Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine could be invoked by a trustee to prevent the disclosure to a beneficiary of communications between the trustee and counsel pertaining to attorney fees expended from a trust corpus. To reach that issue, the Court had to first address the question of whether the Superior Court erred in disclaiming jurisdiction on the basis that the trial court’s order rejecting the privilege claim was not a collateral order, and immediately reviewable as such. The Supreme Court held unanimously that the Superior Court had immediate appellate jurisdiction to review the privilege question on the merits, and therefore erred in concluding otherwise. As to the privilege issue itself, the Superior Court indicated that, notwithstanding its perceived lack of jurisdiction, there was no evidence by which to substantiate a claim of privilege on the merits, nor any argument presented to the trial court in support thereof. For those reasons, the court was left to conclude that the privilege was unavailable under the circumstances and that the communications at issue were subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court did not reach a consensus on whether the privilege may be invoked in the trust context. Because disclosure would nevertheless result from the competing positions set forth by a majority of Justices, the lower court’s alternative ruling was affirmed by operation of law. View "In Re: Estate of McAleer" on Justia Law

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In this appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether, under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, an attorney could act as both guardian ad litem and legal counsel for a minor child, in the context of a petition for termination of parental rights, where counsel did not expressly inquire into the child’s preferred outcome of the termination proceedings. In these unique circumstances, the Court found the attorney was able to fulfill her professional duties and act in both roles. Thus, the Court affirmed the Superior Court order, which affirmed the termination of parental rights in this case. View "In Re: P.G.F." on Justia Law

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In September 2014, prior to the request for the records at issue in this case, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report which alleged a causal connection between the ill health of inmates at SCI-Fayette, and the facility’s proximity to a fly ash dumpsite. In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) coordinated with the Department of Health (DOH) to investigate the allegations (the No Escape Investigation). Reporter Christine Haines of The Herald Standard (Appellees) sent an e-mail Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request to the DOC seeking documentation of inmate illnesses. The DOC denied Appellees' request in its entirety, citing several exceptions under Section 708(b) of the RTKL, as well as attorney-client privilege and deliberative process privilege grounds. Then in December 2014, in-house counsel for the DOC disclosed fifteen pages of records to Appellees. Appellees asked DOC to verify that its December disclosure was a complete response. Several additional records were subsequently released, but implicitly, the records released were the DOC's response. In February 2015, Appellees filed a petition for enforcement with the Commonwealth Court, seeking statutory sanctions and attorney fees alleging DOC demonstrated bad faith in responding to the request for records. The court identified records that the DOC should have provided. But because the panel could not discern the full extent of any non-compliance by DOC, the panel directed the parties to file a stipulation as to the disclosure status of court-identified five classes of records. Appellees' motion was thus denied without prejudice, and the court reserved judgment on the issue of bad faith sanctions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider the assessment of sanctions and fees based on the Commonwealth Court's finding of bad faith and willful and wanton behavior. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, finding that Section 1304(a0(1) of the RTKL “permit[s] recovery of attorney fees when the receiving agency determination is reversed, and it deprived a requester of access to records in bad faith.” View "Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor." on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from a medical malpractice action in which appellees Nancy Raynor, Esq. and Raynor & Associates served as defense counsel for Dr. Jeffrey Gellar and Roxborough Emergency Physician Associates (collectively Roxborough). Rosalind Sutch, executrix of the estate of Rosalind Wilson (decedent), and her counsel in that lawsuit, Messa & Associates, P.C. was plaintiff in the suit. Joseph Messa, Jr., Esq. (collectively, the Messa appellants) were Sutch's counsel. In July 2009, Sutch filed a medical malpractice action alleging, among other things, Roxborough failed to obtain a CT scan and timely diagnose decedent’s lung cancer. The trial court granted Sutch’s pre-trial motion in limine, and defendants were precluded “from presenting any evidence, testimony, and/or argument regarding decedent’s smoking history” at trial. During trial, Sutch’s counsel requested an order from the trial judge directing Raynor to inform witnesses of the ban on testimony regarding decedent’s smoking history before taking the stand. The court did not issue the requested order; upon questioning, the defense expert testified the decedent was a smoker, was hypertensive, and had vascular disease. The witness did not recollect having a discussion with Raynor regarding mentioning the decedent's smoking. Plaintiff's counsel asked for a mistrial and/or sanctions. The trial judge denied the request for a mistrial and instead provided a curative instruction to the jury. At the end of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sutch. Appellants filed post-trial motions seeking a new trial as well as an order holding Raynor in contempt and awarding sanctions in the aggregate amount of counsel fees and costs for the first trial ($1,349,063.67). The court granted the motion for a new trial. The court found Raynor to be in civil contempt and issued an order for sanctions in the amount of $946,195.16 to be divided among appellants. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether the Superior Court properly determined a request for contempt sanctions against opposing counsel raised in a post-trial motion in a lawsuit where neither counsel was a named party, constituted actionable “civil proceedings” under the Dragonetti Act. The Supreme Court concluded that intra-case filings, such as the subject post-trial motion for contempt and/or sanctions, did not constitute the “procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings” as contemplated under the Dragonetti Act. The Superior Court erred when it held otherwise. View "Raynor v. D'Annunzio" on Justia Law

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This case was one of several similarly situated capital appeals involving former Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s role as the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. In 2017, the Honorable Leon Tucker, Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (“PCRA court”), granted appellant Anthony Reid relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act in the form of nunc pro tunc reinstatement of his right to appeal the order denying his first timely PCRA petition. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously affirmed the order denying appellant’s first PCRA petition; however, the PCRA court concluded the Supreme Court had to reconsider appellant’s PCRA appeal again, this time without the participation of Chief Justice Castille, pursuant to Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S.Ct. 1899 (2016). While the Pennsylvania Court agreed Chief Justice Castille’s participation in appellant’s prior PCRA appeal implicated the same due process concerns at issue in Williams, the Supreme Court concluded the lower court lacked jurisdiction under the PCRA to reinstate appellant’s nunc pro tunc right to appeal. Consequently, the Supreme Court also lacked jurisdiction, and was compelled to quash this serial appeal as untimely. View "Pennsylvania v. Reid" on Justia Law

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This case involved questions of how the attorney-client privilege should apply in the context of derivative litigation. The nonprofit corporations involved in this matter were the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (“the Foundation”) and its subsidiary, the Landmarks Financial Corporation (“the Corporation”), which managed the Foundation’s endowment. Plaintiffs were five former members of the Boards of Trustees of the Foundation and the Corporation who alleged they were improperly and ineffectively removed from the Boards in an attempt to thwart their oversight of the Foundation’s president, whom they believed was engaging in actions that were improper and not in accord with the Foundation’s mission. The Foundation’s Board created a Governance Task Force to review various practices of the Foundation; the Task Force recommended that both Boards be reduced substantially in number. The Foundation Board approved this recommendation and removed all trustees then serving from both Boards; significantly smaller boards were elected and as a result of these consolidations, and Derivative Plaintiffs lost their seats on the Boards. In accord with standard procedures for bringing a derivative action adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Cuker v. Mikalauskas, 692 A.2d 1042 (Pa. 1997). The Supreme Court rejected the Commonwealth Court’s adoption of a qualified attorney-client privilege as set forth in Garner v. Wolfinbarger, 430 F.2d 1093 (5th Cir. 1970), which the Supreme Court viewed as inconsistent with prior Pennsylvania caselaw emphasizing predictability in the application of the attorney-client privilege. However, the Commonwealth Court’s decision not to apply the fiduciary or co-client exceptions to the attorney-client privilege under the facts of this case was affirmed. The matter was remanded for further al court and the Commonwealth Court and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Pgh History v. Ziegler" on Justia Law

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This appeal centered on a challenge to the practice of requiring private attorneys who may be privy to confidential information related to a grand jury investigation to commit to maintaining the secrecy of all information they may acquire regarding the grand jury. The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016. Under the authority of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, subpoenas requiring the production of documents were recently issued to the Dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg (“Appellants” or the “Dioceses”). Their counsel requested a copy of the notice of submission that the Office of the Attorney General (the “OAG”) had provided to the supervising judge. The supervising judge replied that he would furnish a copy of this notice to counsel, but that counsel first would be required to sign and submit appearance form, which included an oath or affirmation to keep all that transpired in the Grand Jury room secret (under threat of penalty of contempt). Counsel declined to accept these terms, however, and Appellants lodged a joint motion to strike the non-disclosure provision from the entry-of-appearance form. They argued that the requirement of secrecy was not authorized by the Investigating Grand Jury Act, both as to the obligation being imposed upon counsel and, alternatively, in terms of the breadth of that duty. The Dioceses’ lead contention was that the secrecy requirement of 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4549(b) did not apply to private attorneys, positing that, “[b]y its terms,” Section 4549(b) applies only to persons who are “sworn to secrecy” -- i.e., those who are required in practice to sign an oath of secrecy -- such as “Commonwealth attorneys, grand jurors, stenographers, typists, and operators of recording equipment.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded an attorney would will be privy to matters occurring before an investigating grand jury shall be sworn to secrecy per the requirements of the Investigating Grand Jury Act, either via an appropriately tailored entry-of-appearance form or otherwise. The obligation of confidentially generally extends to all matters occurring before the grand jury, which includes, but is not limited to, what transpires in a grand jury room. A lawyer otherwise subject to secrecy, however, may disclose a client’s own testimony to the extent that the client would otherwise be free to do so under applicable law. Such disclosure is also subject to the client’s express, knowing, voluntary, and informed consent; the Rules of Professional Conduct; and specific curtailment by a supervising judge in discrete matters following a hearing based on cause shown. View "In Re: 40th Statewide IGJ" on Justia Law

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This matter arose from a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Estate of Richard Eazor deriving from a motor vehicle accident. The Eazor Estate was represented by Attorney William Weiler, Jr., who entered his appearance in the matter in March 2005. By December 1, 2005, Weiler became associated with Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. Weiler brought the Eazor Litigation with him and Meyer Darragh attorneys worked on the Eazor Litigation for over seventy hours over a nineteen-month period. In May 2007, Weiler resigned from Meyer Darragh. At that time, Meyer Darragh understood it would continue as lead counsel in the Eazor Litigation along with Weiler at his new firm. Written correspondence at the time of Weiler’s separation from Meyer Darragh indicated that Meyer Darragh would receive two-thirds of the attorneys’ fees arising out of the Eazor Litigation, and Weiler would retain one- third of the fees. In an earlier decision in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held Meyer Darragh, as predecessor counsel, was not entitled to breach of contract damages against successor counsel, the Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C., where a contract regarding counsel fees did not exist between the two firms. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review nunc pro tunc to determine whether Meyer Darragh was entitled to damages in quantum meruit against Malone Middleman, where the trial court initially held such damages were recoverable, but the Superior Court reversed. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded to the trial court for reinstatement of its award of damages in quantum meruit to Meyer Darragh against Malone Middleman. View "Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. v. Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C." on Justia Law

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This matter arose from a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Estate of Richard Eazor deriving from a motor vehicle accident. The Eazor Estate was represented by Attorney William Weiler, Jr., who entered his appearance in the matter in March 2005. By December 1, 2005, Weiler became associated with Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. Weiler brought the Eazor Litigation with him and Meyer Darragh attorneys worked on the Eazor Litigation for over seventy hours over a nineteen-month period. In May 2007, Weiler resigned from Meyer Darragh. At that time, Meyer Darragh understood it would continue as lead counsel in the Eazor Litigation along with Weiler at his new firm. Written correspondence at the time of Weiler’s separation from Meyer Darragh indicated that Meyer Darragh would receive two-thirds of the attorneys’ fees arising out of the Eazor Litigation, and Weiler would retain one- third of the fees. In an earlier decision in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held Meyer Darragh, as predecessor counsel, was not entitled to breach of contract damages against successor counsel, the Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C., where a contract regarding counsel fees did not exist between the two firms. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review nunc pro tunc to determine whether Meyer Darragh was entitled to damages in quantum meruit against Malone Middleman, where the trial court initially held such damages were recoverable, but the Superior Court reversed. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded to the trial court for reinstatement of its award of damages in quantum meruit to Meyer Darragh against Malone Middleman. View "Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. v. Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C." on Justia Law

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This case was a direct appeal in a judicial discipline case that resulted in Appellant Dawn Segal's removal from office as a municipal court judge in Philadelphia. In 2014, amidst a federal investigation encompassing electronic surveillance of telephone conversations in which she participated, Appellant reported to the Judicial Conduct Board (the “Board”) that she had ex parte communications with then-fellow- Municipal Court Judge Joseph Waters about several cases that were pending before her. FBI agents and federal prosecutors interviewed Appellant on several occasions, ultimately playing tapes of the intercepted conversations. The Board, which had already opened an investigation into the matter, proceeded to lodge a complaint against Appellant in the Court of Judicial Discipline (the “CJD”). The Board asserted violations of the then-prevailing Canons of Judicial Conduct, including Canon 2B, Canon 3A(4), Canon 3B(3), and Canon 3C(1). A federal prosecution of Waters was initiated, and he entered a negotiated guilty plea to mail fraud, and honest service wire fraud. Shortly thereafter, Appellant (through counsel) self-reported to the Board that she and Waters had had ex parte communications concerning pending cases. The correspondence stated that Appellant had not previously made these disclosures to the Board on account of a request from federal authorities to maintain confidentiality. In March 2015, the Board filed its complaint with the CJD. Finding the sanction imposed by the CJD as lawful, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined it lacked authority to disapprove it. As such, the CJD's decision was affirmed. View "In Re: Dawn Segal, Judge" on Justia Law