Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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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."

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Respondent Municipal Court Judge Sheryl Polk McKinney's sister, who was the Clerk of the Town of Varnville, was arrested and charged with embezzlement of public funds, forgery, and misconduct in office.  Respondent's sister was accused of issuing checks in Respondent's name, forging respondent's name to the checks and converting the money for her personal use over an eight year period. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that by her misconduct, Respondent violated multiple Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct (Rule 501, SCACR). The Court found Respondent’s misconduct warranted a suspension from judicial duties.  Respondent was suspended for thirty days.

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Appellant Bon Secours-St. Francis Xavier Hospital (the Hospital) was a defendant at trial in the underlying civil case.  On the morning of the trial, Appellants removed the case to federal court for the second time on the same grounds as the initial removal.  The federal district court judge again remanded the case to state court.  The state trial judge, imposed severe sanctions against the Appellants for the delay created by the second removal.  Appellants argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that they should not have been sanctioned for the second removal because it was done in good faith. The Supreme Court agreed with both [the trial judge's] version of the facts and his conclusion that the second removal was not based on good grounds and was interposed solely for delay: "[w]hile Rule 11 is evaluated by a subjective standard, the rule still may be violated with a filing that is so patently without merit that no reasonable attorney could have a good faith belief in its propriety.  We find such is the case here." The Court affirmed the lower court's imposition of sanctions.