Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
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David Roberson appealed a circuit court's dismissal of his claims against Balch & Bingham, LLP ("Balch"), on the basis that those claims were barred by the limitations periods contained in the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("the ALSLA"). After review of the trial court record, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed, but on grounds that differed from the trial court's. "[T]he gravamen of Roberson's claims against Balch involved the provision of legal services. However, both Roberson and Balch assert that Roberson was not Balch's client, and those assertions are borne out in the third amended complaint, which indicates that Balch was engaged by Drummond, not personally by Roberson. ... Roberson's claims against the law firm Drummond engaged, Balch, are barred by the ALSLA because Roberson cannot meet an essential element of an ALSLA claim -- namely, he was not Balch's client -- and thus Balch owed no duty to Roberson. ... the circuit court's rationale was based on the applicability of the ALSLA's limitations periods." View "Roberson v. Balch & Bingham, LLP" on Justia Law

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Fuston, Petway & French, LLP ("the Firm"), appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of The Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham ("the Board") regarding the Board's termination of a contract between the parties. In September 2015, the Firm and the Board entered into a one-year contract in which the Firm agreed to provide legal representation for the Board. In 2016, the Firm and the Board entered into negotiations for a new contract. The chairman of the Board approached the Firm regarding the Board's need to have independent oversight and review of a program designed to attract "historically underutilized business entities" ("the HUB program"). Board meeting minutes at the end of 2016 reflected that the contract was approved. The contract between the Firm and the Board provided, in pertinent part, that the Firm would administer a Contract Compliance Program for the HUB program. Before the contract expired, the Board elected to terminate its contract with the Firm. The Firm sued for breach of contract and other theories. In its judgment, the trial court found, among other things, that the entirety of the Firm's obligations in the contract entailed legal services and that, as a result, the contract was terminable by the Board at any time. After review of the Firm's arguments appealing the trial court judgment, the Alabama Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed. View "Fuston, Petway & French, LLP v. Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham" on Justia Law

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Law firm Petway Olsen, LLC, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Circuit Court to set aside its order granting the motion filed by Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC ("MBUSA"), seeking to disqualify the firm from representing the plaintiffs in the underlying case and to enter an order allowing the firm to represent the plaintiffs. In 2017, Valisha Cartwell was driving a 1998 Mercedes ML320. As she was pulling into a parking space in front a dental office operated by Vital Smiles Alabama, P.C., the vehicle suddenly accelerated and crashed into the front of the dental office, killing a six-year-old child and injuring others. Grelinda Lee, as personal representative of the child's estate, sued Cartwell and the owner of the Mercedes ML320 (and other fictitiously named defendants) for wrongful death. An amended complaint added Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC. The second amended complaint was signed by D. Bruce Petway of Petway Olsen and included the names of other attorneys with different law firms who were also representing the plaintiffs. Both Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. ("MBUSI") and MBUSA asserted as a defense that Petway Olsen was "disqualified [from representing the plaintiffs] because one of its members [was] a former in-house attorney and general counsel for MBUSI." After review, the Supreme Court determined the trial court erred when it granted MBUSA's motion to disqualify Petway Olsen from representing the plaintiffs. The petition for mandamus relief was granted and the trial court directed to vacate its previous order granting MBUSA's motion. View "Ex parte Petway Olsen, LLC." on Justia Law

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Attorney W. Perry Hall petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the circuit court to vacate its order entered on August 15, 2019 requiring Hall, among other things, to issue a letter of apology to his clients. Hall represented a homeowners association and multiple individual homeowners in a Mobile subdivision in a lawsuit against the developer of that subdivision. After Hall moved to dismiss certain counterclaims asserted against those homeowners, the circuit court entered an order demanding that Hall "provide a copy of this order and a copy of Ala. R. Civ. P. Rule 19, as well as a copy of [the motion to dismiss] to [his homeowner clients], along with a letter explaining how Rule 19 works, apologizing for the invectives and sheer puffery used in this frankly scandalous pleading." The circuit court entered the order because it "dislike[d]" Hall's use of the phrase "forced Plaintiff's [sic]" to describe the plaintiffs, as well as other terms used in the motion to dismiss. The circuit court provided no other basis for the directives in its order. Hall filed this petition for a writ of mandamus contending he circuit court had exceeded its discretion by entering the order. The Alabama Supreme Court did not address that issue because, six days later, the circuit court vacated the order after the individual homeowners were dismissed from the action by joint stipulation. View "Ex parte W. Perry Hall." on Justia Law

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Birmingham law firm Campbell Law, P.C., represented consumers in legal proceedings against pest-control companies, including The Terminix International Co., LP, and Terminix International, Inc. (collectively referred to as "Terminix"). After Campbell Law initiated arbitration proceedings against Terminix and Matthew Cunningham, a Terminix branch manager, on behalf of owners in the Bay Forest condominium complex ("Bay Forest") in Daphne, Terminix and Cunningham asked the circuit court to disqualify Campbell Law from the proceedings because it had retained a former manager of Terminix's Baldwin County office as an investigator and consultant. The trial court denied the motion to disqualify. Terminix and Cunningham petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, arguing that the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct required Campbell Law's disqualification. In support of their petition, Terminix argued the investigator/consultant possessed privileged and confidential information related to disputes between Terminix and parties represented by the law firm, and that Campbell Law violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. The Supreme Court concluded the petitioners did not demonstrate Campbell Law violated the Rules, thus did not establish they had a clear legal right to mandamus relief. The petition was denied. View "Ex parte The Terminix International Co., LP, et al." on Justia Law

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The Alabama Department of Revenue ("DOR") petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to order Judge Eddie Hardaway to recuse himself from an appeal challenging a decision of the Alabama Tax Tribunal in favor of Greenetrack, Inc. In 2009, the DOR determined Greentrack owed $75 million in sales taxes and consumer-use taxes for its electronic-bingo activities for the period from January 1, 2004, through December 31, 2008. In 2013, the Alabama Department of Revenue moved for Judge Hardaway to recuse himself, arguing that recusal was required because Judge Hardaway had recused himself two months earlier from another case on a related matter involving these same parties. In the present dispute, the DOR asked Judge Hardaway to recuse himself. This time the circuit court denied the request without providing any specific rationale or reasoning in its order, finding the "cases and authorities relied upon by the Alabama Department of Revenue do not support recusal under the facts and circumstances of this case." Finding the DOR demonstrated a clear, legal right to the recusal of Judge Hardaway in this matter, the Alabama Supreme Court granted its petition and directed Judge Hardaway to recuse himself. View "Ex parte Alabama Department of Revenue." on Justia Law

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QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise ("QHG"), appealed a circuit court's judgment awarding Amy Pertuit ("Amy") $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages. Leif Pertuit ("Leif") had been married to Deanna Mortensen; they had one child, Logan. Leif and Mortensen divorced in 2007. At some point, Mortensen was awarded sole physical custody of Logan, and Leif was awarded visitation. Leif later married Amy, a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Leif and Amy resided in Mobile, Alabama, and Mortensen resided in Enterprise. Eventually, tensions arose between Leif and Mortensen regarding the issue of visitation. In March 2014, Mortensen began sending text messages to Leif accusing Amy of being addicted to drugs. Around that time, Mortensen visited the attorney who had represented her in divorce from Leif. Mortensen expressed concern that Logan was in danger as a result of the visitation arrangement and asked her attorney to assist with obtaining a modification of Leif's visitation. In April 2014, Mortensen contacted Dr. Kathlyn Diefenderfer, a physician whom QHG employed as a hospitalist at Medical Center Enterprise. Mortensen had been Dr. Diefenderfer's patient, and Dr. Diefenderfer's son played sports with Logan. Mortensen informed Dr. Diefenderfer that Logan was scheduled to ride in an automobile with Amy from Enterprise to Mobile for Leif's visitation and expressed concern regarding Amy's ability to drive, given her belief that Amy was using drugs and had lost her nursing license. Dr. Diefenderfer used a hospital computer to check on Amy's drug prescriptions. After reviewing that information,Dr. Diefenderfer told Mortensen: "All I can tell you is I would not put my son in the car." Mortensen went back to her attorney, informing him that Dr. Diefenderfer had acquired the necessary proof of Amy's drug use. Amy received a copy of the modification petition, and was convinced her private health information had been obtained in violation of HIPAA, and filed complaints to the Enterprise Police Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Alabama Bar Association, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. A grand jury indicted Mortensen and Dr. Diefenderfer, which were later recalled, but the two entered diversion agreements with the district attorney's office. Amy then filed suit alleging negligence and wantonness, violation of her right to privacy, the tort of outrage and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by denying QHG's motion for a judgment as a matter of law with respect to Amy's asserted theories of respondeat superior; ratification; and negligent and wanton training, supervision, and retention because there was not substantial evidence indicating that QHG was liable to Amy as a consequence of Dr. Diefenderfer's conduct under any of those theories. The trial court's judgment awarding Amy $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages was reversed, and judgment rendered in favor of QHG. View "QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise v. Pertuit" on Justia Law

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H. Chase Dearman petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for certiorari review of the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision affirming, without an opinion, the Mobile Circuit Court's order finding Dearman in direct contempt. On August 30, 2018, Dearman, an attorney, was representing James Markese Wright at Wright's probation-revocation hearing before the circuit court. Dearman attempted to make an objection on the record when the court prevented it; the trial judge ejected Dearman from the courtroom and ended proceedings. Dearman filed a motion requesting that the circuit court vacate its August 30, 2018, order and requested a hearing on the matter. In his motion, Dearman alleged that he was not given notice of the specific contemptuous conduct and a reasonable opportunity to present evidence or mitigating circumstances as required under the Alabama Rules of Evidence. The circuit court denied Dearman's motion; the Court of Criminal Appeals remanded for the circuit court to comply with the Rules. After a hearing, at which Dearman was present, the circuit court stated that it found Dearman in direct contempt "because of the challenge [to] judicial authority as shown in the record on appeal" and that Dearman's "behavior necessitated immediate and prompt punishment; i.e., removal from the courtroom." Dearman was then given the opportunity to present evidence or argument regarding excusing or mitigating circumstances. On return to remand, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the circuit court's decision by unpublished memorandum. The Alabama Supreme Court found, after review of the circuit court record, that Dearman was appropriately attempting to prosecute his client's cause. Because the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the circuit court on a record "devoid of any evidence in support of the circuit court's finding Dearman in direct contempt," the appellate court's order conflicted with controlling case law. Judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ex parte H. Chase Dearman." on Justia Law

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Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC (collectively, "Edwards"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct a trial court to enter a summary judgment in their favor in an action filed against them by Ivan Gray. Sonya previously represented Gray in proceedings in federal court. In 2015, after mediation and a settlement, those proceedings concluded with the entry of a final judgment. Thereafter, Gray sought to set aside the settlement, and Sonya terminated her representation of Gray. In 2017, Gray sued Edwards alleging Edwards had entered into a contract with Gray in June 2014 in which Sonya agreed to represent Gray in the federal proceedings in exchange for a contingency fee of 50%. Gray alleged that he paid a total retainer fee in the amount of $14,380.85 to cover expenses. According to Gray's complaint, when his federal case concluded, Edwards disclosed that the actual expenses amounted to $4,516.77, therefore, he felt he was entitled to a refund of $9,864.08. When the refund was not forthcoming, Gray alleged Edward converted his retainer and breached the contract between the two. The Supreme Court determined the "act or omission or failure giving rise to the claim" occurred on September 16, 2015, and that was the operative date from which to measure the applicable two-year limitations period. Gray did not file his action until October 27, 2017, which was beyond the two-year limitations period. Accordingly, Edwards has demonstrated a clear legal right to have a summary-judgment entered in her favor. View "Ex parte Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC." on Justia Law

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On April 1, 2016, Lasonya Lindsey agreed to purchase real property located in Selma from Doris Wallace. Attorney Charles Sims III was retained by one or both of the transacting parties in connection with the sale. On April 26, Sims incorrectly represented to Lindsey that the property was unencumbered by any liens. The transaction closed two days later. In November 2017, Lindsey received written notice that the property had been sold two days earlier at a foreclosure sale after Wallace defaulted on a mortgage on the property. Lindsey and her family were ordered to immediately vacate the property, on which they had already spent $20,000 improving. In early 2018, Lindsey brought a single-count complaint against Sims under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act, alleging that Sims breached his duty of care by misrepresenting the property. Lindsey filed a first amended complaint on January 31 for the sole purpose of correcting the spelling of Sims's name. Neither the original complaint nor the first amended complaint contained a jury demand. Sims answered the first amended complaint on March 8, and on April 25 he submitted a response to Lindsey's interrogatories in which he stated that he had never represented Lindsey, that his only involvement in the transaction had been to prepare a warranty deed at Wallace's direction, and that he did not perform any title work as part of his representation of Wallace. Lindsay amended the complaint a second time, which included, for the first time, a jury demand on all counts. Relevant here, Sims moved to strike the jury demand, asserting it was made more than 30 days after service of the last pleading on the triable issue: Sims' March 8, 2018, answer. The trial court granted this motion, and Lindsay petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for mandamus relief, directing the trial court to vacate its order. Because any error could be adequately remedied on appeal, the Supreme Court denied Lindsey's petition for a writ of mandamus to the extent it asks the Court to direct the trial court to vacate its order dismissing counts III and IV of the second amended complaint. The Court granted the petition for a writ of mandamus, however, to the extent it asks the Court to direct the trial court to vacate its order striking the jury demand in the second amended complaint with respect to new issues. The second amended complaint included two new issues –- the conflict-of- interest allegation against Sims in count I and the fraud claim against Wallace in count II –- and Lindsey made a timely demand for a trial by jury on both of those issues. View "Ex parte Lasonya Lindsey" on Justia Law