Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Georgia
by
A majority of the Hearing Panel (“Panel”) of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) recommended that Judge Eric Norris issue a public apology for violating Rules 1.2 (A) and 2.8 (B) of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, with the dissent recommending censure from the Court along with a public apology. The charges stemmed from an Athens Banner-Herald article published on a criminal defendant who had a bench warrant issued for failing to appear in court. Judge Norris presided over the defendant’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial; defendant was released on his own recognizance. A bail bondsman posted his disagreement with the judge’s handling of the case on social media. The judge arranged for a meeting with the bail bondsman wherein he had a deputy confiscate the bondsman’s cell phone, and scolded the bondsman in the judge’s chambers. The bondsman did not feel he was free to leave, and requested to have his lawyer present. The bondsman filed a complaint against Judge Norris with the JQC. The Director excepted to the recommended sanction, asserting that a public reprimand was appropriate. For the reasons stated below, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed that a public apology or a censure was an appropriate sanction and order that Judge Norris be publicly reprimanded. View "Inquiry concerning Judge Eric Norris" on Justia Law

by
In 1994, the Georgia Supreme Court approved State Bar of Georgia Formal Advisory Opinion (“FAO”) 94 -3, which addressed and provided guidance concerning former Standard of Conduct 47 in on whether a lawyer could properly contact and interview former employees of an organization represented by counsel to obtain information relevant to litigation against the organization. In 2000, the Supreme Court issued an order adopting the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (“GRPC”) found in Bar Rule 4-102 (d), which replaced the Standards of Conduct. The State Bar’s Formal Advisory Opinion Board (“Board”) determined that the substance and conclusion reached in FAO 94 -3 remained the same under the applicable GRPC. The Georgia Defense Lawyers Association (“GDLA”) raised concerns over FAO 20-1, contending that former employees fall within the “three types of agents or employees of a represented organization who may not be contacted on an ex parte basis by an opposing lawyer[.]” The Supreme Court retracted Formal Advisory Opinion 94-3 and approved Formal Advisory Opinion 20-1, with modifications. View "In re: Formal Advisory Opinion No. 20-1" on Justia Law

by
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) sought approval of the discipline by consent agreement between the Director of the JQC and JaDawnya Baker, Judge of the Municipal Court of Atlanta, to resolve the formal charges brought against Judge Baker with the issuance of a public reprimand. The agreement, entered into between the JQC Director and Judge Baker, was submitted to the JQC’s Hearing Panel, which approved the agreement and filed it with the Supreme Court for approval. Because Judge Baker’s admitted violations of periodically dismissing cases without the legal authority to do so justified the recommended, and agreed-to, discipline of a public reprimand, the Court approved the agreement. The Court approved the agreement with reservations "about whether, based on the substance of the allegations within the consent agreement, all of the agreed-to violations constitute violations of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct." View "Inquiry concerning Judge JaDawnya Baker" on Justia Law

by
An agreement between the Director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) and Cary Hays III, Chief Magistrate of Crawford County, Georgia, was filed with the Georgia Supreme Court. The agreement was to resolve formal charges brought against Judge Hays arising from a physical altercation with a defendant that appeared before him. The agreement called for Judge Hays to serve an unpaid, 30-day suspension to be followed by a public reprimand. Pursuant to JQC Rule 23, the agreement was submitted to the JQC’s Hearing Panel, which voted 2-1 to accept it, and then filed it with the Supreme Court. Because the record and the limited relevant precedent the Court had found supported the proposed discipline, it accept the agreement and ordered that Judge Hays be suspended for 30 days without pay and be publicly reprimanded for his violations of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct. View "Inquiry Concerning Judge Cary Hays, III" on Justia Law

by
B. Reid Zeh filed a lawsuit alleging that the American Civil Liberties Union, Inc. (“ACLU”) had published a post on its blog containing defamatory statements asserting that Zeh, who was the public defender for misdemeanor cases in Glynn County, Georgia, had charged an indigent criminal defendant a fee for his public defense services. The ACLU moved to strike the defamation lawsuit pursuant to Georgia’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“anti-SLAPP”) statute. Zeh then filed two motions requesting discovery. The trial court denied the motion to strike without ruling on Zeh’s discovery motions, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion. The Georgia Supreme Court granted the ACLU's petition for certiorari to address what standard of judicial review applies in this situation and whether, under that standard, the trial court erred by denying the anti-SLAPP motion to strike. After applying the proper standard of review to the existing record, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred by denying the ACLU’s motion to strike. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding that ruling. But because the trial court failed to rule on Zeh’s requests for discovery, the case was remanded to the Court of Appeals with direction that it remand the case to the trial court to rule on the discovery motions and for further proceedings. View "American Civil Liberties Union, Inc. v. Zeh" on Justia Law

by
The version of the apportionment statute at issue in this appeal, OCGA 51-12-33, was enacted as part of the Tort Reform Act of 2005. Subsection (b) required damages to be apportioned “among the persons who are liable according to the percentages of fault of each person.” Subsection (b) had a critical textual difference from subsection (a): although subsection (a) applied “[w]here an action is brought against one or more persons,” subsection (b) applied only “[w]here an action is brought against more than one person . . . .” Although the Georgia Supreme Court previously decided at least one case in which the provisions of subsection (b) were applied in single-defendant cases, the Court expressly left open the question of whether such an application was proper. In this case, the Court of Appeals answered that open question by determining that the apportionment by percentage of fault directed by subsection (b) did not apply in single-defendant cases. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether subsection (b) applied in single-defendant cases and also on the question of whether an expenses-of-litigation award under OCGA 13-6-11 was subject to apportionment. Although the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on the latter question and held that such expenses were not categorically excluded from apportionment, the Court concluded the Court of Appeals was correct on the scope of application of the apportionment directed by subsection (b): it applied only in cases “brought against more than one person,” not in single-defendant lawsuits like this one. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings regarding the trial court’s apportionment of the expenses-of-litigation award. View "Alston & Bird, LLP v. Hatcher Management Holdings, LLC" on Justia Law

by
The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether the Court of Appeals properly identified the accrual date of the legal malpractice claim in this case. The court determined that the accrual date for the malpractice action based on failure to protect an underinsured motorist (“UM”) claim was the date on which the plaintiff’s attorney first became aware that the plaintiff potentially had a UM claim with available coverage. Under the facts of this case, the Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the accrual date was the last day counsel could protect the client’s UM claim by lawfully effecting service on the UM carrier. View "Armstrong et al. v. Cuffie et al." on Justia Law

by
In 2017, a grand jury indicted Ryan Duke for malice murder and related offenses in connection with the October 2005 death of Tara Grinstead. For approximately 17 months, Duke was represented by a public defender from the Tifton Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office. Then, in August 2018, Duke’s public defender withdrew from representation and John Merchant and Ashleigh Merchant filed an entry of appearance, indicating that they were representing Duke pro bono. The Georgia Supreme Court granted interlocutory review in this case to determine whether the trial court erred in determining whether Duke had neither a statutory right under the Indigent Defense Act of 2003, nor a constitutional right to state-funded experts and investigators needed to prepare a defense, notwithstanding private counsel as his representation. Contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, the Supreme Court found the IDA allowed an indigent defendant to obtain such ancillary defense services through a contract between pro bono counsel and either the Georgia Public Defender Council (“GPDC”) or the appropriate circuit public defender. Consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Duke v. Georgia" on Justia Law

by
The Hearing Panel of the Judicial qualifications Commission ("JQC") recommended that Judge Robert "Mack" Crawford be "removed from office" for violating Rule 1.1 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct ("CJC") which said "Judges shall respect and comply with the law." Judge Crawford resigned as Superior Court judge of the Griffin Judicial Circuit upon investigation by the JQC. The complaint alleged that Crawford violated CJC Rule 1.1 in two ways: (1) by “impermissibly converting money from the registry of the Superior Court of Pike County . . . when he ordered the Pike County Clerk via handwritten note to disburse $15,675.62 in funds from the court registry to him via check” and “then cashed and used a portion of the check for his personal benefit and deposited the remainder of this money in his personal checking account,” although he later returned the funds; and (2) by “failing to follow the proper procedure for the disbursement of funds, even if the money had been his, as required by law,” noting the certification requirement for withdrawal of funds from a court registry contained in Uniform Superior Court Rule 23. In 2002, when Crawford was in private practice, he had deposited the funds into the registry from his client trust account in connection with a lawsuit. The JQC complaint acknowledged that Crawford claimed that at least some of the money was owed to him as attorney fees and expenses.The Hearing Panel did not recommend that Crawford be permanently barred from seeking or holding judicial office. The JQC Director did not file a notice of exceptions, thereby accepting the Hearing Panel’s recommendation. Under rules promulgated by the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court had to file a written decision either dismissing this matter or imposing a sanction. The Court elected to dismiss. View "Inquiry Concerning Judge Robert M. Crawford" on Justia Law

by
Innovative Images, LLC sued its former attorney James Summerville, Summerville Moore, P.C., and The Summerville Firm, LLC (collectively, the “Summerville Defendants”) for legal malpractice. In response, the Summerville Defendants moved to dismiss the suit and to compel arbitration in accordance with the parties’ engagement agreement, which included a clause mandating arbitration for any dispute arising under the agreement. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the arbitration clause was “unconscionable” and thus unenforceable because it had been entered into in violation of Rule 1.4 (b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (“GRPC”) for attorneys found in Georgia Bar Rule 4-102 (d). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the arbitration clause was not void as against public policy or unconscionable. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded after review that regardless of whether the Summerville Defendants violated GRPC Rule 1.4 (b) by entering into the mandatory arbitration clause in the engagement agreement without first apprising Innovative of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration, the clause was not void as against public policy because Innovative did not argue, and no court has held, that such an arbitration clause could never lawfully be included in an attorney-client contract. For similar reasons, the Supreme Court held the arbitration clause was not substantively unconscionable, and on the limited record before it, Innovative did not show the clause was procedurally unconscionable. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the appellate court's judgment. View "Innovative Images, LLC v. Summerville et al." on Justia Law