Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
by
The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Scott Ledford’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the outcome of a Workers’ Compensation Commission hearing. Ledford was a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents: in July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise; and in March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed the Commission’s order. Months later, Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Susan Barden held a hearing on Ledford’s Form 21 in August 2014. Following the hearing, but prior to the issuance of a final order, Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing during which she allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns; and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission, finding: (1) Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself; (2) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's decision to reverse Commissioner Barden's permanency determination; and (3) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's findings that Ledford was not credible and his landscaping business remained lucrative following the injury. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred in finding Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself. The Court was “deeply concerned” by the Commissioner’s conduct in this matter. “Ledford's counsel provided an opportunity for Commissioner Barden to right her wrong by moving for recusal. Instead of stepping aside, Commissioner Barden became more abusive and strident in both her ruling on the recusal motion and her final order.” The Commission’s orders were vacated and the matter remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner. View "Ledford v. DPS" on Justia Law

by
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified a question of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The underlying case was an insurance bad faith action against an insurance company for its failure to defend its insured in a construction defect action. The insured settled the construction defect action and brought a bad faith tort action. When the insurer asserted it acted in good faith in denying coverage, the insured sought to discover the reasons why the insurer denied coverage. According to the insurer, the discovery requests included communications protected by the attorney-client relationship. The federal district court reviewed the parties' respective positions, determined the insured had established a prima facie case of bad faith, and ordered the questioned documents to be submitted to the court for an in camera inspection. The insurer then sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth Circuit to vacate the district court's order regarding the discovery dispute. In turn, the Fourth Circuit asked the South Carolina Supreme Court whether state law supported the application of the "at issue" exception to attorney-client privilege such that a party may waive the privilege by denying liability in its answer. The South Carolina Supreme Court found that the parties, especially the insured, contended the certified question did not accurately represent the correct posture of the case. In fact, the insured conceded the narrow question presented required an answer in the negative. The Supreme Court agreed, finding “little authority for the untenable proposition that the mere denial of liability in a pleading constitutes a waiver of the attorney-client privilege.” The Court elected to analyze the issue narrowly in the limited context of a bad faith action against an insurer, and felt constrained to answer the certified question as follows: "No, denying liability and/or asserting good faith in the answer does not, standing alone, place the privileged communications 'at issue' in the case." View "Mt. Hawley Insurance Company v. Contravest Construction" on Justia Law

by
Sentry Select Insurance Company brought a legal malpractice lawsuit in federal district court against the lawyer it hired to defend its insured in an automobile accident case. The federal court certified two questions of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court pertaining to: (1) whether an insurer may maintain a direct malpractice action against counsel hired to represent its insured where the insurance company has a duty to defend; and (2) whether a legal malpractice claim may be assigned to a third-party who was responsible for payment of legal fees and any judgment incurred as a result of the litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose. The South Carolina Court answered the first question "yes:" "However, we will not place an attorney in a conflict between his client's interests and the interests of the insurer. Thus, the insurer may recover only for the attorney's breach of his duty to his client, when the insurer proves the breach is the proximate cause of damages to the insurer. If the interests of the client are the slightest bit inconsistent with the insurer's interests, there can be no liability of the attorney to the insurer, for we will not permit the attorney's duty to the client to be affected by the interests of the insurance company. Whether there is any inconsistency between the client's and the insurer's interests in the circumstances of an individual case is a question of law to be answered by the trial court." As to question two, the Supreme Court declined to answer the question: "We are satisfied that our answer to question one renders the second question not 'determinative of the cause then pending in the certifying court,' and thus it is not necessary for us to answer question two." View "Sentry Select Insurance v. Maybank Law Firm" on Justia Law

by
The South Carolina Supreme Court accepted a declaratory judgment matter in its original jurisdiction to determine if Respondents-Petitioners Quicken Loans, Inc. and Title Source, Inc. engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). Petitioners-Respondents (collectively "Homeowners"), alleged the residential mortgage refinancing model implemented by Quicken Loans and Title Source in refinancing the Homeowners' mortgage loans constituted UPL. In addition to seeking declaratory relief, Homeowners' complaint also sought class certification and requested class relief. The Supreme Court found the record in this case showed licensed South Carolina attorneys were involved at every critical step of these refinancing transactions, and that requiring more attorney involvement would not effectively further the Court’s stated goal of protecting the public from the dangers of UPL. The Court therefore reject the Special Referee's conclusion that Quicken Loans and Title Source committed UPL. View "Boone v. Quicken Loans" on Justia Law

by
The South Carolina Supreme Court accepted this declaratory judgment action in its original jurisdiction to determine whether Community Management Group, LLC; its president, Stephen Peck; and its employee, Tom Moore, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while managing homeowners' associations. Community Management Group managed homeowners' associations and condominium associations in Charleston, Dorchester, and Berkeley Counties. Until the Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction in connection with this case, when a homeowner in an association did not pay an overdue assessment, Community Management Group (without the involvement of an attorney) prepared and recorded a notice of lien and related documents; brought an action in magistrate's court to collect the debt; and after obtaining a judgment in magistrate's court, filed the judgment in circuit court. Community Management Group also advertised that it could perform these services. After review, the Supreme Court found Community Management Group engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. View "Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC v. Peck" on Justia Law

by
The Supreme Court granted Dana Medlock's petition for certiorari to determine whether a non-attorney who files a claim in probate court for a business entity engages in the unauthorized practice of law. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that a non-attorney may present claims against an estate on behalf of a business without unduly engaging in the practice of law. View "Medlock v. University Health Services" on Justia Law

by
From 2002 through 2004, George Harper and his law firm at that time, Jackson Lewis, represented EnerSys Delaware, Inc. in a variety of employment and labor law matters. Harper served as EnerSys' attorney of record in at least five employment-related lawsuits during this time. The relationship between Jackson Lewis and EnerSys deteriorated in 2004 when EnerSys brought a malpractice claim against the firm based on some labor-related legal advice that it claimed resulted in fraudulent testimony. In 2011, EnerSys filed this suit against a former EnerSys employee, Tammy Hopkins, alleging six causes of action including breach of contract based on violations of the confidentiality agreement and various computer use policies and agreements, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act. When EnerSys learned that Hopkins had retained Harper to represent her, it moved to have him disqualified pursuant to Rule 1.9(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The circuit court denied the motion, concluding that Harper's previous assistance in developing EnerSys' litigation strategy was insufficient grounds upon which to disqualify him due to the dissimilarities of his previous representations and the current suit. EnerSys then filed this appeal. This case presented the question of whether the denial of a motion to disqualify an attorney was immediately appealable. The Supreme Court held it was not and dismissed the case as interlocutory. View "EnerSys Delaware v. Hopkins" on Justia Law

by
Respondent Walter Martin was presiding over bond court when one of the defendants before him questioned the bond set. Respondent became upset with the defendant and asked the defendant whether he was calling respondent a liar. When the defendant responded, "[n]o, I'm not going anywhere," respondent replied, "[o]kay. Because I'll beat your ass if you call me a liar." Respondent immediately apologized to the defendant. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) charged Respondent with misconduct. Respondent regretted his comment, and the parties entered into an Agreement for Discipline by Consent whereby Respondent admitted to the misconduct, and consented to the imposition of a public reprimand, admonition, or letter of caution. The Supreme Court accepted the Agreement and issued a public reprimand. View "In the Matter of Greenwood County Magistrate Walter Martin" on Justia Law

by
Appellant RFT Management Co., L.L.C. (RFT) brought this action against respondents Tinsley & Adams, L.L.P. and attorney Welborn D. Adams (collectively, Law Firm) based on their legal representation of RFT during the closing of its purchase of two real estate investment properties in Greenwood County. RFT alleged claims for (1) professional negligence (legal malpractice), (2) breach of fiduciary duty, (3) violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act1 (UTPA), and (4) aiding and abetting a securities violation in contravention of the South Carolina Uniform Securities Act of 2005 (SCUSA). The trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of Law Firm on RFT's causes of action regarding the UTPA and SCUSA, and it merged RFT's breach of fiduciary claim with its legal malpractice claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Law Firm on RFT's remaining claim for legal malpractice. RFT appealed, and the Supreme Court certified the case from the Court of Appeals for its review. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court with respect to all issues brought on appeal. View "RFT Management Co. v. Tinsley & Adams" on Justia Law

by
Respondent Deborah Spence alleged that attorney Kenneth Wingate breached a fiduciary duty to her as a former client in its handling of her late husband's life insurance policy. Mr. Spence was a member of United States House of Representatives, and he held a life insurance policy.  Mr. Spence named Mrs. Spence and his four sons from a prior marriage as the beneficiaries of the policy, with all five to receive equal shares of the proceeds. Wingate undertook representation of Mrs. Spence with regards to the assets of her husband, her inheritance rights, and her rights in his estate.  Wingate advised Mrs. Spence that she was entitled to nothing from her husband's estate and that she was barred from receiving an elective share by a prenuptial agreement. Wingate advised Mrs. Spence to enter into an agreement with the four adult sons of Mr. Spence to create a trust to provide her with a lifetime income stream. The trust was to be created and funded from one-third of the value of Mr. Spence's probate estate. Mrs. Spence thereafter came to believe that the amount she received under the agreement negotiated by Wingate was much less than what she was entitled to under the will and its codicil or if she had opted for an elective share. Mrs. Spence thereafter brought a lawsuit to set aside the agreement creating the trust. The agreement was eventually set aside. The circuit court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Wingate and found that, "[b]y statute, [Wingate] owed no duty or obligation to [Mrs. Spence] in connection with the congressional life insurance policy or the manner in which it was paid." The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment to Wingate and remanded the matter for trial. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded Wingate owed a fiduciary duty to Mrs. Spence: "[t]his duty included, among other obligations, the obligation not to act in a manner adverse to her interests in matters substantially related to the prior representation.  … we uphold the decision of the Court of Appeals to reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand this matter for trial.  To the extent the Court of Appeals indicated whether a duty was owed was a question of fact for the jury, the decision is modified to recognize that whether a fiduciary relationship exists between two classes of persons is a matter to be determined by a court."