Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Contracts
Halscott Megaro, P.A. v. Henry McCollum
Law firm Halscott Megaro, P.A. (“Halscott Megaro” or “the firm”) sued former clients and their guardians (collectively “former clients”), seeking to recover unpaid legal fees and expenses. A district court dismissed the action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court took judicial notice of a North Carolina State Bar Disciplinary Hearing Commission (“Commission”) decision that found the firm’s lead partner misled the former clients and engaged in other unethical conduct. The court then held the firm was precluded from relitigating issues decided by the Commission. It held that Halscott Megaro failed to plausibly plead claims for which relief could be granted. Halscott Megaro appealed, arguing the district court improperly considered matters outside the pleadings and failed to accept its allegations and all reasonable inferences from them as true in concluding that the Commission’s decision as to its lead partner bound the law firm. The Fourth Circuit affirmed and held that the district court committed no reversible error in granting the former clients’ motion to dismiss or in denying the law firm’s motion for recusal. The court wrote that it agreed with the district court’s conclusion that the Commission was acting in a judicial capacity when it entered its discipline order against Megaro. The court also agreed that Megaro received a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues and due process protections. Further, the court held that the firm’s allegations of impartiality were not related to any particular facts, sources or statements. A presiding judge is not required to recuse himself simply because of unsupported or highly tenuous speculation. View "Halscott Megaro, P.A. v. Henry McCollum" on Justia Law
Sitrick Group v. Vivera Pharmaceuticals
Vivera Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Vivera) was developing a medical test kit, but had received “negative publicity” from its litigation with a rival company. Vivera hired Sitrick Group, LLC (Sitrick) to manage a public relations campaign. Vivera did not make any payments and Sitrick filed demands for arbitration with Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services (JAMS). Judge Swart was selected to serve as an arbitrator in a separate matter between Sitrick and Legacy Development (the Legacy matter). In that matter, Sitrick was employing the same law firm (but a different lawyer) as was representing it in the arbitration with Vivera. Sitrick filed petitions to confirm the arbitration award. Vivera asked the trial court to vacate the arbitrator’s award due to Judge Swart’s inadequate disclosure of the Legacy matter. The trial court issued an order confirming the arbitrator’s award. The Second Appellate District affirmed. The court explained that the California Arbitration Act (the Act) requires arbitrators to disclose, among other things, matters that the Ethics Standards for Neutral Arbitrators in Contractual Arbitration (Ethics Standards) dictate must be disclosed. At issue here is whether the Ethics Standards require a retained arbitrator in a noncommercial case to disclose in one matter that he has been subsequently hired in a second matter by the same party and the same law firm. The court held “no,” at least where the arbitrator has previously informed the parties—without any objection thereto—that no disclosure will be forthcoming in this scenario. Because the arbitrator’s disclosures were proper here, the trial court properly overruled an objection based on inadequate disclosure. View "Sitrick Group v. Vivera Pharmaceuticals" on Justia Law
Militello v. VFARM 1509
SM, AA and RM are the co-owners of Cannaco Research Corporation (CRC), a licensed manufacturer and distributor of cannabis products. All three individuals served as officers of CRC until February 2021, when AA and RM voted to remove SM from her position. SM sued AA, RM and others, including JA, AA’s husband, in a multicount complaint alleging causes of action for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and other torts. AA moved to disqualify SM counsel, Spencer Hosie and Hosie Rice LLP, on the ground SM had impermissibly downloaded from AA’s CRC email account private communications between AA and JA, protected by the spousal communication privilege and provided them to her attorneys, who then used them in an attempt to obtain a receivership for CRC in a parallel proceeding. The trial court granted the motion, finding that SM had not carried her burden of establishing AA had no reasonable expectation her communications with her husband would be private, and ordered the disqualification of Hosie and Hosie Rice. The Second Appellate District affirmed. The court held that the evidence before the trial court supported its finding that AA reasonably expected her communications were, and would remain, confidential. And while the court acknowledged disqualification may not be an appropriate remedy when a client simply discusses with his or her lawyer improperly acquired privileged information, counsel’s knowing use of the opposing side’s privileged documents, however obtained, is a ground for disqualification. View "Militello v. VFARM 1509" on Justia Law
Posted in: California Courts of Appeal, Contracts, Legal Ethics, Personal Injury
Gilmer v. McRae, et al.
In April 2012, Bobby Gibson signed a contingency fee contract with Barry Wade Gilmer and the Gilmer Law Firm regarding a legal malpractice case. When the contract was signed, Seth Little, an associate of the Gilmer Law Firm, was assigned to the case. During the summer of 2013, Little left the Gilmer Law Firm and began working for Chuck McRae at the McRae Law Firm. Little continued to work on Gibson’s case while employed at the McRae Law Firm. A settlement was ultimately reached in Gibson’s case, but the McRae Law Firm never received any money. McRae hired Michelle Biegel and Bettie Ruth Johnson to sue Gilmer over the attorneys’ fees generated by the settlement of the legal malpractice case. Later, Gilmer filed a lawsuit against McRae, Little, Biegel, and Johnson, alleging, among other claims, that McRae, Biegel, and Johnson committed civil conspiracy. Gilmer’s suit was ultimately dismissed, and this appeal followed. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Gilmer’s October 2, 2017 complaint and the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees. The Court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Gilmer’s amended motion to amend. Finally, the Supreme Court found that Gilmer was procedurally barred from raising the issue of whether the trial court abused its discretion by assigning the costs of the interlocutory appeal to Gilmer. View "Gilmer v. McRae, et al." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure, Contracts, Legal Ethics, Supreme Court of Mississippi
Khalil v. Williams
The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review centered on whether Appellant’s legal malpractice claims against Appellees, her former attorneys, were barred under the Court’s decision in Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod & Gutnick, 587 A.2d 1346 (Pa. 1991), which held that a plaintiff could not sue his attorney on the basis of the adequacy of a settlement to which the plaintiff agreed, unless the plaintiff alleged the settlement was the result of fraud. Appellant, Dr. Ahlam Kahlil, owned a unit in the Pier 3 Condominiums in Philadelphia; the unit was insured by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (“State Farm”). The Pier 3 Condominium Association (“Pier 3”) was insured under a master policy issued by Travelers Property Casualty Company of America (“Travelers”). In May 2007, Appellant sustained water damage to her unit as a result of a leak in the unit directly above hers, which was owned by Jason and Anne Marie Diegidio. Due to the water damage, Appellant moved out of her unit and stopped paying her condominium fees. Appellant filed suit against State Farm and Travelers, alleging breach of contract and bad faith, and against the Diegidios, alleging negligence. A year later, Pier 3 filed a separate lawsuit against Appellant for her unpaid condominium fees and charges. In affirming in part and reversing in part the trial court, the Supreme Court found that by finding Appellant’s claims were barred under Muhammad, the lower courts ignored other averments in Appellant’s complaint which did not allege fraud, but, rather, alleged legal malpractice by Appellees in allowing Appellant to enter into a settlement agreement in the Water Damage Case that subsequently precluded her from raising her desired claims in the Fees Case, while repeatedly advising Appellant that the settlement agreement would not preclude those claims. "[A]s our review of Appellant’s complaint demonstrates that she was not merely challenging the amount of her settlement in the Water Damage Case, but rather alleged that Appellees provided incorrect legal advice regarding the scope and effect the Travelers Release, we hold that Muhammad’s bar on lawsuits based on the adequacy of a settlement is not implicated in this case." View "Khalil v. Williams" on Justia Law
City of Los Angeles Department of Airports v. U.S. Specialty Ins. Co.
Russo contracted to build four airport firefighting trucks for the city. The contract provided that Russo would pay the city’s attorney fees in the event of litigation involving the trucks. Under a performance bond, Specialty agreed to be liable to the city for any losses if Russo failed to perform the contract. The city accepted and paid for two trucks, but subsequently terminated the contract and refused to pay for the remaining two trucks before they were delivered. Alleging problems with the first two trucks and Russo’s failure to timely deliver the other two, the city made a claim under the performance bond, then sued Russo for breach of contract and sought enforcement of the performance bond against Russo and Specialty, demanding the return of the payments it had made for the first two trucks. Russo sued the city for breach of contract. The city won judgments on all claims; a jury awarded the city $1. B.The court of appeal affirmed the denial of Specialty’s application for attorney fees, rejecting Specialty’s argument that, despite losing on contract liability, it is entitled to fees as the prevailing party because the jury awarded the city only nominal damages rather than the $3.4 million that the city sought. The trial court had discretion to find that neither party prevailed. View "City of Los Angeles Department of Airports v. U.S. Specialty Ins. Co." on Justia Law
Posted in: California Courts of Appeal, Contracts, Legal Ethics
Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co.
Defendant Mengxi Liu, the successful bidder in a real estate auction conducted by defendant Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co. (Max Spann), asserted as a defense to the seller’s breach of contract action that the contract she signed to purchase the property was void and unenforceable. In her appeal of the trial court’s judgment finding her in breach of her contract, Liu argued that the agreement was unenforceable because a licensed real estate salesperson employed by Max Spann wrote her name and address as the buyer and purchase price information on blank spaces in a template sales contract following the auction. Liu contended that this activity constituted the unauthorized practice of law because the contract did not provide for the three-day attorney review period as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that a residential real estate sale by absolute auction was distinct from a traditional real estate transaction in which a buyer and seller negotiate the contract price and other terms and memorialize their agreement in a contract. In an absolute auction or an auction without reserve, the owner unconditionally offers the property for sale and the highest bid creates a final and enforceable contract at the auction’s conclusion, subject to applicable contract defenses. “Were we to impose the three-day attorney review prescribed in [the controlling case law] on residential real estate sales conducted by absolute auction, we would fundamentally interfere with the method by which buyers and sellers choose to conduct such sales.” The Court found no unauthorized practice of law in this case and held that the contract signed by Liu was valid and enforceable. View "Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co." on Justia Law
Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Housing Authority of New Orleans
The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) agreed to pay Parkcrest $11 million to build affordable housing. Liberty was Parkcrest’s surety. HANO terminated Parkcrest before the project was done. Parkcrest sued, alleging breach of contract. Liberty and HANO executed a “Takeover Agreement,” incorporating the original contract; Liberty stepped into Parkcrest’s shoes to finish the project. Liberty hired Parkcrest as its completion contractor. HANO claimed that Liberty had forfeited any right to continue working on the project and requested that it relinquish control of the site. Liberty claimed the termination was wrongful. Rather than following the contract’s dispute resolution procedures, Liberty filed a complaint-in-intervention in the HANO-Parkcrest litigation.The district court concluded that HANO had breached the Takeover Agreement and the underlying HANO Contract by terminating Liberty for convenience after Liberty had substantially completed the project, awarded Liberty and Parkcrest damages, and held HANO liable to Liberty for attorney’s fees, but left those fees unquantified. The Fifth Circut affirmed but concluded it lacked jurisdiction to consider the fee award because a fee award is not a final judgment under 28 U.S.C. 1291 until reduced to a sum certain. The district court then awarded Liberty $526,192.25 in fees. The Fifth Circuit reversed. Liberty’s claim for fees arises from the contract, which authorizes fee-shifting “upon the receipt by [HANO] of a properly presented claim.” Liberty breached the contract’s dispute-resolution procedures, this breach was unexcused, so Liberty is entitled to nothing. View "Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Housing Authority of New Orleans" on Justia Law
Crutcher v. MultiPlan, Inc.
Plaintiff, the owner of TLDI, filed suit against MultiPlan and PHCS, alleging numerous causes of action, including those relevant to this appeal—breach of contract and a right to an award of attorneys' fees. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of attorneys' fees, concluding that the Network Agreement's indemnity clause does not permit recovery of attorneys' fees in this dispute between the contracting parties.However, the court reversed the district court's holding that plaintiff's conduct waived the contractual amendment-in-writing requirement, concluding that waiver and modification have been pleaded adequately. Furthermore, even assuming arguendo that Multiplan presented evidence sufficient to establish the presumption of receipt, plaintiffs countered with evidence that it was not received. Finally, the court concluded that alterations in position suffice as to consideration. In this case, the revised fee schedule together with the increased potential patient pool changed the obligations of both parties. View "Crutcher v. MultiPlan, Inc." on Justia Law
California Union Square L.P. v. Saks & Company LLC
Union Square owns the San Francisco building where Saks has operated a store since 1991. The lease's initial 25-year term was followed by successive options to renew; it mandates arbitration to determine Fair Market Rent for renewals. Section 3.1(c)(iv) states that “[e]ach party shall share equally the fees and expenses of the arbitrator. The attorneys’ fees and expenses of counsel for the respective parties and of witnesses shall be paid by the respective party engaging such counsel or calling such witnesses.” Section 23.10 permits a prevailing party to recover costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees, “Should either party institute any action or proceeding to enforce this Lease ... or for damages by reason of any alleged breach ... or for a declaration of rights hereunder,The parties arbitrated a rent dispute in 2017. The trial court vacated the First Award, in favor of Union Square. To avoid re-arbitration, Union Square sought mandamus relief, which was summarily denied. While discussions concerning another arbitration were pending, Union Square filed a superior court motion to appoint the second arbitrator. The court-appointed arbitrator ruled in favor of Saks.The court of appeal affirmed the orders vacating the First Award and confirming the Second Award. Saks sought $1 million in attorneys’ fees for “litigation proceedings arising out of the arbitration,” not for the arbitrations themselves, citing Section 23.10. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the motion. Each party agreed to bear its own attorneys’ fees for all proceedings related to settling any disagreement around Fair Market Rent under Section 3.1(c). View "California Union Square L.P. v. Saks & Company LLC" on Justia Law