Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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Appellant a Louisiana attorney representing oil spill claimants in the settlement program, was accused of funneling money to a settlement program staff attorney through improper referral payments. In a disciplinary proceeding, the en banc Eastern District of Louisiana found that Appellant’s actions violated the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and suspended him from practicing law before the Eastern District of Louisiana for one year. Appellant appealed, arguing that the en banc court misapplied the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and abused its discretion by imposing an excessive sanction.   The Fifth Circuit found that the en banc court misapplied Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a) but not Rule 8.4(d). Additionally, the en banc court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a one-year suspension on Appellant for his violation of 8.4(d). Accordingly, the court reversed the en banc court’s order suspending Appellant from the practice of law for one year each for violations of Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a). The court affirmed the en banc court’s holding that Appellant violated Rule 8.4(d). Finally, the court remanded to the en banc court for further proceedings. On remand, the court is free to impose on Appellant whatever sanction it sees fit for the 8.4(d) violation, including but not limited to its previous one-year suspension. View "In re Jonathan Andry" on Justia Law

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Clinton Mullin and Valrena Nelson appealed the dismissal of their claims for legal malpractice/negligence. Mullin and Nelson argued Elizabeth Pendlay committed legal malpractice by: (1) stipulating to jury instructions that misstated the law; (2) failing to plead the affirmative defenses of unclean hands and/or illegality; (3) not objecting to a video admitted as evidence at the trial; and (4) filing a motion to stay with the North Dakota Supreme Court before filing an appeal. In November 2014, Mullin retained Pendlay to commence an action to evict Richard Twete from property Twete "sold" to Mullin meant to be a temporary conveyance. Twete subsequently sued Mullin and Nelson seeking a return of his property, alleging a confidential relationship existed between Twete and Mullin. Pendlay served as the attorney for Mullin and Nelson through most of the litigation and was their attorney for the trial. A jury found Mullin to have breached a confidential relationship with Twete. Mullin and Nelson were ordered to convey the property back to Twete and compensate Twete for the value of any property that could not be returned. Represented by new counsel, Mullin and Nelson appealed and the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. After the conclusion of the Twete litigation, Mullin and Nelson filed suit against Pendlay. The Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was proper and affirmed the judgment. View "Mullin, et al. v. Pendlay" on Justia Law

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The controversy, in this case, is rooted in the propriety of a lawyer charging a wage earner a contingent attorney’s fee for prosecuting the wage earner’s Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims in a U.S. District Court. The wage earner paid the contingent fee and then sued his lawyer in Alabama state court to recover part of the fee. That court stayed the action so the wage earner and his lawyer could present the attorney’s fee controversy to the District Court that had presided over the FLSA case. The district court found the contingent fee excessive, ordered the lawyer to return the attorney’s fee, and dismissed the proceeding as moot.   The Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal and instructed the district court to vacate its order and deny the attorney’s and Plaintiff’s motions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court explained that had Plaintiff’s Rule 60 motion sought actual Rule 60 relief, the district court would have had jurisdiction to entertain it because the district court had jurisdiction over the underlying FLSA and employment discrimination controversy. But Plaintiff did not ask for—and the District Court did not grant—the type of relief authorized by Rule 60. Doing anything more than reopening the matter that had previously been dismissed, which is all Rule 60 allows, required an independent jurisdictional basis. The district court did not have such an independent jurisdictional basis when it litigated the state court breach of contract action as if it had been brought under 28 U.S.C. Section 1332. View "Carlos Padilla v. Redmont Properties LLC, et al" on Justia Law

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Kimberlyn Seals and her counsels of record, Felecia Perkins, Jessica Ayers, and Derek D. Hopson, Sr., appealed a chancery court's: (1) Contempt Order entered on April 8, 2020; (2) the Temporary Order entered on April 28, 2020; (3) the Jurisdictional Final Judgment entered on June 16, 2020; (4) the Final Judgment on Motion for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law entered on June 18, 2020; and (5) the Amended Final Judgment entered on June 18, 2020. Seals argued the chancellor lacked jurisdiction and erroneously found them to be in contempt of court. These orders arose out of a paternity suit filed by the father of Seals' child, born 2017. A hearing was set for April 7, 2020, but Seals sought a continuance. The motion was deemed untimely, and that the court expected Seals and her counsel to appear at the April 7 hearing. When Seals and her counsel failed to appear, the court entered the contempt orders at issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court: (1) affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Perkins and Ayers were in direct criminal contempt for their failure to appear at a scheduled April 7 hearing; (2) vacated the $3,000 sanction because it exceeded the penalties prescribed by statute; (3) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees to opposing counsel; (4) found the chancellor erred in finding Hopson to be in direct criminal contempt for failing to appear - "Constructive criminal contempt charges require procedural safeguards of notice and a hearing;" and (5) found the chancellor erroneously found the attorneys to be in direct criminal contempt for violation of the September 2019 Temporary Order. "If proved, such acts are civil contempt." The matter was remanded for a determination of whether an indirect civil contempt proceeding should be commenced. View "Seals, et al. v. Stanton" on Justia Law

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Janelle Henderson, a Black woman, and Alicia Thompson, a white woman, were involved in a motor vehicle collision. Thompson admitted fault for the collision but made no offer to compensate Henderson for her injuries. Henderson claimed that her preexisting condition was seriously exacerbated by the collision and sued for damages. During the trial, Thompson’s defense team attacked the credibility of Henderson and her counsel—also a Black woman—in language that called on racist tropes and suggested impropriety between Henderson and her Black witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of only $9,200 for Henderson. Henderson moved for a new trial or additur on the ground that the repeated appeals to racial bias affected the verdict, yet the trial court did not even grant an evidentiary hearing on that motion. The court instead stated it could not “require attorneys to refrain from using language that is tied to the evidence in the case, even if in some contexts the language has racial overtones.” The Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing and also by failing to impose any sanctions for Thompson’s discovery violations. Judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Henderson v. Thompson" 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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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law

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Crane filed a complaint for retaliatory discharge, alleging that his employment with Midwest was terminated after he reported numerous health and safety violations to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Crane was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $625,000 in punitive damages. The appellate court affirmed. After losing the underlying action and paying damages to its former employee, Midwest filed a legal malpractice complaint against its attorneys and the Sandberg law firm, alleging that the attorneys failed to list all witnesses intended to be called at trial in compliance with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 213(f), resulting in six defense witnesses being barred from testifying, and several other errors.The circuit court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss but certified a question for immediate appeal: Does Illinois’ public policy on punitive damages and/or the statutory prohibition on punitive damages [in legal malpractice actions, 735 ILCS 5/2-1115] bar recovery of incurred punitive damages in a legal malpractice case where the client alleges that, but for the attorney's negligence in the underlying case, the jury in the underlying case would have returned a verdict awarding either no punitive damages or punitive damages in a lesser sum?” The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court answered the question in the negative and affirmed the judgment. View "Midwest Sanitary Service, Inc. v. Sandberg, Phoenix & Von Gontard, P.C." 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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South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson retained Respondents Willoughby & Hoefer, P.A., and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters, P.A., (collectively, the Law Firms) to represent the State in litigation against the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Wilson and the Law Firms executed a litigation retention agreement, which provided that the Law Firms were hired on a contingent fee basis. When the State settled its claims with the DOE for $600 million, Wilson transferred $75 million in attorneys' fees to the Law Firms. Appellants challenged the transfer, claiming it was unconstitutional and unreasonable. The circuit court dismissed Appellants' claims for lack of standing, and the South Carolina Supreme Court certified the case for review of the standing issue. The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's finding that Appellants lacked public importance standing and remanded the case for the circuit court to consider the merits of Appellants' claims. View "South Carolina Public Interest Foundation, et al. v. Wilson" on Justia Law