Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
D. A. R. v. R.E.L., D.H., and R.H.
D.A.R. appealed a circuit court judgment dismissing his complaint against R.E.L., D.H., and R.H. D.A.R., a licensed attorney practicing in Alabama, filed a complaint against R.E.L., D.H., and R.H. R.E.L. was also a licensed attorney, and was employed as an assistant general counsel for the Alabama State Bar ("the ASB"). D.H. and R.H. were brothers; they were not attorneys. According to the complaint, at some point before December 2007, R.E.L. and D.H. began "a personal, professional and/or sexual relationship," and R.E.L. and R.H. began "a personal and/or professional relationship." D.A.R. alleged that in December 2007, at R.E.L.'s recommendation and with his assistance, D.H. and R.H. "filed a baseless complaint against [D.A.R.] with the ASB." D.A.R. alleged that the motivation for the complaint was to use it "as a means to protect [D.H. and R.H.] from liability for a debt owed by [them] to a client represented by [D.A.R.] and/or as retaliation for his role in representing that client." According to D.A.R., R.E.L. knew when it was filed that the complaint against D.A.R. was baseless in fact and in law. R.E.L. asserted the defense of absolute immunity, but presented arguments to the trial court establishing why quasi-judicial immunity should apply to the facts presented in D.A.R.'s complaint. The Alabama Supreme Court found D.A.R. failed to demonstrate the trial court erred by dismissing his complaint on the grounds he presented to it, and as such, affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "D. A. R. v. R.E.L., D.H., and R.H." on Justia Law
Ex parte Roy S. Moore and Judge Roy Moore for US Senate.
Seven members of the Supreme Court of Alabama, including the Chief Justice, recused themselves from consideration of all matters related to this mandamus petition pursuant to Canon 3.C of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics. Their recusal left Associate Justices William Sellers and Brady Mendheim, Jr., to hear the petition. Justice Sellers, as Acting Chief Justice, notified the parties that an additional five justices would be selected by random drawing from a pool of retired justices and judges and active circuit judges, after which five judges were appointed to serve as Special Associate Justices. Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and his campaign committee, "Judge Roy Moore for US Senate" ("the Committee"), petitioned the Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Montgomery Circuit Court ("the trial court") to transfer an action filed by Leigh Corfman alleging defamation against Moore and the Committee to the Etowah Circuit Court. “Considering a mandamus petitioner's heavy burden” and all the materials before it, the Court concluded that the trial court did not exceed its discretion in denying the motion for a change of venue based on the interest of justice or on the convenience of the parties and the witnesses. Accordingly, it denied the petition. View "Ex parte Roy S. Moore and Judge Roy Moore for US Senate." on Justia Law
Ex parte Albert Daniels.
Albert Daniels petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus compelling the Barbour Circuit Court to vacate its order severing and staying Daniels's claims against defendants Joseph Morris, Tracy Cary, and Morris, Cary, Andrews, Talmadge & Driggers, LLC ("the Morris firm"), and also to compel the circuit court to enter a default judgment. Sherry Johnson and Daniels were the parents of Alquwon Johnson. On June 4, 2011, Alquwon committed suicide while he was an inmate in the Barbour County jail. Johnson engaged the Morris firm to pursue a wrongful-death claim related to Alquwon's death. Johnson, as the personal representative of Alquwon's estate, filed a wrongful-death action in the Barbour Circuit Court. Johnson was represented by the Morris defendants in the wrongful-death litigation. The case was removed to federal court. In 2015, the case was settled. The Morris defendants distributed the settlement funds to Johnson; none of the proceeds were paid to Daniels. Daniels telephoned the Morris firm to inquire about retaining the firm to file a wrongful-death suit related to Alquwon's death. After speaking with an employee of the firm, Daniels was told that the firm had a conflict of interest and could not represent him. He later received a letter from Cary stating that "a lawsuit brought on your behalf would not be economically feasible given the nature, facts and circumstances surrounding your case." The Morris firm did not inform Daniels about the prior lawsuit and that it had settled the case and paid the settlement proceeds to Johnson. On September 18, 2015, Daniels filed suit against Johnson alleging that, as Alquwon's father, Daniels was entitled to 50% of the net settlement proceeds but that Johnson had wrongfully retained the entire amount. He asserted against Johnson claims of breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. Two years later, Daniels added as defendants the Morris defendants and asserting two claims against them. Count three of Daniels's amended complaint asserted a claim of fraud against the Morris defendants. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("ALSLA") did not require that Daniels's claims against the Morris defendants be bifurcated and stayed pending resolution of his claims against Johnson. Accordingly, the circuit court was directed to vacate its order bifurcating and staying Daniels's claims against the Morris defendants. Daniels, however, did not establish a clear legal right to a default judgment against the Morris defendants. Thus, as to the request for a default judgment, the petition was denied. View "Ex parte Albert Daniels." on Justia Law
Curry v. Miller
Larry Curry appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit against Gable Miller, Jr., and Auto Owners Insurance Company ("Auto Owners") on the ground of failure to prosecute. In 2014, Curry was injured when the vehicle in which he was driving was struck from the rear by a vehicle being driven by Miller. Curry retained attorney Russell Johnson to represent him in the matter. Johnson, on Curry's behalf, filed a personal-injury action against Miller. Johnson’s claim against Auto Owners sought uninsured/underinsured-motorist benefits. In 2017, the trial court set the case for a bench trial. At some point Curry's relationship with Johnson began to deteriorate, and Curry terminated Johnson's employment. On April 3, 2017, the trial court granted Johnson's motion to withdraw. On the same day, Johnson filed with the trial court a lien for attorney fees and expenses. Johnson stated in the lien that, during his representation of Curry, Miller had made an offer to settle Curry's claims for $17,000; that Curry had accepted the offer to settle but had refused to sign the necessary releases; and that Johnson had filed the personal-injury action on Curry's behalf to prevent Curry's claims from being barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court entered an order stating that the status conference had been held on April 11, 2017; that defense counsel had attended the conference; that Curry failed to appear at the conference; and that Curry was to notify the court within 30 days of his intention either to proceed pro se or to retain counsel. The order further stated that failure to comply with the order could result in sanctions, including dismissal of the lawsuit. On the same day, the trial court rescheduled the bench trial. On May 19, 2017, Miller and Auto Owners moved to dismiss Curry's claims for failure to prosecute, asserting that Curry had not attended the April 11, 2017, status conference and had not complied with the trial court's subsequent orders. The trial court deferred ruling on the defendants' motion to dismiss for one week to give Curry ample opportunity to respond. Curry failed to respond, and the trial court entered an order dismissing, with prejudice, Curry's lawsuit against the defendants. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed this outcome, finding Curry simply offered the trial court no plausible explanation as to why, out of all the documents mailed to him at his address, he would have received only one of those documents: defense counsel's motion to dismiss the action for want of prosecution. The trial court had before it sufficient evidence to reject Curry's assertion that he did know that a lawsuit had been filed on his behalf. Accordingly, the trial court did not exceed its discretion in concluding that Curry's failure to prosecute his lawsuit was "willful" for purposes of Rule a 41(b) involuntary dismissal. View "Curry v. Miller" on Justia Law
Walker v. Johnson
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
Hall v. Environmental Litigation Group, P.C.
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
Moore v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission
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
Bond v. McLaughlin
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
Equity Trust Co. v. Breland
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
Yarbrough v. Eversole
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