Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Iowa Supreme Court
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Mathahs has practiced law in Iowa since 2001. In October 2001, he contracted with the Iowa State Public Defender (SPD) to provide legal services to indigent adults and juveniles in certain Iowa counties. The contract was renewed until 2013. Mathahs submitted General Accounting Expenditure (GAX) forms to the SPD detailing the dates, services performed, and the amount of time for each service. In March 2013, the SPD contacted Mathahs with concerns over the accuracy of Mathahs’s GAX forms. Mathahs had claimed more than 3000 hours and had received more than $180,000 in fiscal year 2010. Mathahs initially blamed inaccuracies on his secretary. SPD rejected Mathahs’s explanation. On April 26, Mathahs self-reported his misconduct to the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board. On September 23, 2015, after investigating, the attorney general’s office informed the SPD that it found no provable evidence of intent to steal or defraud. In June 2017, the Board filed a complaint, alleging violations of Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.5(a) (unreasonable fees or expenses) and 32:5.3(b) (lack of supervision over a nonlawyer employee). Mathahs moved to dismiss, claiming laches because the Board delayed for more than four years in bringing its complaint after he had self-reported and such delay unduly prejudiced his defense. A panel of the Supreme Court Grievance Commission found that Mathahs violated the rules. The Supreme Court of Iowa imposed a 60-day suspension, declining to address the issue of laches. View "Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Mathahs" on Justia Law

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The conduct of an attorney who was removed by order of the district court from his elected position as Van Buren County Attorney, while deserving of disapproval, did not rise to the level of misconduct that would warrant the “drastic” remedy of a court order removing an elected official from office. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court and vacated the order removing Defendant from the office of county attorney, holding that the State’s evidence was insufficient to meet the high bar necessary for the removal of Defendant from his elected office. The Supreme Court remanded the case for entry of an order reinstating Defendant as Van Buren County Attorney. View "State v. Watkins" on Justia Law

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The district court order disqualifying an attorney from representing a criminal defendant, based primarily on speculative evidence of a potential conflict, constituted “an untenable ground for the district court to exercise its discretion.” The Supreme Court reversed the order of the district court granting the State’s motion to disqualify attorney Steven Gardner from defending Carlos Ramon Mulatillo on felony drug charges. Less than two weeks before the jury trial was to commence, Mulatillo and Gardner were informed of the name of a confidential informant and the potential conflict of interest between Gardner and this individual. Gardner had previously represented the confidential informant for approximately one month on felony drug charges. After a Watson hearing, the district court concluded that there was a serious potential for a conflict of interest that precluded Gardner from representing Mulatillo. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the evidence provided by the State did not rise to the level of substantial evidence that was necessary to prove that Gardner’s continued representation of Mulatillo created a serious potential for an actual conflict of interest. View "State v. Mulatillo" on Justia Law

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The Iowa District Court for Story County issued an order appointing the local public defender of Nevada, Iowa to represent a juvenile, who had been detained. The public defender filed a motion to withdraw, citing conflicts of interest between the juvenile and other clients. After a detention hearing, the court ordered the juvenile’s transfer from detention to shelter care and then withdrew the local defender’s appointment and appointed new conflict-free counsel for the juvenile. The court subsequently taxed to the state public defender the court and travel costs related to the hearing for withdrawing from the representation of the juvenile prior to the hearing without first taking steps to secure alternative representation for the juvenile. The state public defender filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, claiming that the district court acted illegally when it taxed the court and travel costs against the state public defender. The Supreme Court sustained the writ, holding that the district court exceeded its authority and made an error of law in determining that the state public defender or the local public defender violated either statutory or ethical duties under the circumstances of this case. View "State Public Defender v. Iowa District Court" on Justia Law

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The Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications recommended that a magistrate, who maintained a website where he posted information regarding his availability to perform marriage ceremonies - for a fee - at locations other than the courthouse, be publicly reprimanded for violating the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct. Some of the photos showed the magistrate wearing his judicial robes. Before the matter was submitted to the Supreme Court, the magistrate resigned. The Supreme Court concluded that the magistrate committed violations of Canon 1 and Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct Rules 51:1.2 and 51:1.3, holding that the code does not per se bar a judicial officer from publicizing his availability to perform marriage ceremonies but that some aspects of the advertising at issue in this case violated the code. View "In re James H. Martinek" on Justia Law

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The Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed an application for discipline of a judicial officer recommending the Supreme Court publicly reprimand district court judge Mary E. Howes, Seventh Judicial District. Judge Howes petitioned for dissolution of her marriage to her husband, Jack Henderkott, in June 2011. In 2013, Henderkott sent Judge Howes an email indicating the Internal Revenue Service had deducted $3192 from his 2012 income tax return because she did not claim income she received from liquidating an individual retirement account on the couple’s 2010 joint income tax return. Henderkott claimed he was entitled to reimbursement in the full amount of the deduction per the terms of the settlement agreement. Judge Howes retained a "Ms. Pauly" to assist with her dissolution of marriage, but different counsel for the lingering tax dispute with her ex-husband. Ms. Pauly represented a different client before Judge Howes on a family law matter. Ms. Pauly's client became "distraught" upon hearing that the lawyer representing the client's husband was representing the very judge who had signed an order granting a temporary injunction in the client's case. A complaint against Judge Howes was subsequently filed. Because the Supreme Court concluded the judge violated the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct, it granted the application for judicial discipline. Rather than publicly reprimand the judge, however, the Court publicly admonished the judge. View "In the matter of Honorable Mary E. Howes" on Justia Law

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Attorney Larry Stoller filed a multicount petition on behalf of NuStar Farms, LLC against Robert and Marcia Zylstra, alleging that the Zylstras agreed to sell NuStar a parcel of farmland but failed to tender the requisite deed and that the Zylstras did not abide by certain terms contained in certain manure easement agreements. The Zylstras filed a motion seeking to disqualify Stoller as the attorney for NuStar based on a conflict of interest. Specifically, the Zylstras alleged that Stoller’s representation of NuStar was a concurrent conflict of interest with his representation of them. The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court (1) did not abuse its discretion in holding that Stoller could not be disqualified under the substantial relationship test; but (2) abused its discretion in not disqualifying Stoller from representing NuStar in the action because Stoller did have a concurrent conflict of interest. View "NuStar Farms, LLC v. Zylstra" on Justia Law

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The Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed an application for imposition of discipline against Joseph Sevcik, a part-time magistrate who also practiced law. The Commission found Magistrate Sevcik violated two of the canons of judicial conduct by requesting and receiving two confidential court files from a clerk of court and then using one of the files during his cross-examination of a witness in a hearing before the district court in which he represented a party in the case. The Supreme Court held that Magistrate Sevcik violated Canons 1 and 3 of the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct, along with Rules 51:1.2 and 51:3.5, and agreed with the Commission that a public reprimand was the appropriate sanction. View "In re Inquiry Concerning Joseph Sevcik" on Justia Law

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The Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications recommended that a magistrate, who had a private practice in addition to his work on the bench, be publicly reprimanded for placing advertisements in phone books featuring his photograph in his judicial robes. The Supreme Court granted the application of the commission, finding that the magistrate violated the provisions of the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct by attempting to influence potential clients to use his services as an attorney by using his office as an indicator of his trustworthy and responsible nature. The Court then concluded that a public reprimand was the appropriate sanction. View "In re Meldrum" on Justia Law

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Appellant, an ALJ within the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC), presided over the hearing of an inmate charged with assaulting a corrections officer. Appellant found the inmate guilty of assault. The Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman (Ombudsman) subsequently launched an investigation into Appellant's ruling and subpoenaed her for deposition testimony. Appellant argued that she could assert the mental-process privilege in refusing to answer questions about her decision. The Ombudsman filed an action to enforce the subpoena. The district court ruled the mental-process privilege would not apply to limit deposition testimony in the Ombudsman's investigation, as opposed to a judicial proceeding, and entered an order compelling Appellant's deposition. Appellant and IDOC appealed. The Supreme Court affirmed but on different grounds, holding (1) the mental-process privilege is available to IDOC ALJs in an Ombudsman investigation; but (2) the Ombudsman made a sufficient showing to overcome the privilege. View "Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman v. Edwards" on Justia Law