Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Rhode Island Supreme Court
In re William E. Paplauskas, Jr.
The Supreme Court answered in this case in what situations a non-attorney who performs one or more of the various services that are associated with a real estate transaction is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee transmitted three reports to the Supreme Court concluding that Respondents had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by engaging in several aspects of residential real estate transactions that constitute the practice of law. The Supreme Court declined to adopt the Committee's recommendations in part and accepted them in part, holding (1) title insurance companies and their agencies do not engage in the unauthorized practice of law when they conduct a residential real estate closing, draft a residency affidavit, and draft a limited durable power of attorney when those activities are carried out in connection with the issuance of title insurance; (2) a title insurance company by conduct the examination of title for marketability only if a licensed attorney conducts the examination; and (3) drafting a deed constitutes the practice of law and that an attorney is required to either draft the deed or review it after its has been prepared. View "In re William E. Paplauskas, Jr." on Justia Law
Manning v. Bellafiore
Kathryn Manning (Plaintiff), individually and as administratrix of the estate of Michael Manning (Manning) and on behalf of her four minor children, brought this negligence and wrongful death action against Dr. Peter Bellafiore after Manning suffered a fatal stroke. After a lengthy discovery period, the case proceeded to trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant. The trial justice subsequently granted Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Thereafter, the trial justice granted Plaintiff’s motion to sanction both Defendant and the law firm that represented him at trial, White & Kelly, P.C. (WCK) under Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure for their failure to make pretrial disclosures. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding (1) the trial justice did not abuse his discretion in finding that Dr. Bellafiore engaged in sanctionable misconduct; (2) the trial justice abused his discretion when he sanctioned WCK because the justice did not make a finding that the attorneys at WCK acted in “bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons”; and (3) the amount of sanctions imposed was based on an erroneous assessment of the evidence. View "Manning v. Bellafiore" on Justia Law
Jessup & Conroy, P.C. v. Seguin
Pro se Defendant Mary Y. Seguin challenged a Superior Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff Jessup & Conroy, P.C. (the law firm), on her counterclaim in this collection action. In late 2001, Seguin retained the law firm to represent her in two Rhode Island Family Court matters, a divorce action involving her former husband, Marc Seguin, and a paternity action involving her former boss at a prior place of employment. The law firm entered its appearance in both cases. Soon thereafter, Defendant received a large cash settlement from her former employer. Mr. Seguin successfully entreated a Family Court justice to impound the settlement as a marital asset and to place the funds in an escrow account with the children's guardian ad litem. Over the next year, litigation ensued in both Family Court matters; ultimately, the law firm withdrew as counsel for Defendant in the two cases, citing Defendant's repeated requests that the law firm file baseless motions, as well as her refusal to pay over $30,000 in legal fees for services rendered. Defendant and her former husband signed an addendum to their property-settlement agreement, which stipulated that any funds held in escrow were to be deposited in equal shares into irrevocable trusts established for the benefit of the minor daughter fathered by Mr. Seguin. That August, both Seguin and Mr. Seguin requested, via correspondence to the law firm, that the law firm release all escrowed funds to them personally. However, the law firm declined to honor that request based on the addendum's provision that the escrow funds be deposited into irrevocable trusts. After a repeated request from Defendant and her former husband coupled with the imposition of a Family Court sanction upon Defendant in the paternity action, the law firm filed a motion for instructions in the divorce action, seeking guidance from the Family Court in regard to distribution of the escrow funds at issue. A Family Court justice ordered the law firm to provide an accounting of the funds and to deposit them into irrevocable trusts as set forth in the addendum. The law firm complied by providing an accounting of the funds and deposited the money into two trust accounts. Subsequently, the law firm filed a complaint against Defendant seeking to recover unpaid legal fees. In response, Defendant filed an answer, as well as a counterclaim, setting forth fifteen counts against the law firm, including: (1) false advertising; (2) deceptive trade practices; (3) fraud; (4) wire fraud; (5) mail fraud; (6) RICO violations; (7) breach of fiduciary duty; (8) breach of fiduciary duty by trustee; (9) breach of trust; (10) grand theft; (11) tampering with/altering legal records; (12) legal malpractice; (13) negligence; (14) breach of contract; and (15) breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. After hearing from both parties, the motion justice concluded that Defendant had failed to meet her burden in opposing Plaintiff's motion. Defendant appealed. After its review, the Supreme Court affirmed, finding Defendant indeed failed to meet her burden to defeat Plaintiff's motion. View "Jessup & Conroy, P.C. v. Seguin" on Justia Law
In re Town of Little Compton
The Town of Little Compton filed a complaint against the town firefighters union, contending that the union, or its representative, had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when the union allowed its nonlawyer business agent to represent it at a labor arbitration hearing. The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee concluded that the union representative's action constituted a technical violation of the statute governing the unauthorized practice of law. Mindful that this type of lay representation of unions in labor arbitrations is a common practice, the Committee petitioned the Supreme Court on how to proceed. The Supreme Court held that, although the conduct involved in this case may have been the practice of law pursuant to the statute, because of the long-standing involvement of nonlawyer union employees at public grievance arbitrations, the Court would not limit this involvement at this time. View "In re Town of Little Compton" on Justia Law
State v. Howard
After a violation report was filed against defendant Ramondo Howard alleging defendant had violated the terms and conditions of his probation, defendant filed a pro se motion indicating that he wished to release his attorney and wanted new counsel to be appointed, confirming on the record he had filed a complaint against his attorney with the court's disciplinary board. The hearing justice excused defendant's attorney. Defendant then filed motions to recuse and change venues, both of which the hearing justice denied. At the violation hearing, the hearing justice found defendant to be a violator of the terms and conditions of his probation. Before the hearing began, however, the hearing justice expressed his belief that defendant needed to be "warehoused" and was "beyond rehabilitation." Defendant appealed, arguing the hearing justice erred by failing to recuse himself from the case because the justice lacked the objectivity and impartiality to fairly hear and render judgment. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that because the hearing justice chose to express his opinions prior to the commencement of the violation hearing, the justice displayed a clear inability to render fair judgment and erred by declining to recuse under the circumstances. Remanded.