Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Chen sued BMW for breach of warranty and for violating the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (Civ. Code 1790) and the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (section 1750). After the suit was pending for about a year, the defendants communicated an offer under Code of Civil Procedure Section 998, to have a $160,000 judgment entered against them; the defendants would pay Chen’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, as determined by the court. Chen would return the vehicle. Chen rejected the offer as “fatally vague and uncertain. The litigation continued for another two years. The parties settled on the day of the trial. The terms of the settlement were essentially identical to the section 998 offer.Chen moved as a prevailing party for attorney fees and costs of $436,071.82. The trial court awarded only $53,509.51, including only fees and costs accrued through July 2017, 45 days after the section 998 offer was made. The court of appeal affirmed. BMW’s offer complied with the statutory requirements and Chen did not achieve a result more favorable than its terms. The statute, therefore, disallowed recovery of attorney fees and costs accrued after the offer was made. View "Chen v. BMW of North America" on Justia Law

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Jail personnel search inmate mail for contraband. To preserve confidentiality, mail from an inmate to an attorney is opened in front of the inmate; the contents are visually inspected but not read. An officer noticed an envelope from Cortez addressed to his attorney; with a “bulk in the center.” It smelled of feces. Suspecting the envelope contained contraband, he opened it but not in front of Cortez. The envelope contained another envelope fashioned from the lined yellow paper, marked “do not read.” The officer opened it and found multiple "kites," each made from different colored paper and with different writing. Kites are clandestine notes, written by inmates on small pieces of paper in very small print, then rolled up to minimize their size and facilitate concealment. The officer informed his supervisor.A magistrate conducted an in-camera examination and concluded: The messages have “the teeny tiny writing ... indicative of a gang-related kite…. I did not read the substance … none of them were addressed to [Cortez’s attorney]. None of them ... appeared to even be written by Cortez…. I do not find the attorney-client privilege applies.” The court of appeal agreed. The magistrate’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. Even if the jail violated the regulation requiring legal mail to be opened in the inmate’s presence, the remedy would not automatically render everything inside the envelope—including communications intended for people other than an attorney—subject to attorney-client privilege. View "People v. Superior Court of Santa Cruz County" on Justia Law

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The primary issue, in this case, is whether Respondent Whittier Union High School District (hereinafter Respondent or the District) is required to reimburse Appellant Law Office (hereinafter Appellant or Firm) for the “cost of work product” under California Elections Code section, 10010. Appellant had sent Respondent a demand letter that resulted in Respondent changing its at-large voting system to district-based voting. This case turns on whether the trial court’s determination that Appellant did not represent a “prospective plaintiff” under section 10010 requires evidence limited to identifying a person who has formally retained the lawyer, or whether it also encompasses a law firm working on behalf of one or more persons the law firm avers it will be able to name as a plaintiff if the demand letter is unsuccessful.   The Second Appellate District reversed and remanded so that the trial court may determine the “cost of work product” recoverable by Appellant. The court concluded that the trial court’s finding that Appellant did not represent a prospective plaintiff is based on an overly restrictive interpretation of the statute. The court further concluded that the “cost of work product” for which a prospective plaintiff is entitled to reimbursement is not limited to out-of-pocket expenditures by the prospective plaintiff, but also includes costs advanced by their lawyer. View "Law Office of Carlos R. Perez v. Whittier Union High School Dist." on Justia Law

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The Jenkinses bought a one-bedroom home, built in 1909, with a small accessory cottage in San Anselmo. Following conversations with an architect, contractors, and the Town Planning Director, they sought permits to demolish the existing structures and build a new home with a detached studio. The Planning Commission approved the project. The Jenkinses nevertheless worked with neighbors to accommodate their concerns and submitted revised plans, which were also approved. Four individuals unsuccessfully appealed to the Town Council. Attorney Brandt-Hawley filed a mandamus petition on behalf of an unincorporated association and an individual, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), although the appeal did not include any CEQA claim and CEQA has a categorical exemption for single-family homes, and “violation of the Town Municipal Code,” without citation.The trial judge denied the petition, criticizing aspects of Brandt-Hawley’s briefing and advocacy. Petitioners appealed, then offered to dismiss the appeal for a waiver of fees and costs. The Jenkinses rejected the offer. On the day the opening brief was due, Brandt-Hawley dismissed the appeal. The Jenkinses sued Brandt-Hawley for malicious prosecution. The court denied Brandt-Hawley’s special anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to strike. The court of appeal affirmed. The Jenkinses met their burden under step two of the anti-SLAPP procedure demonstrating a probability of success on their complaint. View "Jenkins v. Brandt-Hawley" on Justia Law

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Iris, incorporated in 1999, went public in 2007. In 2019, the SEC revoked the registration of Iris’s securities. Since its incorporation, Chin has been chairman of Iris’s three-member board of directors, its president, secretary, CEO, CFO, and majority shareholder. Chin’s sister was also a board member. Farnum was a board member, 2003-2014, and owned eight percent of Iris’s stock. In 2014, Farnum requested inspection of corporate minutes, documents relating to the acquisition of Iris’s subsidiary, and cash flow statements, then, in his capacity as a board member and shareholder, sought a writ of mandate. Before the hearing on Farnum’s petition, Farnum was voted off Iris’s board. The court denied Farnum’s petition (Corporations Code 1602) because Farnum no longer had standing to inspect corporate records due to his ejection from the board, and his request was “overbroad and lack[ed] a statement of purpose reasonably related to his interests as a shareholder.”Weeks later, Farnum served 31 inspection requests on Iris and subsequently filed another mandamus petition. The superior court denied the petition and Farnum’s associated request for attorney fees. On remand with respect to certain records, Farnum sought reimbursement of his expenses in enforcing his rights as a shareholder ($91,000). The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the request. Farnum scored “only a partial victory” given the scope of what he sought; there was no showing that on the whole, Iris acted without justification in refusing Farnum’s inspection demands. View "Farnum v. Iris Biotechnologies Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code (Chapter 11) amid multiple client claims against her for fraud, embezzlement and misappropriation. After she settled the claims against her, the bankruptcy court dismissed the bankruptcy case. Plaintiff then, without seeking leave from the bankruptcy court, sued her court-approved bankruptcy counsel for malpractice in state court. The superior court sustained bankruptcy counsel’s demurrer to Plaintiff’s first amended complaint without leave to amend and entered a judgment dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice. On appeal, Plaintiff contends the superior court erred in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction under the Barton doctrine   The Second Appellate District reversed the judgment of the superior court sustaining bankruptcy counsel’s demurrer to Plaintiff’s first amended complaint without leave to amend and entered a judgment dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice. The court held that Plaintiff demonstrated a reasonable possibility that she can amend her complaint to state a cause of action, and the trial court’s dismissal with prejudice would preclude her even from later seeking leave from the bankruptcy court to refile View "Akhlaghpour v. Orantes" on Justia Law

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Taska was hired by TRR in 2017 but was terminated in 2018, allegedly based on her protest against the CEO’s discriminatory comments and her reports of workplace-related legal violations. After arbitration, Taska stated her intent to file a petition for attorney fees and costs under Government Code 12965(b), “upon a liability finding.” TRR also sought fees and costs, arguing Taska’s lawsuit should be deemed meritless, based on her “fabricated evidence.” TRR did not ask for any specific amount or offer supporting evidence. The arbitrator determined that Taska failed to prove her claims and was not entitled to fees or costs; TRR was not entitled to fees and costs because Taska’s claims were not frivolous. TRR later sought fees and costs, explaining that facts established by the arbitrator were not available at the time of the previous briefing. The arbitrator issued a new “Final Award,” awarding TRR $53,705.43. A Corrected Final Award increased the amount to $73,756.43, based on a calculation error.The trial court confirmed the liability determination but held that the arbitrator exceeded her authority by amending the original Award. The court of appeal affirmed. Once the 30-day period for correction (section 1284) runs, the award is final and the arbitrator’s jurisdiction ends apart from specific statutory exceptions, The court rejected TRR’s “placeholder” argument that the Award was not “final” because the issue of fees and costs was not ripe until the arbitrator determined the question of liability. View "Taska v. The RealReal, Inc." on Justia Law

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In this unlawful detainer action, counsel for plaintiff Shapell Socal Rental Properties, LLC (Shapell) requested and obtained a default and default judgment against defendant Chico’s FAS, Inc. (CFI) in direct violation of the ethical and statutory obligations confirmed in LaSalle v. Vogel, 36 Cal.App.5th 127 (2019). In the course of the underlying lease dispute, CFI had asked Shapell to direct communications regarding the subject lease to CFI’s counsel. Despite that request, Shapell’s counsel never communicated with CFI’s counsel about an intent to seek a default and default judgment before requesting one from the trial court. Shapell’s counsel not only failed to notify CFI’s counsel of the complaint, counsel also effected service of the complaint and the request for entry of default and default judgment in a way intentionally and precisely calculated to create a strong possibility of a default. CFI brought a motion under California Code of Civil Procedure sections 473(b) and 473.5 to set aside the default and default judgment. In that motion, CFI called out Shapell on its counsel’s ethical and statutory violation. Shapell’s response was to call CFI’s argument “specious.” The trial court denied CFI’s motion and failed to address the breach of ethical and statutory duties by Shapell’s counsel. The Court of Appeal could not "abide that result. Several factors applicable to motions for relief from default, along with counsel’s breach of ethics and of section 583.130, support our decision to reverse the order denying CFI’s motion to set aside the default and default judgment." View "Shapell Socal Rental Properties v. Chico's FAS" on Justia Law

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In 2016, McLaughlin, the head of a business, was arrested based on an alleged domestic dispute with his former girlfriend, Olivia. In 2018, an Illinois court ordered all records in that case expunged, and the destruction of McLaughlin’s arrest records and photographs. McLaughlin sought an order of protection against Olivia. The terms of the parties’ subsequent settlement were incorporated in a judgment, which was sealed. Doe nonetheless posted multiple Twitter messages about McLaughlin’s arrest with McLaughlin’s mugshot, tagging McLaughlin’s business contacts and clients, and media outlets. Twitter suspended Doe’s accounts. The Illinois court issued a subpoena requiring the production of documents related to Doe’s Twitter accounts and issued “letters rogatory” to the San Francisco County Superior Court. Under the authority of that court, McLaughlin's subpoena was to be served on Twitter in San Francisco, requesting information personally identifying the account holders. In a motion to quash, Doe argued he had a First Amendment right to engage in anonymous speech and a right to privacy under the California Constitution. Doe sought attorney fees, (Code of Civil Procedure1987.2(c))The court of appeal affirmed orders in favor of McLaughlin. No sanctions were awarded. Doe failed to establish he prevailed on his motion to quash or that “the underlying action arises from [his] exercise of free speech rights on the Internet.” Doe presented no legally cognizable argument that McLaughlin failed to make a prima facie showing of breach of the settlement agreement. View "Doe v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

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601 Main sued Frym, its tenant, to collect $145,211.29 in unpaid rent, taxes, and insurance premiums. Frym filed a cross-complaint against 601, DeCarli (601’s principal), and their attorney, Leoni, for fraud, extortion, and breach of contract, alleging that 601, DeCarli, and Leoni entered Frym’s office “without announcement or an appointment and placed a blank promissory note in front of [him] and berated him and yelled at him to sign a blank promissory note or he would be evicted.” 601, DeCarli, and Leoni each filed a separate anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, Code Civ. Proc. 425.16. The court granted DeCarli’s motion and awarded $6,310 in attorney fees and costs. Frym dismissed the cross-complaints against Leoni and 601. The court stated that “there is no reason that all three of these motions could not have been brought as one" and, although Leoni and 601 prevailed, or would have prevailed absent the dismissals, no further fees were merited.The court of appeal reversed. The trial court erred in not employing the lodestar method when it denied 601 and Leoni’s requests for attorney fees and costs; they were prevailing parties to their anti-SLAPP motions. Since the court found that the three motions contained similar or identical arguments, it could have reduced the lodestar figure based on duplicative work. View "Frym v. 601 Main Street LLC" on Justia Law