Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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In June 2016, shortly after the child’s birth, the Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services initiated this case based on evidence that the child’s mother was using drugs and that both father and the child’s mother were missing the child’s cues, were homeless, and had previously been involved in child welfare cases. The child was placed with maternal relatives. As pertinent here, the juvenile court adjudicated the child dependent and neglected as to father based on father’s admission that he needed support and services and that the child’s environment was injurious to her welfare. At the first hearing in the juvenile court, father appeared in custody following a recent arrest. The court appointed counsel for him and approved an initial treatment plan. Two months later, the court conducted another hearing, and father again appeared in custody, this time based on new drug possession charges. The Department filed a motion to terminate father’s parental rights. In this petition, the Department alleged that (1) father did not comply with his treatment plan, and the treatment plan failed; (2) no additional period of time would allow for the successful completion of the treatment plan; (3) father was an unfit parent; (4) father’s conduct or condition was unlikely to change within a reasonable period of time; and (5) there were no less drastic alternatives to termination, which would be in the child’s best interests. The matter then proceeded to a termination hearing; father was incarcerated. When father did not appear for the hearing, father’s counsel told the court that father was “on a writ at Arapahoe County and he refused the writ so he did not want to appear today.” Father’s counsel did not seek a continuance to ensure father’s presence, and the court found that father had voluntarily absented himself from the court. Mother was denied her request for a continuance. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review was similar to that decided in its companion, Colorado in Interest of A.R., 2020 CO 10, __ P.3d __. Here, as in A.R., the Supreme Court was asked to decide (1) the correct standard for determining whether a parent in a dependency and neglect proceeding was prejudiced by counsel’s ineffective performance and (2) whether an appellate court may vacate a juvenile court’s decision in a dependency and neglect proceeding on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel without remanding the case for further evidentiary development. Applying those principles here, the Court concluded the juvenile court correctly applied Strickland’s prejudice prong to father’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims and that the court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting those claims. View "M.A.W. v. The People in Interest of A.L.W." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on the contention of ineffective assistance of counsel in the context of a dependency and neglect proceeding. In 2016, petitioner A.R.’s (the “child’s”) paternal step-grandmother took him to the emergency room to receive treatment for scabies. A physician who treated the then-six-month-old child determined that the degree of scabies on the child evinced a case of neglect, and, later that night, another doctor confirmed that the child also had a skull fracture. The Department of Human Services subsequently initiated this dependency and neglect proceeding, and the juvenile court granted the Department continued custody of the child. Later, the juvenile court held an adjudicatory hearing with respect to both parents. When mother did not appear, her counsel told the court that he had made arrangements with mother to attend the hearing, but did not know why she did not appear. Apparently in an effort to move the case forward, and after speaking with counsel for both mother and the child’s father (who also did not appear), the Department asked the court for leave to amend the Department’s dependency and neglect petition to include an allegation that the child was dependent or neglected through no fault of the child’s parents and to allow the Department to rest on the Report of Investigation filed with the petition. The child’s guardian ad litem (“GAL”) agreed with this procedure, stating that it was in the child’s best interests to “move forward,” and the court therefore entered a no-fault adjudication and approved the proposed treatment plan. Mother did not appeal this adjudication. The mother challenged the ultimate termination of her rights to A.R. The Supreme Court was asked to decide: (1) whether, in a direct appeal from a judgment terminating parental rights, an appellate court may consider a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s performance at an adjudicatory hearing; (2) the correct standard for determining whether a parent in a dependency and neglect proceeding was prejudiced by counsel’s ineffective performance; and (3) whether an appellate court may vacate a juvenile court’s decision in a dependency and neglect proceeding on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel without remanding the case for further evidentiary development. The Supreme Court held an appellate court may consider a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based on counsel’s performance at an adjudicatory hearing only when the party claiming ineffective assistance did not have a full and fair opportunity to assert such a claim immediately after his or her child was adjudicated dependent and neglected, and outlined the standard for determining ineffective performance in a dependency and neglect context. Applying these determinations to the facts and claims presented, the Court affirmed the judgment below (on different grounds), and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado in Interest of A.R." on Justia Law

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The district court in this case sua sponte ordered the parties to exchange exhibits thirty days before trial. The State charged Joshua Kilgore with two counts of felony sexual assault. In the minute order it issued following the arraignment, the court indicated, among other things, that “exhibits [were] to be exchanged 30 days before trial” (“disclosure requirement” or “disclosure order”). The disclosure requirement was not prompted by a party’s request and appeared to have been part of the court’s standard case-management practice. A couple of months later, Kilgore filed an objection, arguing that the disclosure requirement violated his attorney’s confidentiality obligations, the attorney-client privilege, the attorney work-product doctrine, and his due process rights (including his right to make the prosecution meet its burden of proof, his right to a fair trial, and his right to the effective assistance of counsel). Furthermore, Kilgore argued Rule 16 neither required him to disclose, nor entitled the prosecution to receive, his exhibits before trial. The court overruled Kilgore’s objection, reasoning that requiring Kilgore to disclose his exhibits prior to trial would “foster[] efficiency and allow[] for a fair trial” without running afoul of his rights. Any exhibits not disclosed before trial, warned the court, would “not be used at trial.” Kilgore sought reconsideration of this ruling, but the court declined to alter it. Thereafter, Kilgore submitted a sealed motion detailing the specific reasons he opposed disclosing a particular exhibit. Despite having this additional information, though, the court stood by its earlier ruling. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded a district court could not rely on its case-management discretion to order disclosures that exceed the discovery authorized by Rule 16 of the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure, nor could a court require disclosures that infringe on an accused’s constitutional rights. In this instance, the district court erred in ordering Kilgore to disclose his exhibits before trial. View "In re Colorado v. Kilgore" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Carol Rademacher challenged a district court’s ruling that she impliedly waived her attorney-client privilege by filing a legal malpractice complaint close to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations and by then contesting defendant Ira Greschler’s statute of limitations defense. Greschler served as Rademacher’s attorney on various matters for more than two decades. One of the matters in which Greschler represented Rademacher involved the settlement of potential civil claims that Rademacher had brought against a man named John Becker and his wife. Pertinent here, for approximately ten years, Rademacher and Becker were involved in an extramarital relationship. Becker’s wife ultimately confronted and assaulted Rademacher, after which Rademacher contacted the police. The Beckers and Rademacher entered into a settlement agreement, under which Rademacher agreed not to pursue any claims against the Beckers and to ask the Boulder District Attorney’s office to offer Ms. Becker a deferred sentence. In exchange for these promises, Becker executed a $300,000 promissory note payable to Rademacher. Becker stopped making payments, and Rademacher, still represented by Greschler, sued to enforce the agreement. A jury ultimately found for Rademacher, and Becker appealed. After Greschler had orally argued the case in the court of appeals but before an opinion was issued, Rademacher’s divorce attorney, Shawn Ettingoff, sent Greschler a letter “to convey [Rademacher’s] dissatisfaction with [Greschler’s] inadequate representation” in the dispute with Becker. The letter also noted that Greschler’s conduct in representing Rademacher “helped create and perpetuate a situation that may very well lead to the reversal of the judgment in [Rademacher’s] favor.” The court of appeals eventually ruled the agreement between Rademacher and Becker was void as against public policy. Rademacher thereafter sued Greschler, asserting, among other things, a claim for professional negligence (legal malpractice). Several months later, Greschler moved for summary judgment on this claim, arguing that it was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that on the facts presented, Rademacher did not assert a claim or defense that either focused or depended on advice given by her counsel or that placed any privileged communications at issue. Accordingly, the Court further concluded Rademacher did not impliedly waive her attorney-client privilege in this case. View "In re Rademacher v. Greschler" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline (“the Commission”) recommended approval of a Stipulation for Public Censure and Suspension against Judge Lance P. Timbreza. In June 2019, Judge Timbreza was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence and Careless Driving. As he drove home from a party, Judge Timbreza crashed his vehicle into roadside trees and bushes while avoiding a collision with another vehicle. Judge Timbreza contacted the Commission by phone to report his arrest and the charges against him. Judge Timbreza pled guilty to Driving While Ability Impaired and was sentenced to one year of probation, alcohol monitoring, a $200 fine, useful public service, and two days of suspended jail time. By driving while his ability was impaired by alcohol, the Commission determined Judge Timbreza failed to maintain the high standards of judicial conduct required of a judge. The Commission found Judge Timbreza’s conduct violated Canon Rules 1.1 and 1.2 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct. Consistent with the Stipulation, the Commission recommends the Colorado Supreme Court issue a public censure and a twenty-eight-day suspension of Judge Timbreza's judicial duties without pay. The Supreme Court adopted the Commission’s recommendation. View "In the Matter of: Judge Lance P. Timbreza" on Justia Law

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Robert Feldman ("Feldman") and the law firm of Haddon, Morgan & Foreman petitioned for relief from a probate court order requiring the firm to provide information to the special administrator concerning its representation of Feldman in a criminal prosecution for the murder of his wife Stacy, and to deposit funds held in its client trust account into the registry of the court. In response to the assertion by the special administrator that Colorado’s “slayer statute” applied to the funds at issue as proceeds of the decedent’s life insurance policy, the probate court determined that if Feldman were later found, in the manner prescribed by the statute, to be the decedent’s killer, he would be ineligible to receive those proceeds. Against that eventuality, the probate court found that compelling the return of the unearned funds in the firm’s client trust account would be the only way to protect the children’s interests, and that the court’s equitable powers permitted it to do so. The Colorado Supreme Court determined the probate court abused its discretion by issuing its order without weighing the considerations inherent in preliminarily enjoining the law firm from expending further funds in the representation of Feldman. In addition, however, because the slayer statute expressly protected third parties who receive a payment in satisfaction of a legally enforceable obligation from being forced to return that payment or from liability for the amount of the payment, no finding of a reasonable likelihood of success in attempting to force the return of the insurance proceeds would have been possible. Given this resolution, the Supreme Court found the disclosures ordered by the probate court would not have served their intended purpose. View "In re Feldman" on Justia Law

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T.T. sought to ensure that his name was not linked to the record of his earlier short-term commitment for treatment of a mental health condition. Under section 27-65-107(7), C.R.S. (2018), when a person is released from short-term treatment for a mental health condition, the clerk of the district court shall seal the record in the case and omit the name of the person from the court’s “index of cases.” The key question in this case was whether “Eclipse,” the user interface of the Colorado judicial branch’s computerized case management system, was an “index of cases” as contemplated by section 27-65-107(7). The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the reference to “index of cases” in section 27-65-107(7) contemplated a list of matters before the court that could be used to locate the actual court records for those matters. The Eclipse user interface itself contained no data, and neither Eclipse nor its underlying database, ICON, functioned as an “index” or list of cases. Thus, contrary to the court of appeals’ ruling, section 27-65-107(7) did not require the court clerk to remove T.T.’s name from the ICON/Eclipse case management system. Moreover, to remove an individual’s name from this case management system would thwart the court’s statutory obligations to link the record of a short-term mental health case with subsequent cases involving that individual and to share certain information with the federal government. Because the district court cannot comply with the relief directed by the court of appeals, the Supreme Court discharged the rule to show cause. View "In re People in the Interest of T.T." on Justia Law

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Francis Ruybalid committed numerous ethical violations arising out of cases that he either prosecuted or supervised while he was the District Attorney for the Colorado Third Judicial District. He argued he was entitled to the attorney’s fees and costs he incurred while defending these allegations. The counties of the Third Judicial District refused to reimburse Ruybalid for these expenses. The Colorado Supreme Court determined that because Ruybalid’s ethical violations were at times committed recklessly or knowingly, his attorney’s fees and costs were not necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties, therefore, he was not entitled to reimbursement for fees. View "Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs" on Justia Law

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David Calvert was disbarred for various ethical violations, including entering into an oral agreement with a client without complying with the requisite safeguards of Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(a). After being disbarred, Calvert sued his former client, Diane Mayberry, for breach of that same oral agreement, claiming that there was a contract between them. The trial court granted Mayberry’s motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed. On appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, Calvert challenged: (1) whether an attorney who was found to have violated Rule 1.8(a) in a disciplinary proceeding was estopped from relitigating the same factual issues in a civil proceeding; (2) whether a contract between an attorney and a client entered into in violation of Rule 1.8(a) was enforceable; and (3) whether the trial court abused its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees against Calvert after finding his lawsuit groundless and frivolous. The Colorado Supreme Court declined the issue preclusion issue raised because Calvert conceded he could not relitigate whether he entered into an agreement with a client without meeting Rule 1.8(a)’s requirements. The Court held that when an attorney enters into a contract without complying with Rule 1.8(a), the contract was presumptively void as against public policy; however, a lawyer may rebut that presumption by showing that, under the circumstances, the contract does not contravene the public policy underlying Rule 1.8(a). Further, the Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees at the trial level because the record supported the finding that the case was groundless, frivolous, and brought in bad faith. But as to attorney’s fees at the appellate level, because the questions of whether issue preclusion applied in this proceeding and whether a contract made in violation of Rule 1.8(a) is void as against public policy were legitimately appealable issues, thereby making a grant of appellate attorney’s fees inappropriate. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals as to the merits on other grounds, affirmed the award of attorney’s fees at the trial level, and reversed the court of appeals’ order remanding for a determination of appellate attorney’s fees. View "Calvert v. Mayberry" on Justia Law

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In a judicial disciplinary proceeding, the Colorado Supreme Court considered the exceptions of now-former Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Laurie Booras to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline’s (the “Commission’s”) recommendation that Judge Booras be removed from office and that she be ordered to pay the costs incurred by the Commission in this matter. The Commission’s recommendation was based on the factual findings and conclusions of law set forth in the December 12, 2018 Report of the Special Masters in this case. That report concluded that Judge Booras had violated Canon 1, Rule 1.2, Canon 3, Rule 3.1, and Canon 3, Rule 3.5 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct by (1) disclosing confidential information belonging to the court of appeals (namely, the vote of a court of appeals division on a case prior to the issuance of the decision in that case) to an intimate, non-spousal partner and (2) using inappropriate racial epithets in communications with that intimate partner, including a racially derogatory reference to a court of appeals colleague. Judge Booras filed exceptions to the Commission’s recommendation, contending that her communications with her then-intimate partner were protected by the First Amendment and that the recommendation that she be removed from office was too severe under the circumstances of this case. In addition, by letter dated January 2, 2019, Judge Booras advised the Chief Justice that she was resigning her position as a Colorado Court of Appeals Judge, effective as of the close of business on January 31, 2019, although no party contended Judge Booras’s resignation rendered this matter moot. Having now considered the record and the briefs of the parties, the Supreme Court concluded the Commission properly found Judge Booras’s communications with her then-intimate partner were not protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, given Judge Booras’ resignation, which she tendered and which became effective after the Commission made its recommendation, the Court did not decide whether Judge Booras’s removal from office was an appropriate sanction. Rather, the Court concluded the appropriate sanction in this case was acceptance of Judge Booras’s resignation, the imposition of a public censure, and an order requiring Judge Booras to pay the Commission’s costs in this matter. View "In the Matter of Laurie A. Booras" on Justia Law