Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Louisiana Supreme Court
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In consolidated cases, Michael Mitchell, Chief Indigent Defender for the Office of Public Defender for East Baton Rouge Parish, filed a “Motion to Withdraw from Current Appointments and to Decline Future Appointments” in 2018 in each of these Nineteenth Judicial District Court (“19th JDC”), Section VI cases. Mitchell alleged that long term chronic underfunding of the public defender’s office had necessitated the implementation of “service restriction protocols,” pursuant to La. Administrative Code, Title 22, Section 1701 et seq., and led to the elimination of a number of attorney and support staff positions. Mitchell asserted that the consequent increase in the workloads of the remaining attorneys could potentially create conflicts of interest, as counsel might have to allot more time to one case over another, and could potentially cause ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct. In response (which were confined to 19th JDC, Section VI cases), the State filed motions for dismissal of the motions for withdrawal and Daubert objections to expert testimony relative to the La. Project since it was based on the “Delphi Method,” contending, inter alia, that the Delphi Method produced unreliable generalized conclusions about the Louisiana public defender system and, further, that Louisiana v. Peart, 621 So.2d 780 (La. 1993), required individualized findings as to whether there has been ineffective assistance of counsel in each specific case. The district court ruled in favor of the State, implicitly finding that any remedy related to chronic underfunding of the public defender system was within the exclusive purview of the Louisiana Legislature and was outside the parameters of what the court had the authority to fashion; however, the court stated that it would consider any individual motions to withdraw from, or to decline, representation on a case-by-case basis. Thereafter, the appellate court granted the district public defender’s writ application, in part, to reverse the district court’s denial of the motions to withdraw, to vacate the district court orders appointing the public defender in the remaining ongoing consolidated cases, and to grant the request to allow the named public defenders to withdraw from future representation of indigent defendants “until the caseloads are no greater than 100% of his or her annual capacity.” The Louisiana Supreme Court found the appellate court's conclusion was reached without evidence of the specific factual details surrounding the work performance of the individual assistant public defenders: "the question of whether assistance of counsel has been constitutionally ineffective cannot be answered without a detailed examination of the specific facts and circumstances of the representation provided by counsel to the individual defendant. Therefore, the appellate court erred in reversing the district court and ruling in favor of Mr. Mitchell." The district court's rulings were reinstated. View "Louisiana v. Covington" on Justia Law

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The Louisiana Supreme Court granted this writ application to determine whether “collectibility” was a relevant consideration in a legal malpractice action. Specifically, the issue presented was whether plaintiff’s damages in this legal malpractice action were limited to the amount she could have actually collected on a judgment against the tortfeasor in the underlying lawsuit. Elaine Ewing was injured in an automobile accident in 2015, when her vehicle was hit by a vehicle driven by Marc Melancon. Her counsel failed to forward the original petition for damages within seven days as required by La. R.S. 13:850. The original petition was filed on April 22, 2016, after the one-year prescriptive period had passed. Ms. Ewing’s suit was dismissed on an exception of prescription. Ms. Ewing subsequently filed a legal malpractice action against her attorney and Westport Insurance Corporation, counsel's malpractice insurer. Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment asserting the court should apply the “collectibility rule.” Defendants alleged Ms. Ewing’s recovery could be no greater than her potential recovery in the underlying personal injury lawsuit, and recovery in this case should have been capped at Mr. Melancon’s insurance policy limits. The Supreme Court held that proof of collectibility of an underlying judgment was not an element necessary for a plaintiff to establish a claim for legal malpractice, nor could collectibility be asserted by an attorney as an affirmative defense in a legal malpractice action. View "Ewing v. Westport Ins. Co., et al." on Justia Law

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The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana filed a disciplinary proceeding against respondent, Justice of the Peace Cody King on one count that alleged respondent violated Canons 1, 2, 2A, 3A(1), 3A(7), and 3B(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct (1996) and La. Const. Art. V, section 25(C). In 2018, the Attorney General's Office filed the first of three complaints against Respondent with the Office of Special Counsel of the Commission, asserting that Respondent failed to respond to constituents in his district, and likewise failed to respond to letters or calls from the Attorney General's office. In 2019, Hannah Zaunbrecher filed a complaint, asserting: (1) Respondent was difficult to reach; (2) he overcharged Ms. Zaunbrecher for an eviction she filed; (3) he did not set a court date in the eviction matter despite repeated requests from Ms. Zaunbrecher after the eviction was filed; and (4) Respondent failed to refund the unearned filing fee. The OSC sent letters to Respondent notifying him of each complaint. Respondent did not reply despite later acknowledging that he received them. After a hearing on these charges, the Commission filed a recommendation with the Louisiana Supreme Court concluding that the above violations had been proven. To this, the Supreme Court agreed with the Commission’s recommendation, and ordered the removal of Respondent from office, that he reimburse the Commission the costs incurred in the investigation and prosecution of the case, and further, that he pay restitution for an unearned filing fee he failed to return to Parish Leasing Company, LLC. View "In re: Justice of the Peace Cody King, Ward 6, Morehouse Parish" on Justia Law

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In consolidated actions, the common issue presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a writ of mandamus should issue to the clerk of an appellate court for the purpose of directing the clerk to comply with certain rules for the random assignment of panels and cases at that court. In a three-page per curiam, the First Circuit explained its allotment procedures were changed in 2019 after the 2018 amendment to La. R.S. 13:319. The First Circuit stated it adopted rules requiring a procedure for random allotment by the Clerk’s office of both appeals (Internal Rule 2.3(d)(l)(c)) and writ applications (Internal Rules 3.9(a)),4 with consideration for recusals and emergencies. In a supplemental per curiam, the First Circuit discussed composition of judicial panels, each regular panel comprising of one member randomly chosen through mechanical means from the four members of each of the Court's three election districts. The random composition of the initial three-judge panels was adopted pursuant to a five-year plan of rotation of members among the panels. To further ensure random composition of the panels, panel members of particular panels did not sit as an intact panel in the following year. The four randomly drawn regular panels also sat on writ duty throughout the Court's six appeal cycles. Petitioner Texas Brine’s petition alleged the First Circuit’s composition of judicial panels “dramatically limits the number of unique panels that can hear writs, appeals, and contested motions before the First Circuit from 220 unique combinations to 64 unique combinations - a reduction of approximately 70.9%.” It concluded this policy was an “affront to the requirement of randomness.” The Solomon plaintiffs’ mandamus petition was premised on the First Circuit’s practice, used between 2006-2018, of assigning subsequent appeals or applications for writs to a panel which included a judge who sat on the original panel and may have taken the lead or authored the first opinion/ruling in the case. The Supreme Court determined the First Circuit’s assignment system was reasonably designed “to select judges for panels in a random fashion which does not permit intentional manipulation by either the judges or the litigants.” The Court therefore denied Texas Brine’s mandamus petition, and dismissed the Solomon plaintiffs’ application as moot. View "Texas Brine Co., LLC v. Naquin" on Justia Law

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In 2016, a grand jury indicted defendant Fred Reimonenq on charges of first degree rape, attempted first degree rape, and sexual battery of a victim under the age of 13. Trial was scheduled to begin on September 25, 2018. On the Sunday before this trial date, the state presented defense counsel with a curriculum vitae, but apparently nothing more, of Anne Troy, Ph.D., a sexual assault nurse examiner, who it intended to call as an expert witness at trial. On the morning of trial, the state provided defense counsel with formal notice of its intent to use Dr. Troy’s testimony. Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude any expert testimony that had not been properly noticed under La.C.Cr.P. art. 719, including Dr. Troy’s testimony. The trial court granted the defense’s motion in limine and excluded Dr. Troy’s testimony. The court disallowed any attempt at supplementation based upon its finding there was “a timing issue” that still made the late notice “prejudicial to the [d]efense and [did] not afford the [d]efense the opportunity to conduct whatever defensive positions it might otherwise be able to take had it had more time . . . .” The state noted its intent to apply for supervisory writs, but did not do so, and, instead, opted to enter a nolle prosequi. Two days later, on September 27, 2018, the state filed a new indictment on the same charges. On October 18, defendant appeared for arraignment and orally moved to adopt all previous filings and motions from the original case. Trial was then set for December 3, 2018. On November 27, 2018, the state filed its supplemental notice pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 719 with respect to Dr. Troy’s testimony. On the morning of trial, defense counsel filed a supplemental motion in limine regarding Dr. Troy’s testimony and a related motion to quash. The issue this case presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court's review centered on the authority of the district attorney to dismiss and reinstitute criminal prosecutions. Because the actions of the state in this matter "so undermine the authority of the trial court that it offends bedrock principles of fundamental fairness and due process," the Court reversed. View "Louisiana vs. Reimonenq" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against certain judges of the Fourth Judicial District Court (Louisiana) as well as a law clerk employed by that court. Essentially, plaintiffs alleged the law clerk “spoliated, concealed, removed, destroyed, shredded, withheld, and/or improperly ‘handled’ court documents” in earlier litigation involving plaintiffs, and that the judges either aided or concealed these actions. The judges and law clerk filed motions to strike certain allegations from plaintiff’s petition and also filed exceptions of no cause of action. The district court granted the motions to strike and granted the exceptions of no cause of action. On appeal, a divided en banc panel of the court of appeal reversed the motions to strike in part. The court also reversed the granting of the exception of no cause of action as to the law clerk, but affirmed the granting of the exception of no cause of action as to the judges, finding they were entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Considering the "highly unusual and specific facts" of this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded the court of appeal erred in finding the judges were entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Accepting the facts as alleged in the petition as true for purposes of the exception of no cause of action, the Supreme Court found plaintiff’s allegations regarding the judges’ supervision and investigation of the law clerk’s activities arose in the context of the judges’ administrative functions, rather than in the course of their judicial or adjudicative capacities. Therefore, accepting on the well-pleaded allegations of plaintiff’s petition, the Supreme Court found absolute judicial immunity would not apply, and plaintiff was able to state a cause of action against the judges. View "Palowsky v. Campbell et al." on Justia Law

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This disciplinary proceeding was instituted by the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“Commission”) against respondent, Justice of the Peace Jeff Sachse, Ward 1, Livingston Parish. The matter arose out of an anonymous complaint lodged against respondent in April 2013, alleging that he was arrested on several occasions for domestic abuse and simple battery of his now ex-wife, Lisa Rabalais. The Commission alleged that respondent’s conduct violated Canons 1 and 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Respondent was not a lawyer, and was elected to office in 1996. In August 2012, Ms. Rabalais moved out of the matrimonial home. While packing her belongings into the car, the police were summoned to the home in response to complaints by Ms. Rabalais that respondent had grabbed her by the shirt to prevent her from leaving. Ms. Rabalais filed a Petition for Protection from Domestic Abuse citing the August 10th incident. She also alleged that respondent repeatedly contacted her after the incident “by phone[,] email and 3rd parties to get [her] to talk to him” and that he also made “threats” through her places of employment “trying to find [her] to talk.” The Louisiana Supreme Court found respondent violated the aforementioned Canons as alleged by the Commission, and suspended respondent without pay for six months, and ordered him to reimburse and pay to the Commission $3,040.02 in costs. View "In re: Justice of the Peace Jeff Sachse, Ward 1, Livingston Parish" on Justia Law

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This disciplinary proceeding was instituted by the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“Commission”) against respondent, Justice of the Peace Jeff Sachse, Ward 1, Livingston Parish. The matter arose out of an anonymous complaint lodged against respondent in April 2013, alleging that he was arrested on several occasions for domestic abuse and simple battery of his now ex-wife, Lisa Rabalais. The Commission alleged that respondent’s conduct violated Canons 1 and 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Respondent was not a lawyer, and was elected to office in 1996. In August 2012, Ms. Rabalais moved out of the matrimonial home. While packing her belongings into the car, the police were summoned to the home in response to complaints by Ms. Rabalais that respondent had grabbed her by the shirt to prevent her from leaving. Ms. Rabalais filed a Petition for Protection from Domestic Abuse citing the August 10th incident. She also alleged that respondent repeatedly contacted her after the incident “by phone[,] email and 3rd parties to get [her] to talk to him” and that he also made “threats” through her places of employment “trying to find [her] to talk.” The Louisiana Supreme Court found respondent violated the aforementioned Canons as alleged by the Commission, and suspended respondent without pay for six months, and ordered him to reimburse and pay to the Commission $3,040.02 in costs. View "In re: Justice of the Peace Jeff Sachse, Ward 1, Livingston Parish" on Justia Law

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This matter arose from a recommendation of the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“Commission”) that Judge Darryl Derbigny be publicly censured, ordered to reimburse the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judicial Expense Fund (“JEF”) $57,359.96, and ordered to reimburse and pay to the Commission $8,150.24 in hard costs. The recommendation stems from Judge Derbigny’s participation in the district court’s supplemental insurance program and charges that he accepted insurance coverage and benefits beyond those allowed by law or available to all other court employees, the premiums for which were paid from the JEF. The Supreme Court concluded the Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”) failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Judge Derbigny’s participation in the district court’s supplemental insurance program rose to the level of sanctionable misconduct under either the Code of Judicial Conduct or Article V, Section 25(C) of the Louisiana Constitution. However, the Court agreed with the Commission that Judge Derbigny was not entitled to the benefits of any whole life insurance policies or the Exec-U-Care program under the plain language of La. R.S. 13:691. Because Judge Derbigny already surrendered the cash value of the whole life policies to the JEF, the Court ordered him to reimburse the JEF $10,002.58, representing the out-of-pocket reimbursements paid to Judge Derbigny under the Exec-U-Care program. The Court declined to impose Judge Derbigny with hard costs incurred by the Commission. View "In re: Judge Darryl Derbigny" on Justia Law

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The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“Commission”) brought a formal charge against Judge J. Robin Free of the 18th Judicial District Court for the Parishes of Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge. The charge alleged Judge Free violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Louisiana Constitution, Article V, sec. 25(C), in that he interrupted a private meeting between the family members of the victims and members of the District Attorney’s Office, following a hearing in a criminal case before him, and made an inappropriate comment; abused his contempt authority and failed to follow the proper procedures for the punishment of contempt in two cases; and made inappropriate comments in seven criminal cases and exhibited a lack of proper decorum, demeanor, and temperament. After reviewing the recommendation of the Commission and the record, the Louisiana Supreme Court accepted the recommendation of the Commission that Judge Free be suspended without pay for one year and ordered to reimburse the Commission for the costs associated with these proceedings. View "In re Judge J. Robin Free, Eighteenth Judicial Dist. Ct., Parishes of West Baton Rouge, Iberville & Pointe Coupee" on Justia Law