Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama

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Georgia Urology, P.A., and several of its member physicians filed objections to challenge a $124 million attorney fee awarded by the Jefferson Alabama Circuit Court to class counsel as part of the settlement of Johnson v. Caremark Rx, LLC ("the Caremark class action). After the trial court overruled their objections and its judgment approving the settlement became final, the objectors appealed the attorney fee to this Court. Caremark Rx bought MedPartners; MedPartners was the subject of dozens of securities-fraud lawsuits alleging that it had made false statements regarding its financial condition and anticipated future performance. Many of those lawsuits were eventually consolidated into a class action. In 1999, the MedPartners class action was settled for $56 million based on MedPartners' assertions that the negotiated settlement exhausted its available insurance coverage and that it possessed limited other assets it could use to pay a larger award or settlement. Post-settlement, however, it was revealed in unrelated litigation that MedPartners actually held an excess-insurance policy providing unlimited coverage during the period in which the alleged fraud had been committed. In 2003, the Caremark class action was initiated against MedPartners' corporate successor Caremark Rx, and its previous insurer asserting fraud and suppression claims based on the $56 million settlement agreed to in the MedPartners class action. The objectors appealed the fee award to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing that they had been given insufficient opportunity to object to class counsel's requested attorney fee inasmuch as their objections were due before class counsel's attorney-fee application was filed, and that the attorney fee ultimately awarded was excessive. The Supreme Court vacated the order entered by the trial court awarding class counsel an attorney fee of $124 million. On remand, class counsel may file a new attorney-fee application, including more detailed information regarding the time expended in this case and how that time was spent. The objectors would then be given a reasonable opportunity to review that application and may, if they still have objections to class counsel's new application, file those objections with the trial court. After the trial court considers those objections and enters a new order making an award of attorney fees, any party with a grievance may file a new appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court. View "Walker v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Mary Hall, as personal representative of the estate of Adolphus Hall, Sr., and Anaya McKinnon, as personal representative of the estate of Wanzy Lee Bowman appealed the dismissal of their class-action claims against Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. ("ELG"). Plaintiffs alleged ELG agreed to represent hundreds of clients who had been exposed to asbestos, including their respective decedents. Plaintiffs alleged ELG charged its clients an excessive fee above and beyond the amount listed in their respective contracts. The trial court dismissed their case with prejudice. The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court’s judgment, reversed and remanded. On remand, the trial court appointed a special master, who again recommended dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims. The trial court held that the attorney-employment agreement was ambiguous and that this ambiguity was fatal to the plaintiffs' class-allegation claims. Thus, the trial court dismissed the class claims before the class-certification process began. At this point in the proceedings and under the standard of review, the Supreme Court saw no ambiguity in the attorney-employment agreements, negating the trial court's contrary conclusion as to the individualized inquiry necessary with regard to the plaintiffs' contract claims. The Court therefore reversed the trial court's order dismissing the plaintiffs' claims for class-based relief and remanded the matter for further proceedings. View "Hall v. Environmental Litigation Group, P.C." on Justia Law

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On January 23, 2015, Judge Callie Granade of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, issued an order declaring unconstitutional both the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act, as violating the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thereafter, the federal court entered an injunction prohibiting the Alabama Attorney General from enforcing any Alabama law that prohibited same-sex marriage. The injunction was to allow time for an appeal of that decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 27, 2015, Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, sent a letter, on Supreme Court of Alabama letterhead, to then Governor Robert Bentley regarding Judge Granade’s orders, expressing "legitimate concerns about the propriety of federal court jurisdiction over the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment." In his three-page letter, Chief Justice Moore laid out his arguments as to why Judge Granade’s federal-court orders were not binding upon the State of Alabama, and ultimately directed Alabama’s probate judges not to recognize marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Months later, the Alabama Supreme Court released a per curiam opinion ordering the probate judges named as respondents to discontinue issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in compliance with Alabama law. Chief Justice Moore’s name did not appear in the vote line of this opinion, nor did he author or join any of the special writings. On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in “Obergefell,” holding that "same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States" and that "there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character." The Court of the Judiciary ultimately suspended Chief Justice Moore for his defiance of the laws. He appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court determined it was “obligated to follow prior precedent” that it had no authority to disturb the sanction imposed by the Court of the Judiciary: “[b]ecause we have previously determined that the charges were proven by clear and convincing evidence and there is no indication that the sanction imposed was plainly and palpably wrong, manifestly unjust, or without supporting evidence, we shall not disturb the sanction imposed.” View "Moore v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Kimberly Bond sued her former attorney, James McLaughlin, alleging legal malpractice. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of McLaughlin. In February 2006, Bond hired McLaughlin to provide legal services involving the estate of her husband, Kenneth Pylant II, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. McLaughlin allegedly failed to properly contest a copy of Pylant's will that was admitted to probate on November 29, 2005, and, as a proximate result of McLaughlin's breach of duty, Bond was injured and suffered damage. The Supreme Court found that Bond did not contest the will before probate, and, because of McLaughlin's negligence, she did not properly contest the will within six months after probate by filing a complaint with the circuit court. The Supreme Court determined that Bond presented evidence sufficient to overcome summary judgment, and accordingly reversed the circuit court’s order. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Bond v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

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Charles Breland was a developer of real property, with properties in Alabama and Florida. In 2002, Breland hired David Hudgens to provide legal services for him and his companies. According to Hudgens, Breland informed him early during their professional relationship that he "was suffering significant cash flow problems." As a result, Hudgens says, the various law firms with which Hudgens worked while providing Breland and his companies with legal services delayed billing "a significant portion of the attorneys' fees and costs" for those services. Breland disputed that, claiming that he and/or his companies paid Hudgens more than $2.7 million for Hudgens's legal services between 2004 and 2010. In 2009, Breland filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. Breland filed the required schedules, required disclosure statement, and a proposed plan of reorganization that identified Hudgens & Associates, LLC ("H&A") as an unsecured creditor holding a $1 million claim and identified ETC as an unsecured creditor holding a $390,000 claim. Hudgens filed a proof of claim in the Breland bankruptcy on behalf of H&A for "legal fees" in the amount of $2,334,987.08 and filed proofs of claim on behalf of ETC for "guaranty of note" in the amounts of $879,929.55. Breland did not make payments according to the bankruptcy reorganization plan. Breland conveyed property to Gulf Beach Investment Company of Perdido, LLC which Hudgens alleged was in violation of the reorganization plan. Hudgens filed suit against Breland and Gulf Beach seeking enforcement of the plan, monies owed under the plan, and to void transfer of the property to Gulf Beach. The trial court entered a judgment on the parties' motions for a partial summary judgment, noting that it was not addressing the plaintiffs' "mortgage claim" because it had denied that claim in a September 2015 order. After setting forth extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court awarded the plaintiffs $2,189,342.96 (consisting of $1.5 million in principal, plus interest); "denied and dismissed" the defendants' fraud, breach-of-contract, and slander-of-title claims; and certified the judgment as final pursuant to Rule 54(b). The trial court denied the defendants' postjudgment motion, and the defendants appealed. That case was assigned case no. 1150876, and the Alabama Supreme Court consolidated case nos. 1150302 and 1150876 for the purpose of writing one opinion. After review, the Court dismissed both appeals, finding the trial court exceeded its discretion in certifying as final the underlying appeals. View "Equity Trust Co. v. Breland" on Justia Law

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Myron Yarbrough appealed a circuit court judgment entered against him in his action alleging legal malpractice against Steven Eversole, Richard Perry, Jr., and Eversole Law, LLC ("the firm"). In 2006, Yarbrough was convicted of one count of first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sodomy. The trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment for each conviction and ordered that the sentences were to run concurrently. Yarbrough appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed his convictions and sentences in an unpublished memorandum. At the time of the events giving rise to Yarbrough's cause of action, the firm employed both Eversole and Perry. In March 2012, Yarbrough retained the firm to explore the possibility of filing a Rule 32, Ala. R. Crim. P., petition on Yarbrough's behalf. Yarbrough alleged that Eversole and Perry represented to Yarbrough that "there was a basis in fact and law to file a Rule 32 petition." Yarbrough asserted, however, that the two attorneys "knew that there was no 'newly discovered' evidence as defined by Alabama case law and that the statute of limitations would be a complete bar to all claims of newly discovered evidence and for the claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and appellate counsel." Yarbrough paid the firm $10,000 to file a Rule 32 petition on his behalf. The claims in that Rule 32 petition were ultimately denied as time-barred. Yarbrough filed this legal malpractice action against the firm, alleging that they misrepresented his chances of success in the Rule 32 petition. After review, the Supreme Court found that circuit court erred in concluding that Yarbrough's legal-malpractice action against the firm and Eversole failed as a matter of law. However, there existed a plain dispute of fact as to what Eversole told Yarbrough about the prospects of a Rule 32 petition and the subsequent appellate filings. Therefore, a judgment on the pleadings in favor of the firm and Eversole was not warranted. The summary judgment in favor of Perry was affirmed, but the judgment on the pleadings in favor of the firm and Eversole was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Yarbrough v. Eversole" on Justia Law

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Todd Hill, Roy Hill, Brian Hill, and Debra Hill Stewart were the children of Leroy Hill, who died testate in 2009. Deborah D. Hill, Leroy’s second wife, offered Leroy's will for probate. The Hill children hired attorneys Vincent Kilborn III and David McDonald to bring a breach-of-contract action against the estate and Deborah, alleging breach of an agreement between Leroy and the Hills' mother at the time Leroy divorced the Hills' mother in 1984 to make a will leaving the Hills a coffee company and a family ranch. The Hills and the attorneys entered into a retainer agreement, which required the Hills to pay the attorneys "40% of any recovery, in the event there is a recovery, with or without suit." According to the agreement, "recovery" included cash, real or personal property, stock in the Leroy Hill Coffee Company, and all or part ownership in the family ranch. After a trial, a judgment was entered for the Hills ordering specific performance of the contract, which required the conveyance of the coffee company and the ranch to the Hills. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment, without an opinion. At issue before the Supreme Court involved the attorney fee. The Supreme Court found that the circuit court exceeded the scope of its discretion when it failed to order the payment of the attorney fee in accordance with the retainer agreement. The Hills petitioned for a writ of mandamus to direct the circuit court to vacate two order for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Specifically, they argued that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to determine the 40% contingency fee owed the attorneys was an administrative expense of the estate and, consequently, that the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction when any subsequent order at issue in this case. The Supreme Court concluded the circuit court had jurisdiction over the administration of the estate, so the petition for a writ of mandamus (case no. 1150162) was denied; the orders pertaining to payment of the retainer were reversed (case no. 1150148) and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Hill v. Kruse" on Justia Law

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Juakeishia Pruitt filed a legal-malpractice claim against Bobby Cockrell, Jr., and Cockrell & Cockrell ("the Cockrell law firm"). Cockrell appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Pruitt. The claims in this case arose from Byron House's representation of Pruitt from late 2000 until January 2012. House worked as an associate with the Cockrell law firm from September 1995 until January 2012. This case involved House's handling of Pruitt's claims with regard to four separate causes of action: Pruitt's discrimination and breach-of-contract claims against Stillman College; Pruitt's sexual-discrimination claims against her employer Averitt/i3; Pruitt's claims against Gwendolyn Oyler arising from an automobile accident; and Pruitt's breach-of-contract claims against A+ Photography. After the statute of limitations had run on Pruitt's underlying claims against Stillman College, Averitt/i3, and Oyler, House made intentional misrepresentations to Pruitt regarding the status of those cases. House also made intentional representations regarding the status of Pruitt's case against A+ Photography. Additionally, House continued to make such representations regarding the status of Pruitt's cases against Stillman College and Averitt/i3 until well after the time any legal-malpractice case against him would have been barred by the applicable statute of repose. "A fraud committed by an attorney that defrauds the attorney's client as to the status of the client's underlying claim is actionable under the ALSLA separate and apart from the attorney's failure to timely file a complaint on the underlying claim." Therefore, Alabama Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly denied the Cockrell defendants' motion for a summary judgment as to the malpractice claims alleging that the Cockrell defendants were vicariously liable for fraudulent misrepresentations House made to Pruitt to conceal the existence of an underlying legal-malpractice claim. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's order. View "Cockrell v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Richard Watters petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Mobile Circuit Court to vacate its order denying his motion for a summary judgment as to count one of an amended complaint filed by Michael Gamble, in Gamble's capacity as administrator of the Estate of Barbara Ruth Findley Long ("Long"), deceased. Count one asserted a legal-malpractice claim against Watters under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("the ALSLA"), alleging breach of a fiduciary duty. This proceeding involved title to real property located in Conecuh County, which was owned by Robert Findley at the time of his death. Long retained Watters & Associates, of which Watters was a partner, to represent her "in obtaining estate assets" of Findley, her deceased father. Watters filed suit seeking a declaration of Long's ownership in family property located in Conecuh County. The Circuit Court declaring that Long owned a one-sixth interest (approximately 30 acres) in the Conecuh County property Shortly thereafter, Long discharged Watters from any further representation in the declaratory-judgment action. Watters filed an attorney's lien against the Conecuh property to secure the payment of his attorney fees. Family members eventually quitclaimed their interests to Long. Taxes for 2006 weren't paid on the property, and Long's cousin Larry Findley purchased the property at a tax sale. According to Watters, Long asked him for a loan to redeem the property from the tax sale. Watters told Long that Langley would not record the quitclaim deed if Long repaid the loan within 30 days of redeeming the property; that, in the event the deed was recorded, any claim Watters might have against Long for services rendered regarding her deceased father's estate would be satisfied; and that Watters and Long agreed to terms concerning the loan arrangement. This arrangement was never reduced to writing. Long executed a quitclaim deed prepared by Watters, conveying title to the Conecuh property to "Langley & Watters, LLP." In 2010, Watters submitted to the Conecuh Probate Court a letter, enclosing "his client's" application for redemption of the Conecuh property. Long died on April 2, 2013, and a few months later, the Conecuh Probate Court appointed Gamble as administrator of Long's estate. Gamble filed a complaint against Watters, asserting claims of legal malpractice among other things. After review of this case, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that Watters had another adequate remedy (i.e., an appeal) other than a writ of mandamus. Therefore, the Court denied relief. View "Ex parte Richard L. Watters." on Justia Law