Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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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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Plaintiff, an attorney, sued the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, associated government officials, and lawyers and other private defendants alleging, among other claims, they violated his constitutional rights by pursuing an ethics complaint against him. The district court granted the state defendants' motion to dismiss under Younger v. Harris and found that Plaintiff waived his abuse-of-process claim against the private defendants. The court also held that Plaintiff lacked standing to seek sanctions based on the private defendants' alleged violations of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct.Finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in any of its determinations, the Eighth Circuit affirmed. View "Herbert Igbanugo v. Minnesota OLPR" on Justia Law

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Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Tennessee imposed new requirements for conducting voter-registration activities. The law required individuals to register with the state; complete state-administered “training”; file a “sworn statement” agreeing to obey Tennessee’s voter-registration laws; and return “completed” voter-registration forms within 10 days. Plaintiffs argued that the law significantly burdened their rights of speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment, and was unconstitutionally vague. The court stated that the defendants had offered “little, if any, evidence” in support of the Act’s requirements, “despite having had an opportunity” and held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits, further noting “the vagueness about the scope and nature" of the Act. The court “ordered” the defendants “not to take any steps to implement” or otherwise enforce the challenged provisions. The defendants did not appeal. Seven months later, the state repealed the provisions.The district court approved a stipulation to dismiss the case without prejudice. Plaintiffs were awarded attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988, as the “prevailing party.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A preliminary injunction that, as a practical matter, concludes the litigation in the plaintiffs’ favor and that is not challenged on appeal, is, in this case, enduring enough to support prevailing-party status under section 1988. View "Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP v. Hargett" on Justia Law

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Langley was arrested in connection with a Newark drug trafficking operation. Langley agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack-cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, agreeing that he would not argue for a sentence below five years’ imprisonment and that he would enter into an appellate waiver, applicable to any challenges to a sentence of five years or below. During his plea hearing, the district court engaged in a thorough colloquy and ensured that Langley had discussed his plea agreement with his counsel and that he understood the appellate waiver. The court considered his arguments concerning the pandemic, the effect of the crack/powder cocaine disparity on the Guidelines calculation, and the age of his criminal convictions. The court determined that the applicable guideline range was 110-137 months and sentenced Langley to 60 months’ imprisonment.In lieu of filing an appellate brief, Langley’s counsel moved to withdraw, asserting in his Anders brief that he identified “no issue of even arguable merit.” Langley submitted a pro se brief, arguing for a further sentencing reduction. The Third Circuit dismissed. Langley’s court-appointed counsel filed an Anders brief that, on its face, met the standard for a “conscientious investigation" of possible grounds for appeal. Counsel is not required to anticipate or address all possible arguments. There are no non-frivolous issues for Langley to raise on appeal. View "United States v. Langley" 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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Lane was detained on state criminal charges at the LaPorte County, Indiana jail. Lane sued Person, a doctor at the jail, for deliberate indifference to Lane’s medical condition, 42 U.S.C. 1983. While in jail, Lane sought medical care for an acoustic neuroma (non-cancerous tumor). Person did not order surgical removal of the tumor, which Lane believes was required. He later had the surgery. Nelson, a doctor who also treated Lane, testified that Person appropriately addressed Lane’s condition by ordering multiple MRIs and a consultation with a specialist. Person prevailed at summary judgment and was awarded $4,000 in costs; $2,750 was a one-day witness fee for Nelson,The Seventh Circuit affirmed but modified. The court noted that more than 30 days passed between the denial of Lane's motion to reconsider the summary-judgment decision and his notice of appeal, so the appeal was limited to a review of the decision on costs. There is a presumption under Rule 54(d) that a prevailing party recovers costs that are enumerated in 28 U.S.C. 1920. Although section 1920 includes witness fees, another statute, 28 U.S.C. 1821, more specifically addresses the allowable amount to $40 per day, and no other authority allows more. Person may recover total costs of $1,307.59. View "Lane v. Person" on Justia Law

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An assistant district attorney (the “DA”) in Fulton County, Georgia obtained a material witness warrant requiring Plaintiff to appear as a witness at trial. Plaintiff voluntarily appeared at trial, making execution of the warrant unnecessary. After the trial ended, the DA failed to inform the trial judge that the warrant needed to be recalled. A few months later, a police officer arrested Plaintiff and placed him in jail because of the outstanding warrant. A judge eventually ordered Plaintiff’s release.   Plaintiff brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action alleging, among other things, that the DA’s failure to initiate the warrant’s cancelation violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The DA moved to dismiss the suit arguing that as a prosecutor she was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against her.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that absolute prosecutorial immunity does not extend to DA’s failure to take action to cancel the warrant. The district court thus erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.   The court wrote that determining whether prosecutorial immunity applies requires the court to take a fact-specific functional approach. Here, the court found that applying Third Circuit precedent from Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2008), results in the conclusion that the DA is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Thus the DA has failed to show that absolute immunity protects her post-trial conduct here. View "Kidanemariam Kassa v. Antionette Stephenson" on Justia Law

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Under rules adopted and enforced by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wisconsin lawyers must join and pay dues to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Active membership in the association is “a condition precedent to the right to practice law” in the state. This regulatory regime, often called an “integrated, mandatory[,] or unified bar,” authorizes the State Bar to use membership dues to aid the courts in the administration of justice, conduct a program of continuing legal education, and maintain “high ideals of integrity, learning, competence… public service[,] and high standards of conduct” in the bar of the state.Attorney File contends that requiring him to join and subsidize the State Bar violates his First Amendment free speech and associational rights. Recognizing that Supreme Court precedent forecloses this claim (Keller v. State Bar of Cal. (1990)), File argued that the Court’s more recent cases—particularly “Janus” (2018)--implicitly overruled Keller. The district court rejected this argument. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Keller “may be difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s more recent First Amendment caselaw, but on multiple occasions and in no uncertain terms, the Court has instructed lower courts to resist invitations to find its decisions overruled by implication.” View "File v. Kastner" on Justia Law