Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
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Ronald Smithberg petitioned the North Dakota Supreme Court for a supervisory writ following the district court’s denial of his demand for a jury trial. Ronald, Gary, and James Smithberg were brothers who were shareholders in Smithberg Brothers, Inc. In July 2016, Ronald filed a “complaint and jury demand,” suing Gary, James and Smithberg Brothers, Inc., seeking damages and to have the corporation and his brothers purchase his shares. After a jury trial was scheduled for October 1, 2018, the parties stipulated to “waive their right to a jury trial and to schedule a court trial.” The stipulation also stated “the Court should schedule a three-day Court trial for February 2018, or as soon as possible thereafter.” In January 2018, the district court granted summary judgment dismissing all of Ronald’s claims for damages. After a bench trial was held on several remaining claims, the court determined the value of Ronald’s interest in the corporation, ordered the corporation to pay Ronald for his interest, and entered judgment. Ronald appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed judgment and remanded for a trial, holding the district court erred by granting summary judgment dismissing Ronald’s claims for damages On remand, Ronald requested a jury trial and defendants opposed his request. The district court ordered a bench trial, noting the stipulation to waive the jury trial did not state that it was contingent on any circumstance. Ronald argued the Supreme Court should exercise its supervisory jurisdiction to rectify the district court’s error of denying his request for a jury trial and to prevent an injustice. The Supreme Court concluded that when a case is reversed and remanded for a trial without limitation, a party who stipulated to waive the right to a jury trial before the original trial may demand a jury trial on remand, unless the parties intended their stipulation to apply to any future trials or the right is otherwise limited by law. Ronald had a right to a jury trial on remand. The district court erred by deciding it had discretion in determining whether to order a jury trial on remand and by denying Ronald’s request. The Court granted Ronald’s petition for a supervisory writ and instructed the district court to schedule a jury trial. Ronald also asked the Supreme Court to remand this case to a different judge, but did not explain why a different judge should have been assigned. “To the extent he is asserting judicial impropriety based on the judge’s misapplication of the law, we have stated that ‘[a]n erroneous opinion as to the merits of the case or the law relating to the proceedings is not evidence of bias.’” View "Smithberg v. Jacobson, et al." on Justia Law

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James Broten appealed the dismissal of his attorney malpractice claim. Broten was appointed to serve as the personal representative of his father’s estate. Broten was sued by his sisters who claimed Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative by transferring land held in the trust to himself. In 2011, Broten retained attorney Ralph Carter to defend him against his sisters’ claims. During Carter’s representation, Broten showed Carter approximately sixty boxes of records Broten believed documented payments to his parents and provided a defense to his sisters’ claims. Broten repeatedly inquired with Carter about his review of the records. The records were not disclosed to the opposing party during discovery but disclosed after Carter was replaced as Broten’s counsel in March of 2013. In August 2013, the district court entered an order finding Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative of his father’s estate, ultimately requiring Broten to pay damages to his sisters in an amount of $1,300,054. Broten alleged Carter’s failure to review and disclose the documents prevented all of the records from being introduced as evidence and resulted in the liability to his sisters. Carter moved for summary judgment, arguing the applicable two year statute of limitations barred Broten’s claim. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Carter and awarded to Carter the recovery of costs and fees, including the costs expended for expert witnesses who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Broten argued the district court erred in granting summary judgment after finding his claim was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. He also challenged the inclusion of expert witness fees within the expenses awarded by the district court for experts who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Broten v. Carter, et al." on Justia Law

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The Rodenburg Law Firm appealed a judgment dismissing its action against Kathy Sira, Mikhail Usher, and the Usher Law Group, P.C., for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and exemplary damages. Sira initiated a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) action against Rodenburg in New Jersey federal court, alleging Rodenburg, a North Dakota law firm, engaged in harassment and abusive debt collection tactics and violated 15 U.S.C. 1692 et. seq. Sira’s action was ultimately dismissed by agreement of the parties. After the dismissal of Sira’s action, Rodenburg sued Sira and her attorney, Usher and the Usher Law Group, in this action, alleging malicious prosecution. Rodenburg subsequently amended its complaint to include claims for abuse of process and exemplary damages. After a bench trial, the district court dismissed Rodenburg’s claims. The court found Sira lived in New Jersey, her allegations in the federal FDCPA action stated a claim for relief, and her allegations were based on reasonable trustworthy information made after a reasonable inquiry under the circumstances. The court found Sira’s lawsuit was not for an improper purpose and was not an abuse of process. The court also found her lawsuit was not a malicious prosecution because there was probable cause for the action and there was no malice. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the district court did not clearly err in dismissing Rodenburg’s claims for abuse of process and malicious prosecution. View "Rodenburg Law Firm v. Sira, et al." on Justia Law

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The Johnston Law Office appeals from a judgment dismissing its claims against Jon Brakke and Vogel Law Firm (collectively "Vogel"). Johnston argued the district court erred in granting summary judgment and dismissing its claims. Vogel represented PHI Financial Services, Inc. in an action against Johnston to recover damages for a fraudulent transfer. The district court entered judgment against Johnston in that action. In April 2016 Johnston sued Vogel for tortious interference with a business relationship, tortious interference with attorney-client business relationships, and abuse of process. Johnston alleged Vogel violated state law while attempting to execute on the judgment entered against Johnston. Johnston claimed Vogel improperly attempted to garnish funds from Johnston's lawyer trust account, operating account and fees owed by Johnston's clients, and Vogel's unlawful actions interfered with Johnston's business relationships with its lending bank and clients. In July 2017 Vogel moved for summary judgment, arguing Johnston was unable to prove the required elements of its claims and Vogel was entitled to dismissal of the claims. Vogel also moved to quash a subpoena duces tecum Johnston served on PHI Financial seeking billing information between Vogel and PHI Financial. The district court granted Vogel's motion as to all claims. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed dismissal. View "Johnston Law Office, P.C. v. Brakke" on Justia Law

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Bradley and Karol Johnson appealed a judgment granting the law firm Barna, Guzy, & Steffen, Ltd. ("BGS") foreclosure of a real estate mortgage for payment of a $258,769.97 debt, and an order denying their N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) motion for relief from judgment. In 2013 the Johnsons retained BGS to represent them in a lawsuit in connection with the probate of the estate of Bradley Johnson's father in Minnesota. The Johnsons resided in, and BGS was located in, the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. BGS extended credit to the Johnsons for costs, fees, and expenses that would be incurred in representing them in the lawsuit through a revolving line of credit agreement and a revolving promissory note. To secure payment, the Johnsons executed a mortgage on land they owned in North Dakota. The mortgage required the Johnsons to pay all of the principal and interest on the indebtedness when due to BGS. The Johnsons failed to make the payments to BGS as required under the loan agreements. In 2015 BGS brought this action against the Johnsons and others in North Dakota to foreclose the mortgage. The Johnsons counterclaimed, alleging its attorneys committed legal malpractice and other torts during the Minnesota legal proceedings. The district court ultimately dismissed the Johnsons' counterclaim without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under N.D.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). The court granted summary judgment for foreclosure on the North Dakota property in favor of BGS, concluding the Johnsons were indebted to BGS in the amount of $258,769.97 under the loan agreements with interest continuing to accrue. Because the Johnsons did not establish the district court erred in any of its rulings, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, and the order denying the motion for relief from judgment. View "Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd. v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Karen Corum appealed the grant of summary judgments in two collection actions brought by American Express Centurion Bank. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the district court's summary judgments were proper as a matter of law and the district court did not err by denying Corum's request to allow her husband to be her spokesperson in court. A party who is not represented by a licensed attorney cannot be represented by another person, including their spouse, in any court of record in this state, absent authorization provided by state law or supreme court rule. The right of free speech does not encompass in-court advocacy by a non-lawyer on behalf of another person, including a spouse. View "American Express Centurion Bank v. Corum" on Justia Law

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Judge Richard Hagar of the North Central Judicial District filed exceptions to the Judicial Conduct Commission's recommended findings that he violated provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to diligently and promptly decide judicial matters assigned to him and by failing to work with the presiding judge. He also objected to the Commission's recommended sanction. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded there was clear and convincing evidence Judge Hagar violated N.D. Code Jud. Conduct Rules 2.5 and 2.7. The Court ordered that Judge Hagar be suspended from his position as district court judge for three months without pay and that he be assessed $10,118.67 for the costs and expenses of the disciplinary proceedings. View "Judicial Conduct Commission v. Hagar" on Justia Law

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DeWayne Johnston, individually, and as registered agent of Johnston Law Office, P.C., appealed the invalidation of a notice of attorney lien recorded against Johnston's former client and ordering Johnston Law Office and Johnston, individually, to pay $1,330 in costs and attorney fees. Wayne and Janel Nusviken acquired real property from Johnston's former client Barbara McDermott on October 2, 2013. On October 8, 2013, Johnston recorded a "notice of attorney lien" against McDermott. The notice of attorney lien included the legal description of Nusviken's property and stated McDermott owed Johnston nearly $66,000 in attorney's fees relating to Johnston's representation of McDermott in earlier matters unrelated to the sale of the property. The Nusvikens petitioned the district court to invalidate the notice of attorney lien, arguing McDermott no longer owned any interest in the property. The court issued an order to show cause directing Johnston to appear and show why the notice of attorney lien should not be declared void. At the hearing, Johnston argued the notice of attorney lien was not a nonconsensual common-law lien but a valid attorney's lien under N.D.C.C. § 35-20-08, and therefore, the court did not have jurisdiction to invalidate the lien. In response Nusviken's attorney stated the notice of attorney lien was invalid because McDermott no longer had an interest in the property and no attorney-client relationship existed between Johnston and the Nusvikens. The court concluded the purported lien was a nonconsensual common-law lien and not a valid attorney's lien because it failed to satisfy the statutory requirements for an attorney's lien. After review, the Supreme Court modified the judgment to relieve Johnston of personal liability and affirmed the judgment as modified. View "Nusviken v. Johnston" on Justia Law

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Blume Construction, Inc. appealed a district court judgment affirming a Job Service North Dakota decision, finding Blume did not file a valid appeal and the agency's determination assigning Blume a final penalty tax rate. Blume received a notice of determination from Job Service informing Blume that it would be assigned a penalty tax rate for unemployment insurance. The notice stated the agency conducted an audit and concluded there was a transfer of ownership and payroll between Blume and another company that was knowingly done to obtain a lower tax rate for unemployment insurance. The notice informed Blume it would be assigned the highest tax rate assignable for the next three years. The notice advised Blume the determination would become final unless a written appeal was made to Job Service within fifteen days. Job Service received an electronic appeal request for Blume signed by Craig Fidler. Fidler was identified as a licensed attorney from Colorado. Fidler was not licensed to practice law in North Dakota. In approximately May 2014, Fidler notified the referee he was unable to secure a sponsoring attorney licensed in North Dakota. During that same time period, the referee was informed a North Dakota attorney would be representing Blume. Blume argued the referee erred in finding Blume's attorney engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and the appealed request the attorney filed was void. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Blume Construction, Inc. v. North Dakota" on Justia Law

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The last will and testament of Donald Amundson provided for his entire estate to be distributed to the Donald G. Amundson Trust. The Trust owned farmland jointly with the Kenneth Amundson Trust, which was set up by Donald Amundson's brother. Donald Amundson's Trust declaration directed the Trust assets were to be distributed upon his death to four charities, with the remainder distributed to ten nieces and nephews. Debra Magers and Gladys Gleason were initially appointed as co-personal representatives of the Estate. Magers, Gleason, and Todd Graveline were appointed as co-trustees of the Trust. John Widdel, Jr. represented all parties in relation to the administration of the estate. Magers eventually became sole personal representative and trustee of the Trust and Estate. In August 2013, the beneficiaries of the Estate petitioned for court determination of reasonableness of fees and for settlement and distribution of estate. The petition objected to the fees charged by Magers and Widdel for their services to the Estate and Trust. In September 2014, the district court found Magers had breached her fiduciary duty in several ways, which included paying Widdel large fees without question. The court also found administration of the Estate and Trust was not complicated and Widdel's fees were unreasonable in light of the nature of the work performed. The court ordered Widdel to return attorney's fees in the amount of $95,000. Widdel appealed the district court judgment ordering him to repay $95,000 of the attorney's fees he charged in the administration of the Estate. He argued the district court abused its discretion in finding the attorney's fees were unreasonable, and that the district court abused its discretion by not holding an evidentiary hearing on the issue of substituting his professional corporation as the named party on the judgment. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding the fees charged by Widdel were unreasonable and in finding Widdel could properly be held personally liable on the judgment. View "Estate of Amundson" on Justia Law