Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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Appellant a Louisiana attorney representing oil spill claimants in the settlement program, was accused of funneling money to a settlement program staff attorney through improper referral payments. In a disciplinary proceeding, the en banc Eastern District of Louisiana found that Appellant’s actions violated the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and suspended him from practicing law before the Eastern District of Louisiana for one year. Appellant appealed, arguing that the en banc court misapplied the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct and abused its discretion by imposing an excessive sanction.   The Fifth Circuit found that the en banc court misapplied Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a) but not Rule 8.4(d). Additionally, the en banc court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a one-year suspension on Appellant for his violation of 8.4(d). Accordingly, the court reversed the en banc court’s order suspending Appellant from the practice of law for one year each for violations of Rule 1.5(e) and 8.4(a). The court affirmed the en banc court’s holding that Appellant violated Rule 8.4(d). Finally, the court remanded to the en banc court for further proceedings. On remand, the court is free to impose on Appellant whatever sanction it sees fit for the 8.4(d) violation, including but not limited to its previous one-year suspension. View "In re Jonathan Andry" on Justia Law

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Janelle Henderson, a Black woman, and Alicia Thompson, a white woman, were involved in a motor vehicle collision. Thompson admitted fault for the collision but made no offer to compensate Henderson for her injuries. Henderson claimed that her preexisting condition was seriously exacerbated by the collision and sued for damages. During the trial, Thompson’s defense team attacked the credibility of Henderson and her counsel—also a Black woman—in language that called on racist tropes and suggested impropriety between Henderson and her Black witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of only $9,200 for Henderson. Henderson moved for a new trial or additur on the ground that the repeated appeals to racial bias affected the verdict, yet the trial court did not even grant an evidentiary hearing on that motion. The court instead stated it could not “require attorneys to refrain from using language that is tied to the evidence in the case, even if in some contexts the language has racial overtones.” The Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing and also by failing to impose any sanctions for Thompson’s discovery violations. Judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Henderson v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved a dispute over the division of a personal injury settlement between a predecessor law firm, a successor law firm, and a client who was subjected to unfair and deceptive trade practices. Litster Frost Injury Lawyers (“Litster”) represented Melissa Gryder for approximately three years before Idaho Injury Law Group (“IILG”) took over representation and settled Gryder’s case roughly two months later for $120,000. Gryder had followed her attorney, Seth Diviney, from Litster to his newly formed firm, IILG. After the personal injury claim was settled, Litster sued IILG and Gryder, claiming a portion of the settlement for attorney’s fees and costs it incurred. Gryder, through Diviney as her attorney, counterclaimed that Litster violated the Idaho Consumer Protection Act (“ICPA”) and could not recover against the settlement fund. The district court ruled on a motion for partial summary judgment that Litster committed an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of the ICPA. However, by the time of the bench trial, the district court understood, based on representations by Diviney, that only Litster and IILG had a stake in the disputed portion of the fund—not Gryder. From this, the district court divided the disputed portion of the fund between Litster and IILG. The Idaho Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision and remanded this case for further proceedings so the district court could balance the equities between Litster, IILG, and Gryder. View "Litster Frost v. Idaho Injury Law Group" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Delaware Supreme Court's review centered on whether the First Amendment barred claims for defamation and tortious interference with contract against a defendant who, in an email to a law firm, described as “shockingly racist” a lawsuit filed by one of the firm’s partners in his personal capacity. The suit aimed to preserve a nearby high school’s “Indian” mascot. The partner, who claimed to have lost his position with the law firm because of the email, sued his detractor, contending that the characterization of his lawsuit was demonstrably false and pled four causes of action, including defamation and tortious interference with contract. The partner’s detractor, in response, contended her statements about the partner were opinions protected by the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. The Superior Court agreed with the detractor and dismissed the partner’s tort action. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court: the statements at issue did not on their face contain demonstrably false statements of fact, nor did they imply defamatory and provably false facts. "As statements concerning an issue of public concern, moreover, they are entitled to heightened First Amendment protection and cannot form the predicate of the plaintiff’s tort claims." View "Cousins v. Goodier" on Justia Law

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Appellant, then proceeding pro se, brought an action against Respondent, her brother, alleging he had falsely accused her of committing crimes against him and their elderly parents. Respondent emailed the attorney in this matter (“Attorney”), who was Appellant’s husband since June 2015, her former coworker at his law firm, and later her counsel in this action, warning that if Appellant did not settle the action, Respondent would file a cross-complaint the next day.   The court subsequently dismissed Respondent’s cross-complaint. Appellant retained Attorney to represent her pro bono or at a discounted rate, having been advised by Attorney that he would likely need to testify at trial, and having executed informed written consent to Attorney’s representation notwithstanding his expected dual role as advocate and witness   Two months before trial, Respondent moved to disqualify Attorney as Appellant’s counsel under California’s advocate-witness rule, viz., rule 3.7 of the Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 3.7). The trial court disqualified Attorney from all phases of the litigation.   The Second Appellate District reversed the trial court’s disqualification order, holding that the trial court failed to apply the proper legal standards, and thereby abused its discretion, in disqualifying Attorney from representing Appellant under the advocate witness rule. The court explained that the trial court failed to apply Rule 3.7’s informed-consent exception. Indeed, the trial court failed even to cite Rule 3.7, instead applying the ABA Rule, which is not binding and lacks any informed-consent exception. The trial court further abused its discretion in failing to apply Rule 3.7’s limitation to advocacy “in a trial.” View "Lopez v. Lopez" on Justia Law

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Wagstaff & Cartmell, LLP (Wagstaff) filed a declaratory-judgment action against the Defendant-Attorney, seeking a declaration that Wagstaff owed nothing to Defendant for any work on a wrongful death lawsuit or, in the alternative, a determination of the amount it owed to Defendant.   Defendant filed counterclaims against Wagstaff, including a counterclaim under the theory of quantum meruit. The district court entered judgment in Wagstaff’s favor. On appeal, Defendant argued that the district court erred in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction (2) denying his motion for leave to dismiss counterclaims without prejudice and motions for leave to file his second amended answer (3) denying his motion to dismiss the declaratory-judgment action without prejudice under the abstention doctrine and motion to reconsider the denial of that dismissal motion and (4) denying, in part, his motion to alter or amend the judgment or, in the alternative, relief from judgment.The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in Plaintiff’s favor. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant’s motion to alter or amend the judgment or, in the alternative, relief from judgment. The court held that the district court reasonably interpreted Defendant’s response to Wagstaff’s third summary judgment motion as an abandonment of his quantum meruit claim. In addition, Defendant had not sustained his burden of proving that Wagstaff has engaged in misconduct that prevented him from fully and fairly presenting his case. View "Wagstaff & Cartmell, LLP v. Neal Lewis" on Justia Law

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While driving a forklift at work, Lori Chandler was hit by another forklift and injured. She retained Turner & Associates to file a workers’ compensation claim. But Turner & Associates failed to file her claim within the statute of limitations. Adding to that, the firm’s case manager engaged in a year-and-a-half-long cover-up, which included false assurances of settlement negotiations, fake settlement offers, and a forged settlement letter purporting to be from Chandler’s former employer. Because of this professional negligence, Chandler filed a legal malpractice action. The only issue at trial was damages. The trial judge, sitting as fact-finder, concluded that Chandler had suffered a compensable work-related injury—an injury that caused her to lose her job and left her unemployed for nearly two years. Based on her hourly wage, the trial judge determined, had Turner & Associates timely filed Chandler’s workers’ compensation claim, Chandler could have reasonably recovered $50,000 in disability benefits. So the trial judge awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages. The trial judge also awarded Chandler $100,000 in punitive damages against the case manager due to her egregious conduct. The Court of Appeals affirmed the punitive-damages award. But the court reversed and remanded the compensatory-damages award. Essentially, the Court of Appeals held that Chandler had failed to present sufficient medical evidence to support a $50,000 workers’ compensation claim. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the appellate court: "Were this a workers’ compensation case, we might agree with the Court of Appeals. But this is a legal malpractice case. And part of what Chandler lost, due to attorney negligence, was her ability to prove her work-related injury led to her temporary total disability. ... the Court of Appeals erred by applying exacting statutory requirements for a workers’ compensation claim to Chandler’s common-law legal malpractice claim." The Court reversed on the issue of compensatory damages and reinstated the trial judge’s $50,000 compensatory-damages award. Because this was the only issue for which Chandler sought certiorari review, it affirmed the remainder of the Court of Appeals’ decision, which affirmed the punitive-damages award but reversed and remanded the grant of partial summary judgment against attorney Angela Lairy in her individual capacity. View "Turner & Associates, PLLC, et al. v. Chandler" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, a group of drivers, sued Defendants, a group of personal injury lawyers, after Defendants sought and obtained car accident reports from North Carolina law enforcement agencies and private data brokers and then sent Plaintiffs unsolicited attorney advertising material. Plaintiffs' claims were brought under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”).The district court held that, although Plaintiffs have standing to bring their claims, the claim failed on the merits.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Plaintiffs have a legally recognizable privacy interest in the accident reports. However, Defendant's conduct in obtaining the records did not constitute a violation of DPPA. Defendants obtained Plaintiffs’ personal information from the accident reports; however, Plaintiffs failed to preserve the argument that those accident reports are“motor vehicle records under DPPA. View "William Garey v. James S. Farrin, P.C." on Justia Law

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Following the death of their twenty-five-year-old son Cory Bisher (“Cory”), Brenton and Carla Bisher filed suit, without representation by counsel, against eleven defendants comprising both named individuals and corporate entities alleging their medical malpractice resulting in Cory’s death. Each parent brought their own wrongful death claims, and Carla filed a survival action on behalf of Cory’s estate (“Estate”). Following protracted proceedings, the trial court struck the amended complaint with prejudice because of defects in the Certificates of Merit mandated by Rule of Civil Procedure 1042.3 in professional liability suits against licensed professionals. On appeal, the Superior Court sua sponte determined that the Bishers committed two errors that jointly deprived the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction over all claims: Carla’s unauthorized practice of law and the lack of verification of the complaint. The panel concluded that it too lacked jurisdiction and quashed the appeal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that neither the unauthorized practice of law in the trial court, nor the lack of verification identified by the Superior Court, implicated subject-matter jurisdiction, and thus could not be raised sua sponte. The Supreme Court also disagreed with the panel’s alternative holding that the trial court properly struck the amended complaint because of the defects in the Certificates of Merit. Because the unauthorized practice of law issue will be ripe for further litigation on remand, the Supreme Court concluded that pleadings unlawfully filed by non-attorneys were not void ab initio. "Instead, after notice to the offending party and opportunity to cure, the pleadings are voidable in the discretion of the court in which the unauthorized practice of law took place." View "Estate of Bisher v. Lehigh Vly Health Net." on Justia Law