Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Montana Supreme Court
City of Libby v. Hubbard
Shayna Hubbard appealed a district court judgment convicting her of driving with a suspended license and for failing to show proof of liability insurance. Hubbard went to a Montana casino to gamble. She was 19 and could legally gamble, but only patrons who were 21 years old and older were eligible to receive a gambling coupon. She provided another person’s identification to a casino employee to get the coupon. An employee who recognized Hubbard and knew she was using another person’s identification called the police. Police learned that Hubbard’s Oregon driver’s license was suspended, and informed Hubbard that it was illegal to use another person’s identification. Police decided not to cite her for the offense, and left the casino. The same responding officer at the casino observed Hubbard a short while later driving on the suspended license, and pulled her over. Hubbard was arrested for driving with a suspended license (and failing to provide proof of insurance). Hubbard appeared in Libby City Court, pled not guilty to the charges, and asked for appointment of a public defender. Counsel was appointed, and Hubbard was tried in absentia. Counsel thereafter filed a Notice of Appeal; a jury trial in district court was scheduled for later that year. Counsel and Hubbard conversed by email, wherein Hubbard explained her belief that the arresting officer entrapped her by allegedly telling her to drive from the casino, with knowledge her license was suspended, because her companion had been drinking. Counsel ultimately moved to withdraw from Hubbard’s representation, arguing that a new trial in District Court “would be frivolous or wholly without merit.” Counsel filed a supporting memorandum and attached several documents, including the email Hubbard had sent to him explaining why she believed she was entrapped. The District Court denied Counsel’s motion to withdraw. Hubbard argued on appeal that Counsel violated his duties of loyalty and confidentiality to her by attaching the email explaining her view on trial strategy, violating attorney-client privilege, and revealing inculpatory information that was not previously in the city court record, which the prosecution used to file a motion in limine to prevent the entrapment defense. She also argued the improperly disclosed information prejudiced her during trial, because it gave the prosecution the idea to inquire into where she lived and how she arrived in Libby, prior to the incident at the casino. The District Court denied the motion and, further, gave an instruction regarding the entrapment defense to the jury. Hubbard presented an entrapment defense and the jury considered whether entrapment applied. The Montana Supreme Court concluded Counsel’s disclosure did not render the trial result “fundamentally unfair” or “unreliable,” and that Hubbard could not show that there was a reasonable probability that, but for her counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. View "City of Libby v. Hubbard" on Justia Law
Posted in: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Stokes v. First American Title Co. of Montana, Inc.
The Supreme Court ordered that Appellees’ joint motion to declare John Stokes a vexatious litigant is granted in part and ordered that, before Stokes could file any pleading pro se in a Montana district court or the Montana Supreme Court, he was required to obtain pre-filing approval from the court in which he sought to file. The court ordered that any such filing may be prohibited upon a determination that the claims asserted are harassing, frivolous, or legally not cognizable. The pre-filing requirement applies to pro se filings by Stokes in cases where his counsel has withdrawn from representation. View "Stokes v. First American Title Co. of Montana, Inc." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Cross Guns v. Eighth Judicial District Court
This contempt proceeding arose from the failure of Petitioner, the birth father’s counsel in a youth in need of care proceeding, to appear at a termination of parental rights hearing before the Honorable Gregory G. Pinski. After Judge Pinski issued the order of contempt, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of review, arguing that the contempt hearing was criminal in nature and that she was not afforded due process. The Supreme Court denied Petitioner’s petition for a writ of review, holding (1) the district court had jurisdiction of these contempt proceedings pursuant to Mont. Code Ann. 3-1-511; and (2) substantial evidence supported the order of contempt. View "Cross Guns v. Eighth Judicial District Court" on Justia Law
Posted in: Family Law, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Draggin Cattle Co. v. New York Marine & General Insurance Co.
Roger and Carrie Peters and Draggin’ Y Cattle Company (collectively, Peters) entered into a stipulated settlement with Junkermier, Clark, Campanella, Stevens, P.C. and Larry Addink (collectively, Junkermier). Judge George Huss, the presiding judge, determined that the stipulated settlement was reasonable and entered judgment against New York Marine and General Insurance Company, Junkermier’s insurer. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that Judge Huss improperly failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest. On remand, the district court determined that Judge Huss was required to recuse himself and should have been disqualified and vacated Judge Huss’s orders issued after he should have been disqualified. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court (1) correctly held that Judge Huss was required to disqualify himself pursuant to Montana Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.12(A); and (2) did not err in vacating Judge Huss’s orders issued after he should have disqualified himself. View "Draggin Cattle Co. v. New York Marine & General Insurance Co." on Justia Law
Posted in: Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Keuffers v. O.F. Mossberg & Sons
O.F. Mossberg & Sons, Inc., and Burns Auction & Appraisal, LLC (collectively “Mossberg”), appealed a District Court order granting Luke and Stephanie Keuffers’ motion to disqualify Mossberg’s counsel. The District Court disqualified Mossberg’s out-of-state counsel, Renzulli Law Firm, and its local counsel, Tarlow & Stonecipher, pursuant to Rule 1.20(c) of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct. The basis for the court’s disqualification order was a prospective client consultation that Luke Keuffer had with an attorney from Tarlow & Stonecipher, which was later used in a deposition of Stephanie Keuffer by John Renzulli of the Renzulli Law Firm. The court found that the continued involvement in the case by Mossberg’s counsel gave the Keuffers reason to question whether their case could proceed fairly and cause to question what they may have disclosed in the consultation to Tarlow & Stonecipher that may later be used against them in the current litigation. The court also found that Mossberg’s counsel’s actions undermine the public’s trust in the legal profession. Finding no reversible error in the District Court's disqualification order, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed. View "Keuffers v. O.F. Mossberg & Sons" on Justia Law
Posted in: Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Morin v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.
After Sarah West was involved in a motor vehicle accident, West made a claim against her insurer, State Farm, for underinsured motorist benefits of $75,000. State Farm paid only $20,000 in benefits. Attorney Tracey Morin subsequently filed a complaint against State Farm on behalf of Sarah and her parents, Ausra and James West, for breach of contract, violation of the Montana Unfair Trade Practices Act, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. At the conclusion of the action, the district court imposed sanctions on Morin individually under Mont. R. Civ. P. 11. Morin appealed, contending that the depth and breadth of the sanctions constituted an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing the level of sanctions imposed in this case. View "Morin v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co." on Justia Law
Posted in: Contracts, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
In re Estate of C.K.O.
Mother and Child were seriously injured in an automobile accident. Mother and her husband (Husband) hired Viscomi & Gersh (Viscomi) to represent Mother and Child in their claims for damages resulting from the accident. Matthew O'Neill was subsequently appointed to act as guardian ad litem (GAL) and conservator for Child. After Mother's case settled, Mother and Husband agreed with Morales Law Office (Morales) that Morales would represent Child. Morales then filed a motion to disqualify counsel. The district court denied the motion because it did not contain the consent of Viscomi and O'Neill. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) when Mother and Husband consented to the appointment of a GAL and conservator to act in Child's best interests in the legal claims she had arising from the accident, they divested themselves of the right to determine who should represent Child in her personal injury claim; (2) Mont. Code Ann. 37-61-403 and Mont. Code Ann. 72-5-427 are not unconstitutional as applied in this case; and (3) section 37-61-403 does not conflict with the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct. View "In re Estate of C.K.O." on Justia Law
Posted in: Family Law, Injury Law, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Hartsoe v. McNeil
Plaintiff filed an action against a district court judge, seeking damages for the judge's acts or omissions while presiding over a telephone pretrial conference in a civil action then pending before him. At all relevant times the judge was acting in his official capacity as a district court judge with regard to that case and the pretrial conference. The district court granted the judge's motion to dismiss on the grounds of judicial immunity. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because the acts of which Plaintiff complained occurred while the judge was conducting the pretrial conference and were clearly within the authority and responsibility of a district court judge, the judge was immune from suit, and the district court properly dismissed Plaintiff's complaint. View "Hartsoe v. McNeil" on Justia Law
Posted in: Constitutional Law, Injury Law, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court
Am. Zurich Ins. v. Dist. Court
Employee filed a workers' compensation claim against Employer. Employer's Insurer accepted liability for Employee's claim. Insurer contracted with third-party Adjuster to provide services for Employee's claim. Employee and Insurer disagreed over elements of the claim, and Attorney advised Insurer on various legal matters. The claim was eventually resolved. Employee then filed the present action for unfair claims settlement practices, naming Insurer and an employee of Adjuster as defendants. Employee served Employer with a subpoena requesting, inter alia, a letter Attorney wrote to Adjuster's employee concerning the underlying case. Employer and Insurer objected to the subpoena, citing attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine. The court denied the motions. Insurer then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of supervisory control. The Court dismissed the petition, holding that the district court correctly applied the law of attorney-client privilege but incorrectly analyzed the work product doctrine. However, because the court reached the proper conclusion, supervisory control was unnecessary. View "Am. Zurich Ins. v. Dist. Court" on Justia Law
Krutzfeldt Ranch, LLC v. Pinnacle Bank
Appellants and Bank entered a loan agreement in which Bank agreed to lend Appellants $5 million. After Bank refused to disburse further funds under the loan, Appellants sued Bank. Bank was represented by the Crowley Fleck law firm (Crowley). During the ensuing litigation, an attorney that was working with the law firm representing Appellants (Lawyer) joined Crowley as an attorney. Appellants subsequently filed motions to disqualify Crowley from representing Bank in the case and to permanently enjoin Crowley from proceeding in the litigation. The trial court denied Appellants' motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court erred in denying Appellants' motions where (1) Lawyer, who was engaged in concrete discussions of future employment with the adversary's law firm, did not promptly inform Appellant, terminate all further discussions concerning the employment, or withdraw from representing Appellant; (2) the conflict was concurrent and thus imputed to Crowley; and (3) the measures Crowley took were inadequate to preserve Appellants' confidences. View "Krutzfeldt Ranch, LLC v. Pinnacle Bank" on Justia Law
Posted in: Contracts, Legal Ethics, Montana Supreme Court