judicial Council of California" on Justia Law

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It is improper for counsel to assert or imply facts not in evidence that counsel knows could be refuted by evidence the court has excluded; it is also improper to argue facts not in the record, and to continue to argue those facts after the court has instructed counsel to stop.The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's order granting defendant's motion for a new trial based on attorney misconduct during closing argument in this vehicle collision case. The trial court found, among other misconduct, that defense counsel falsely argued excluded evidence did not exist and argued facts outside the record. The court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting defendant's motion for a new trial on causation and damages, concluding that defense counsel's improper arguments resulted in a miscarriage of justice warranting a new trial. View "Jackson v. Park" on Justia Law

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Judge John W. Ouderkirk (Ret.) was the privately compensated temporary judge selected by petitioner, Angelina Jolie, and real party in interest, William Bradley Pitt, to hear their family law case. Jolie filed a statement of disqualification challenging Judge Ouderkirk based on his failure to disclose, as required by the California Code of Judicial Ethics, several matters involving Pitt's counsel in which Judge Ouderkirk had been retained to serve as a temporary judge. After the superior court ruled against Jolie, she petitioned for writ of mandate and supporting papers.The Court of Appeal granted the writ of mandate directing the superior court to vacate its order denying Jolie's statement of disqualification and to make a new order disqualifying Judge Ouderkirk. The court concluded that Judge Ouderkirk's ethical breach, considered together with the information disclosed concerning his recent professional relationships with Pitt's counsel, might cause an objective person, aware of all the facts, reasonably to entertain a doubt as to the judge's ability to be impartial. Therefore, the court concluded that disqualification is required. View "Jolie v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against his criminal defense attorney for legal malpractice after he entered a plea of guilty to federal tax charges in United States District Court. Plaintiff alleged his attorney, Martin Schainbaum, negligently advised him to sign "closing agreements" by which he agreed to pay civil tax fraud penalties as part of the disposition of his criminal case. Plaintiff contended that but for Schainbaum's negligence, he would not have agreed to that obligation.The Court of Appeal found that the trial court properly sustained the demurrer without leave to amend because plaintiff failed to plead actual innocence, a necessary element of his cause of action for legal malpractice arising out of a criminal proceeding.The court explained that the civil penalties arose out of the criminal prosecution, as did any alleged legal malpractice attributable to Schainbaum. Furthermore, plaintiff was required to allege actual innocence. Under Coscia v. McKenna & Cuneo (2001) 25 Cal.4th 1194, 1200, plaintiff was required to obtain exoneration of his guilt as a prerequisite to proving actual innocence in his malpractice action against his former criminal defense counsel, which he failed to do so. Therefore, the demurrer was properly sustained and the court affirmed the judgment. View "Genis v. Schainbaum" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal is the attorney fee clause in a commercial space lease that plaintiff leased from defendant. After nearly three years and a jury trial, the jury gave plaintiff $6,450 on his contract claim, which was 3 percent of his request and which the trial court offset and reduced in the final judgment.The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that when the demand is $200,000 and the verdict is $6,450 or less, the trial judge has discretion to decide the "victory" is pyrrhic and nobody won. In this case, plaintiff's recovery was too little for him to be considered the prevailing party. Furthermore, if the court aggregated the judgments from the two cases that should have been unified by a notice of related cases, defendant is the net winner. View "Harris v. Rojas" on Justia Law

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A.B., a 40-year-old male diagnosed to suffer from severe schizophrenia, has been subject to conservatorships on and off for 20 years. A.B. has no real property or significant assets; his only income is $973.40 in monthly social security benefits. The public guardian was most recently appointed as A.B.’s conservator in 2016 and reappointed annually until the dismissal of the conservatorship in 2019. In August 2017, the public guardian was awarded $1,025 and county counsel was awarded $365 in compensation for services rendered 2016-2017. In 2018, the court entered an order for compensation for the public guardian and county counsel in the same amounts covering 2017-2018. The public guardian sought compensation for services rendered 2018-2019, $1,569.79 for its services, and $365 for county counsel.The court found that the request for compensation was just, reasonable, and necessary to sustain the support and maintenance of the conservatee, and approved the petition, again ordering the public guardian to defer collection of payment if it determined that collection would impose a financial hardship on the conservatee. The court of appeal reversed. While the court had sufficient information before it to enable consideration of the factors enumerated in Probate Code section 2942(b), the court failed to do so and improperly delegated responsibility to the public guardian to defer collection. View "Conservatorship of A.B." on Justia Law