Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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In this case, the parties consented to have their commercial dispute tried before a United States magistrate judge. But, allegedly unbeknownst to Defendant, the judge was longtime family friends with the lead trial lawyer for the plaintiff. Specifically, the lawyer had been a groomsman in the judge’s own wedding, and the judge officiated the wedding of the lawyer’s daughter three months before this lawsuit was filed. None of this information was disclosed to Defendant. After a twenty-day bench trial, the magistrate judge rendered judgment for the Plaintiff, awarding $124.5 million, including over $100 million in trebled damages. After the issuance of the judgment and award, Defendant learned about the undisclosed longstanding friendship and sought to have the magistrate-judge referral vacated. The district judge denied the request and denied discovery on the issue. Defendant appealed.   The Fifth Circuit vacated. The court concluded that the facts asserted here, if true, raise serious doubts about the validity of Defendant’s constitutionally essential consent to have its case tried by this magistrate judge. Further, the court explained remand was necessary because the facts were not sufficiently developed for the court to decide whether Defendant’s consent was validly given or whether vacatur of the referral was otherwise warranted. Accordingly, the court remanded for an evidentiary inquiry. View "I F G Port Hold v. Lake Charles Harbor" on Justia Law

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When Frank died, Leslie, his daughter, was appointed as executor and personal representative of the estate, Independent Administration of Estates Act (Prob. Code, 10400). In his will, Frank confirmed his surviving spouse’s (Caroline’s) interest in their community and quasi-community property, and bequeathed all of his separate property, plus his one-half interest in their community and quasi-community property, to his three children, explicitly disinheriting Caroline, who is not their mother. Leslie, on behalf of Frank’s estate, filed in propria persona in the probate action a complaint for partition by sale of real property, claiming that Caroline improperly withdrew proceeds from a reverse mortgage and other allegedly fraudulent conduct. Caroline argued Leslie, as the personal representative of Frank’s estate, could not appear in propria persona in that representative capacity.The probate court granted the motions to strike with leave to amend to give Leslie the opportunity to retain counsel. The court determined that Leslie’s complaint “primarily consists of civil claims typically raised in a civil action. [Leslie], a non-attorney, cannot properly prosecute those claims in propria persona in any venue.” The court of appeal affirmed. Leslie’s complaint is a claim against third parties for the benefit of the estate’s beneficiaries, such that it could not be prosecuted by Leslie in propria persona; her conduct in filing briefs and other pleadings as representative of the estate constituted the unlicensed practice of law. View "Estate of Sanchez" on Justia Law

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Holly Rich brought a legal malpractice action against her attorneys, Hepworth Holzer, LLP, and E. Craig Daue and Daue Buxbaum, PLLC (“Daue Buxbaum”) (collectively, “Respondents”), regarding their legal representation of Rich in an underlying medical malpractice action against Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (“EIRMC”), Dr. John Lassetter (a cardiologist), and Dr. Charles Phillips (an intensivist) (collectively, “EIRMC providers”). In that action, Rich's claims against the EIRMC providers failed because they were filed after the statute of limitations expired. Rich alleged in this action that those claims were not filed on time because of Respondents’ legal malpractice. Both sides filed substantive motions for summary judgment and the district court found that Rich could not prevail because she had “not disclosed any expert [medical] testimony which complies with the requirements of Idaho law for admissibility.” The district court concluded that, lacking evidence to “set out a prima facie case of medical malpractice,” in the underlying case, Rich’s claim against Respondents for legal malpractice failed. Rich appealed. The Idaho Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed. View "Rich v. Hepworth Holzer" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a practicing attorney, sued a municipal court judge, a prosecutor, and the City of St. Helens, Oregon, in state court. After Defendants removed the case to federal court, Plaintiff moved to remand to state court, claiming that, although his complaint referenced federal law, it was poorly drafted, and he did not intend to bring federal claims. The district court severed and remanded the state-only claims and dismissed the retained claims with prejudice. On appeal, Plaintiff filed an informal pro se brief and argued that he should have been granted leave to amend his complaint to exclude any mention of a federal claim and to seek a remand to state court.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The panel held that, although there is a good reason for awarding leeway to pro se parties who presumably are unskilled in the law and more prone to make pleading errors, that logic does not apply to practicing attorneys. The panel determined that his attempt to backtrack seemed aimed at robbing the government of its removal option and ensuring another bite at the apple in state court. The panel held that a sophisticated attorney like Plaintiff should not be allowed to jettison his own complaint when it is beneficial yet avoid the consequences of that renunciation. The panel held that because Plaintiff facially alleged a violation of his federal rights, the district court had federal question jurisdiction. In view of the immunity of the government defendants, the complaint could not be saved by amendment, and therefore the district court’s dismissal without leave to amend was proper. View "JAMES HUFFMAN V. AMY LINDGREN, ET AL" on Justia Law

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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

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Appellant Attorney Kezhaya represented The Satanic Temple, Inc., in its lawsuits against the City of Belle Plaine, Minnesota. The Temple sued the City, claiming that the City opened a limited public forum for a Christian monument, but closed the forum to exclude a Satanic monument. The City sought $33,886.80 in attorney’s fees incurred by responding to the complaint in the second lawsuit and preparing the motion for sanctions. The court determined that the rates charged by the City’s counsel were reasonable but observed that a portion of the work was duplicative of the first lawsuit and that the issues unique to the second lawsuit were not complex, novel, or difficult. The court thus reduced the requested amount by fifty percent and ordered the Temple’s counsel to pay the City $16,943.40 under Rule 11(c). Kezhaya appealed the sanctions order. He argues that the district court abused its discretion by (i) imposing sanctions, (ii) failing to consider non-monetary sanctions, and (iii) granting an arbitrary amount of sanctions.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that under the circumstances, it disagreed with Kezhaya’s contention about the righteousness of a second lawsuit. For the claims dismissed “without prejudice” in the first lawsuit, Kezhaya and the Temple made a strategic choice to seek leave to amend the complaint to correct the deficiencies identified in the dismissal order. Further, the court found that even if the City’s insurance carrier ultimately paid the fees, the fees were “incurred” for the motion and could be awarded under Rule 11(c)(2). View "Matthew Kezhaya v. City of Belle Plaine" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant on their legal-malpractice and Vermont Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) claims. Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC (MBP) owned property abutting Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont, and leased the property to Malletts Bay Homeowner’s Association, Inc. Under the lease, the Association had the obligation to keep the property in good condition. In 2011, following major erosion damage on a portion of the embankment on the lakefront, MBP’s manager notified the Association it was in default for failing to maintain the property and gave the Association forty-five days to make specified, substantial repairs. After the Association failed to make the repairs, MBP filed a complaint against the Association seeking damages and to void the lease for the Association’s violation of its terms. The Association retained defendant Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc. In the following months, the Association took steps to address MBP’s complaints. However, following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the Association breached the lease and was in default but declined to grant MBP’s request for lease forfeiture. Instead, it awarded MBP damages for remediation and attorney’s fees and costs. Both parties appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the Association breached the lease and that MBP was entitled to termination of the lease. Ultimately, the lease was terminated, and the Association’s members were evicted. Members then sued the Association, alleging that it was negligent in its administration of the provisions of the lease requiring it to keep the property in good condition. Members and the Association settled in 2018. As part of the settlement, the Association assigned members its right to sue defendant for legal malpractice. The Association and members filed a complaint against defendant in the instant case in December 2019, alleging legal malpractice and a violation of the VCPA. The crux of their legal-malpractice claim is a lost opportunity to settle. They proposed that, had defendant tried to settle, the Association and MBP would have likely agreed to terms involving repairs and payment of MBP’s attorney’s fees thus avoiding lease termination and eviction of the Association’s members. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was appropriate on the legal-malpractice claim but not on the VCPA claim, and thus reversed and remanded. View "Mansfield, et al. v. Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc." on Justia Law

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MAE and Zaycosky entered an employment contract. They could not agree on when Zaycosky promised to start his employment, so MAE sued in the state court venue prescribed in the contract. Zaycosky removed the case to federal court. MAE moved for remand to enforce the contract’s forum-selection clause. The district court remanded. MAE timely submitted a petition for costs and fees and an affidavit supporting its request for $29,517.25. Zaycosky argued that the court lacked authority under 28 U.S.C. 1447(c) to award costs and attorney fees for a remand based on a forum-selection clause, and, alternatively, that a fee award was not warranted because he had an objectively reasonable basis for removal.The Third Circuit vacated the award. Section 1447(c) allows fee shifting only for remands where the removal failed to meet the statutory requirements or where the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the removed case. A forum-selection clause is not a removal defect and does not deprive the district court of subject matter jurisdiction, the district court cannot remand and award attorney fees under 28 U.S.C. 1447(c). View "Medical Associates of Erie v. Zaycosky" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Energy Policy Advocates challenged a trial court’s conclusion that certain communications between different state attorney general offices were protected from disclosure under a public-records request, and further, that the trial court erred in declining to grant in-camera review of these documents. Additionally, plaintiff argued the trial court improperly granted only half of its fees despite substantially prevailing. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office (AGO) cross-appealed the trial court decision granting plaintiff any fees, arguing plaintiff was not entitled to fees as it did not substantially prevail. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision with respect to the withheld documents and reversed regarding the award of attorney’s fees. View "Energy Policy Advocates v. Attorney General’s Office" on Justia Law

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Mac Naughton, a New Jersey attorney, represented Harmelech in a lawsuit filed by RMG until Harmelech failed to pay his legal fees. Mac Naughton later purchased from RMG the rights to the unpaid portion of a settlement judgment and filed multiple actions against Harmelech, seeking to collect the Judgment. He sought to set aside Harmelech’s conveyance of his Highland Park home to his son. Harmelech moved to disqualify Mac Naughton under New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9(a): A lawyer who has represented a client “shall not thereafter represent another client in … a substantially related matter in which that client’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.” Judge Holderman barred Mac Naughton from acting as counsel in efforts to collect the RMG Judgment. Mac Naughton continued prosecuting the matter and filed similar actions before different judges. The Highland Park action was dismissed as a sanction for Mac Naughton’s defiance of the Order. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissals of four other cases.Mac Naughton then sued Harmelech, seeking to set aside a purportedly fraudulent stock transfer to collect the RMG Judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the suit's dismissal. This lawsuit was another attempt to circumvent the Holderman Order. Mac Naughton again argued that he did not violate Rule 1.9(a); he expects a New Jersey proceeding to vindicate him. But this dismissal was based on the Holderman Order, not Rule 1.9(a). Whether or not Mac Naughton violated his ethical duties as a New Jersey lawyer, he has a duty to comply with orders issued by Seventh Circuit courts. The appeal was frivolous; sanctions are warranted. View "Mac Naughton v. Asher Ventures, LLC" on Justia Law