Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
Pinks v. Kelsch
In a legal malpractice case in North Dakota, a couple, Kenneth and Carol Pinks, sued attorney Alexander Kelsch and his professional corporation, along with associated partners, alleging negligence in representing them in a quiet title action against the State of North Dakota. The District Court, South Central Judicial District, bifurcated the malpractice action to first determine the element of causation, specifically whether the Pinks would have achieved a more favorable outcome in the quiet title action but for the alleged negligence of the defendants. The court denied cross-motions for summary judgment, finding there were genuine issues of material fact.Following a bench trial on the causation element, the district court concluded that had the evidence of the Pinks’ ownership of the disputed land been presented in the quiet title action, they would have established their ownership claim was prior and superior to the State’s claim of title. The court concluded the Pinks proved the element of causation and ordered a jury trial be set on the remaining issues of the legal malpractice claim. The defendants appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of North Dakota, however, dismissed the appeal, ruling that the defendants were attempting to appeal from an interlocutory order, and the defendants did not seek certification under Rule 54(b) of the North Dakota Rules of Civil Procedure. The rule requires that, in cases with more than one claim or multiple parties, a final judgment on one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties can only be directed if the court expressly determines there is no just reason for delay. The court found that the district court only ruled on the causation element of the legal malpractice claim, and other elements, such as the existence of an attorney-client relationship, a duty by the attorney to the client, a breach of that duty by the attorney, and damages were still left to be adjudicated. The defendants' failure to comply with Rule 54(b) led to the dismissal of the appeal. The court also denied the Pinks' request for costs and attorney’s fees, determining that the defendants' appeal was not frivolously made. View "Pinks v. Kelsch" on Justia Law
Koon v. State
In this case, Jerome Wesseh Koon, Jr. appealed from a district court judgment that denied his application for postconviction relief. Koon had been convicted of reckless endangerment, tampering with physical evidence, unlawful possession of a firearm, and terrorizing. His postconviction relief application was based on two main claims. Firstly, he argued that the district court erred by considering evidence outside the record, specifically the clerk's trial notes. Secondly, he claimed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.The Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota affirmed the district court's judgment. The court rejected Koon's first argument, finding that the district court did not err in considering the clerk's trial notes. The court noted that the district court had provided notice to the parties of its intent to judicially notice the clerk's trial notes, and ultimately did not rely on the notes in its findings. The court also rejected Koon's argument that the district court's review of the clerk's notes automatically created a biased factfinder.Regarding Koon's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Supreme Court found that Koon had failed to show that there was a reasonable probability that the result of his trial would have been different had his counsel acted differently. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's denial of postconviction relief. View "Koon v. State" on Justia Law
Kisi v. State
In the case before the Supreme Court of North Dakota, the appellant Jean-Michael Kisi appealed from orders dismissing in part and denying in part his application for postconviction relief. Kisi contended that he was wrongfully convicted of a non-cognizable offense, accomplice to attempted murder. He further argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel, the lower court followed improper trial procedures, and the State committed prosecutorial misconduct.The Supreme Court of North Dakota upheld the lower court's decision, affirming that an attempted knowing murder is not a cognizable offense. However, the Court found that the erroneous inclusion of "knowing" in the jury instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, as the evidence presented indicated that the jury convicted Kisi of attempted intentional murder.Kisi's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was also dismissed. The Court held that there was no genuine issue of material fact, and the representation of his counsel did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness. Kisi's claims regarding improper trial procedure and prosecutorial misconduct were summarily dismissed. The Court, therefore, affirmed the lower court's order dismissing in part and denying in part Kisi's application for postconviction relief. View "Kisi v. State" on Justia Law
Sadek, et al. v. Weber, et al.
John and Tammy Sadek appealed orders denying their post-judgment motion and sanctioning their attorney under N.D.R.Civ.P. 11. Jason Weber was a Richland County, North Dakota sheriff’s deputy. Sadek acted as a confidential informant for Weber. Sadek was later found in the Red River with a gunshot wound to his head and a backpack full of rocks tied to his body. Sadek’s parents sued Weber and Richland County alleging Weber deceived Sadek by telling Sadek he faced a lengthy prison sentence. They also alleged Weber negligently caused Sadek’s death by failing to adequately train and protect him. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Weber and Richland County: the misrepresentation underlying the deceit claim was a prediction of a future event and therefore not actionable as deceit as a matter of law; as to the negligence claim, there was no evidence to establish Weber’s conduct was the proximate cause of Sadek’s death. In the first appeal ("Sadek I"), the Sadeks argued a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Weber’s conduct caused Andrew Sadek’s death. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, holding that "the evidence only presents a timeline of events and a request that a jury be allowed to speculate what happened as a result of that string of events." The Court's mandate affirming the dismissal judgment was issued on October 7, 2020. In 2022, the Sadeks filed a “Motion for Summary Judgment,” citing N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) but requested relief under N.D.R.Civ.P. 56. The Sadeks argued the district court made a mistake by relying on “bad faith” representations by Weber who “successfully hoodwinked [the district court] and obtained a Judgment of Dismissal.” Yet the Sadeks claimed they were entitled to summary judgment because “no triable issue of fact exists as to whether Defendants owed a duty of care to Andrew under the Statute.” The brief was accompanied by a list of signatures “verifying” they agreed with on Supreme Court Justice's dissent in Sadek I. The district court entered an order denying the Sadeks’ post-judgment motion, characterizing it as "baffling and bizarre." After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s orders and granted the Appellees’ motion for sanctions. View "Sadek, et al. v. Weber, et al." on Justia Law
Mullin, et al. v. Pendlay
Clinton Mullin and Valrena Nelson appealed the dismissal of their claims for legal malpractice/negligence. Mullin and Nelson argued Elizabeth Pendlay committed legal malpractice by: (1) stipulating to jury instructions that misstated the law; (2) failing to plead the affirmative defenses of unclean hands and/or illegality; (3) not objecting to a video admitted as evidence at the trial; and (4) filing a motion to stay with the North Dakota Supreme Court before filing an appeal. In November 2014, Mullin retained Pendlay to commence an action to evict Richard Twete from property Twete "sold" to Mullin meant to be a temporary conveyance. Twete subsequently sued Mullin and Nelson seeking a return of his property, alleging a confidential relationship existed between Twete and Mullin. Pendlay served as the attorney for Mullin and Nelson through most of the litigation and was their attorney for the trial. A jury found Mullin to have breached a confidential relationship with Twete. Mullin and Nelson were ordered to convey the property back to Twete and compensate Twete for the value of any property that could not be returned. Represented by new counsel, Mullin and Nelson appealed and the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. After the conclusion of the Twete litigation, Mullin and Nelson filed suit against Pendlay. The Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was proper and affirmed the judgment. View "Mullin, et al. v. Pendlay" on Justia Law
Bolinske v. Sandstrom, et al.
Robert Bolinske appealed the dismissal of his claims against former Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom and former District Court Judge Gail Hagerty (“State Defendants”) and awarding them attorney’s fees. In October 2016, Bolinske alleged in a press release that the State Defendants conspired to misfile or hide a petition for supervisory writ that he submitted in a prior case and thus tampered with public records. A few days after this press release, Rob Port published an article on his “Say Anything” blog regarding Bolinske’s press release. The article stated Port contacted Sandstrom and quoted Sandstrom as having said Bolinske’s press release was “bizarre and rather sad” and that “[a]lthough I’ve been aware of his mental health problems for years, I don’t recall ever having seen anything in his email before.” Three days after the article was published, Hagerty filed a grievance complaint against Bolinske, alleging he violated the North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct. Based on the complaint, a disciplinary action was brought against Bolinske. The Inquiry Committee found Bolinske violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and issued him an admonition. The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court affirmed, and the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding his procedural due process rights were not violated. The Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of Bolinske’s complaint in part, concluding the district court properly dismissed Bolinske’s claims of procedural and substantive due process, civil conspiracy, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, governmental bad faith, and tortious outrage. The Supreme Court reversed in part, concluding the district court erred by dismissing the defamation claim under the statute of limitations. The award of attorney’s fees was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Bolinske v. Sandstrom, et al." on Justia Law
Toman Engineering Co. v. Koch Construction, et al.
Koch Construction, Inc.; Marilyn Koch, Personal Representative of the Estate of Michael P. Koch; and Koch Property Investments, Inc. (collectively “appellants”) appealed the judgment and amended judgment entered in favor of Toman Engineering Company (“Toman”). Michael Koch owned and operated Koch Construction and Koch Property Investments (“KPI”). Toman provided engineering services to Koch Construction on various projects, including designing a stormwater management system for the Koch Meadow Hills residential development project in Dickinson, North Dakota. Michael died in August 2017. The stormwater management system included a detention pond referred to as the Marilyn Way Stormwater Pond, which was the detention pond at issue in this case. In 2016, Janet Prchal, Dean Kubas, and Geraldine Kubas, owners of property near the Koch Meadow Hills development, sued the City of Dickinson and KPI for damages, alleging the development of Koch Meadow Hills caused water to drain and collect on their properties. The Prchal lawsuit was settled in September 2018, and the settlement required modifications to be made to the Marilyn Way Stormwater Pond before June 30, 2019. The reconstruction work on the detention pond occurred during the summer and fall of 2019. Toman served a summons and complaint on Koch Construction and Marilyn Koch, to collect unpaid amounts for engineering services Toman provided to the defendants in 2017. Toman filed the complaint in the district court in June 2019. The appellants argued the district court erred in deciding they committed intentional spoliation of evidence and dismissing their counterclaim as a sanction. After review of the district court record, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the district court abused its discretion when it dismissed the appellants’ counterclaim as a sanction for spoliation of evidence. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Toman Engineering Co. v. Koch Construction, et al." on Justia Law
Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al.
Carrie Thompson-Widmer appealed the dismissal of her claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship against Kimberly Larson, Wells County, Eddy County, and Foster County. In January 2017, Larson filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Social Work Examiners against Thompson-Widmer on the basis of Thompson-Widmer’s actions in two child protection services cases. Larson alleged Thompson-Widmer misrepresented information about a child’s home environment in one case, and altered a report about methamphetamine in an infant’s meconium in the other case. Larson also met with a state’s attorney about Thompson-Widmer’s actions. The attorney referred the matter to a special prosecutor for consideration of potential criminal charges. Because the complaint to the State Board was filed while Thompson-Widmer was a Tri-County employee, Larson placed the complaint and the supporting documents in Thompson-Widmer’s employee personnel file. After the criminal investigation into Thompson-Widmer’s action was suspended, she became employed with Catholic Charities in April 2017. Tri-County worked with Catholic Charities on adoption placement cases. Larson’s staff informed her they did not feel comfortable working with Thompson- Widmer. Larson notified Catholic Charities that Tri-County would rather work with someone other than Thompson-Widmer. Catholic Charities submitted an open records request for Thompson-Widmer’s personnel file, and Larson fulfilled the request on Tri-County’s behalf. In May 2017, after receiving the personnel file, which included Larson’s complaint against Thompson-Widmer, Thompson-Widmer was terminated because she was not forthcoming about her issues while employed by Tri-County. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding Larson’s communications were privileged and therefore not subject to liability for defamation. View "Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al." on Justia Law
Fredericks, et al. v. Vogel Law Firm, et al.
Terrance Fredericks appealed a district court order dismissing his lawsuit against the Vogel Law Firm and its attorneys Monte Rogneby and Maurice McCormick, McCormick Inc., and Northern Improvement Company. In the earlier (2016) lawsuit Northern Improvement and McCormick, individually and on behalf of Native Energy, sued Fredericks for breaching contractual and fiduciary duties. Fredericks counterclaimed, alleging McCormick breached fiduciary duties. The jury found that McCormick and Northern Improvement did not breach duties owed to Native Energy or Fredericks. Vogel represented McCormick and Northern Improvement in the 2016 lawsuit. Fredericks sought to disqualify Vogel after testimony revealed Vogel may have indirectly provided services to Native Energy in 2010 and 2011 when it reviewed certain agreements that were later executed by Native Energy and third-party oil companies. The district court declared a mistrial and disqualified Vogel from representing McCormick. McCormick moved for reconsideration of the court’s decision to disqualify Vogel. After a hearing, the court did not disqualify Vogel, ruling it had not represented Native Energy by reviewing the agreements. In December 2017, Fredericks moved to add Vogel as a third-party defendant, claiming it committed legal malpractice by breaching fiduciary duties owed to Native Energy and Fredericks. Fredericks’ motion also sought to amend his counterclaims against McCormick and Northern Improvement. In April 2018, the district court allowed Fredericks to amend his claims against McCormick and Northern Improvement, but denied his motion to join Vogel as a third-party defendant. In February 2019, Fredericks, individually and derivatively on behalf of Native Energy Construction, filed the instant lawsuit against Vogel, McCormick, and Northern Improvement. Fredericks’ complaint alleged that Vogel had a conflict of interest because it had provided legal services to Native Energy in 2010 and 2011, and its current representation of McCormick was adverse to Native Energy and Fredericks. Fredericks alleged Vogel committed legal malpractice by disclosing Native Energy’s and Fredericks’ confidential information to McCormick. Fredericks also alleged McCormick and Northern Improvement breached fiduciary duties owed to Native Energy and Fredericks. The district court concluded res judicata barred Fredericks’ claims. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Fredericks, et al. v. Vogel Law Firm, et al." on Justia Law
Traynor Law Firm v. North Dakota, et al.
Dustin Irwin died in 2014, in the Ward County, North Dakota jail. The circumstances of his death led to an investigation and criminal charges against Ward County Sheriff Steven Kukowski. Initially, Divide County State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan was appointed to handle the criminal proceeding. Jordan determined the circumstances justified a petition for removal of Sheriff Kukowski from office. Governor Jack Dalrymple appointed Jordan as the special prosecutor for the removal. Ultimately, Jordan requested to withdraw and Governor Burgum appointed attorney Daniel Traynor as the special prosecutor. After completion of the removal proceedings, Traynor submitted his bill to the State on May 1, 2017. The State forwarded the bill to Ward County. Ward County refused to pay the bill. Traynor sued the State and Ward County to recover the unpaid fees. The State responded to Traynor’s complaint by filing a motion to dismiss. Ward County answered Traynor’s complaint and cross-claimed against the State. The State moved to dismiss Ward County’s cross-claim. Traynor moved for judgment on the pleadings. The district court entered judgment in Traynor’s favor against the State, and awarded interest at 6% per annum. The State argued Ward County had to pay Traynor’s bill because Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., failed to address who should pay for the special prosecutor fees in a county official’s removal proceeding, and therefore the catch-all provision in N.D.C.C. 54-12-03 applied. Ward County argues neither Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., nor Chapter 54- 12, N.D.C.C., imposes an obligation upon a county to pay the fees of an attorney appointed by the Governor for proceedings for the removal of a public official. The North Dakota Supreme Court concurred with the district court that Chapter 44-11, N.D.C.C., was silent regarding the payment of special prosecutor fees in a removal proceeding, and it was not necessary or required to import N.D.C.C. 54-12-03 into Chapter 44-11. Based on these facts, the Supreme Court concluded the district court did not err in finding a contract existed for legal services between Traynor and the State. The Court agreed with Traynor that the district court erred by awarding 6% per annum interest instead of the 1.5% monthly interest rate stated on its bill. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. View "Traynor Law Firm v. North Dakota, et al." on Justia Law