Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Davis v. Legal Services Alabama, Inc.
Davis, a former Congressman, mayoral candidate, candidate for governor of Alabama, and federal prosecutor, is Black. In 2016, he became Executive Director of LSA, a non-profit law firm serving low-income Alabamians. Davis experienced problems with some of his subordinates and colleagues; some complained to LSA’s Executive Committee. On August 18, 2017, as Davis left work, he was informed that the Executive Committee had voted to suspend him with pay pending an investigation of those complaints. A “Suspension Letter” cited spending decisions outside the approved budget, failure to follow LSA's hiring policies and procedures, creating new initiatives without Board approval, and creating a hostile work environment for some LSA employees. LSA posted a security guard in front of its building and hired Mowery, an Alabama political consultant, to handle public relations related to Davis’s suspension. Mowery had handled one of Davis’s failed political campaigns until their relationship soured; Mowery had worked for the campaign of Davis’s opponent in another race.Days later, Davis notified the Board of his resignation. He filed suit, alleging race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and under Title VII, and defamation. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Being placed on paid leave was not an adverse employment action and Davis did not raise a fact issue on his constructive discharge claim. LSA’s disclosures to Mowery did not constitute “publication”—an essential element of defamation. View "Davis v. Legal Services Alabama, Inc." on Justia Law
Common Cause Georgia v. Secretary, State of Georgia
Georgia's November 6, 2018, general election was a bellwether of the national political mood. On November 5, Common Cause sued, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Help America Vote Act, 52 U.S.C. 21082; the Georgia Constitution; and Georgia Code 21-2-211, claiming Georgia’s voter registration systems were vulnerable to security breaches, increasing the risk eligible voters would be wrongly removed from election rolls, or that information would be unlawfully manipulated to prevent eligible voters from casting a regular ballot.Common Cause sought an order preventing the final rejection of provisional ballots for voters who had registration problems until there was confidence in the voter registration database. The district court granted a temporary restraining order on November 12 but determined the relief requested was “not practically feasible” and enjoined the Secretary from certifying the election results before 5:00 p.m. on November 16. The Secretary complied. In 2019, new Georgia voting laws changed procedures surrounding handling provisional ballots. The parties agreed that these provisions made further litigation unnecessary and stipulated to dismissal.Common Cause sought attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses incurred through the issuance of the TRO and in preparing the fee motion. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the $166,210.09 award. Common Cause was a 42 U.S.C. 1988 prevailing party because, in obtaining the TRO, it succeeded on a significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefits the parties sought in bringing suit. The litigation was necessary to alter the legal relationship between the parties. View "Common Cause Georgia v. Secretary, State of Georgia" on Justia Law
Beach Blitz Co. v. City of Miami Beach
Beach Blitz sued the City and individuals, asserting that the City’s enactment and enforcement of ordinances regulating the sale of liquor and requiring businesses selling liquor to obtain licenses violated its substantive and procedural due process rights and that the City’s closure of its store one day after it met with a City attorney constituted retaliation for Beach Blitz’s protected First Amendment conduct. The district court dismissed the due process claims on the merits, without prejudice, and without leave to amend, and the First Amendment retaliatory claim on the merits, without prejudice but with leave to amend. Beach Blitz did not amend its that claim by the stated deadline. The district court found the City to be the prevailing party on all five claims, determined that each of them was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” and awarded attorney fees for each.The Eleventh Circuit upheld the prevailing party determination because the City rebuffed Beach Blitz’s efforts to effect a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties and affirmed frivolity determination concerning the procedural and substantive due process claims. The court vacated in part. There was sufficient support in precedent for Beach Blitz’s position that its retaliation claim was not so groundless on causation as to be frivolous. View "Beach Blitz Co. v. City of Miami Beach" on Justia Law
Johnson v. 27th Avenue Caraf, Inc.
Johnson, who is hearing-impaired, filed two lawsuits against gas station owners, asserting failure to provide closed captioning or a similar capability that would allow him to comprehend the television media features on gasoline pumps, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101, (ADA) and the Florida Civil Rights Act. Johnson had filed 26 other identical cases against gas station owners located throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Dinin represented Johnson in each case.The district court found that Johnson and Dinin were running an illicit joint enterprise, consisting of filing frivolous claims, knowingly misrepresenting the time they counted as billable, making misrepresentations to the court, and improperly sharing attorney’s fees. The court imposed sanctions, including monetary penalties, community service, and an injunction prohibiting them from filing future ADA claims without approval. The Eleventh Circuit dismissed an appeal by Dinin, who lacked standing because he has not shown how he has suffered an injury in fact. The court affirmed as to Johnson, In the majority of his cases, Johnson did not seek injunctive relief fixing the accessibility problem, but only sought payment of legal fees which he split with his lawyer. Johnson never stopped filing claims for damages under Florida law, although he knew them to be objectively frivolous since he had not exhausted his administrative remedies. View "Johnson v. 27th Avenue Caraf, Inc." on Justia Law
In re: Grand Jury Subpoena
The government moved to compel the testimony of an attorney who worked for the corporate body running the campaign for a former candidate for public office. The attorney sought to invoke the attorney-client privilege over his communications with the candidate and the campaign regarding the subject of the subpoena—certain financial disclosure forms filled out by the campaign and a number of purchases paid for by the campaign's bank accounts. The district court granted in part the government's motion to compel and denied the campaign's motion to quash.The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that the communications at issue fall within the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege. In this case, the court concluded that the government has presented a prima facie case of wire fraud and that the district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in finding that the government satisfied its burden under the first prong of the crime-fraud exception. Furthermore, after making the personal expenditures at issue, but before filing his financial disclosure forms, the candidate sought or obtained legal advice from the attorney regarding his obligations under Georgia law. Therefore, the communications at issue are sufficiently in furtherance of the crime of wire fraud to justify the piercing of the privilege. View "In re: Grand Jury Subpoena" on Justia Law
United States v. Pacheo-Romero
Appellants Lee, Bennett, and the law firm challenge the district court's orders requiring the firm to pay $15,000 into the court's registry and directing that $7,000 of those funds be paid to the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) fund to cover the fees and expenses of defendants' court-appointed counsel. In this case, shortly after defendants were arraigned, the district court disqualified the attorneys and the law firm from representing any of the defendants based upon an actual or potential conflict of interest. The law firm had already collected a total of $21,000 from defendants.The Eleventh Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction appellants' challenge to the district court's determination that funds were available to defendants. The court explained that this argument does not fit within the narrow exception that permits the court to review a district court's compliance with 18 U.S.C. 3006A's procedures. The court affirmed in all other respects. The court concluded that there was no error in the district court sua sponte raising the question of whether a portion of the fees paid to appellants were available for payment from or on behalf of defendants; the district court performed a thoroughly appropriate inquiry before entering its order directing the payment of $15,000 into the court's registry; and appellants were able to seek further review in the district court when they filed objections to the magistrate judge's order. Even if the court assumed that the district court failed to afford appellants adequate notice and opportunity to be heard before directing them to pay money into the court's registry, the error was harmless. Finally, the district court committed no procedural error based on the timing of its order directing appellants to pay funds into the court's registry. View "United States v. Pacheo-Romero" on Justia Law
Medical & Chiropractic Clinic, Inc. v. Oppenheim
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sued in at least five class action complaints, each one alleging that the Buccaneers sent telefax advertisements in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In one class action, lawyers from the AW Firm, who had previously filed suit on behalf of a different plaintiff, added another class action representative, M&C. Shortly after an unsuccessful mediation was conducted, defendant, an attorney at the AW Firm who was principally involved in the mediation, left the firm to join the Bock Firm. The Bock Firm then filed a separate class action against the Buccaneers, which resulted in a proposed settlement.M&C then filed suit against the Bock Firm in state court, alleging that they had breached fiduciary duties owed to it as a named class representative. M&C and its counsel claimed that defendant gave attorneys at the Bock Firm confidential information about settlement negotiations in the AW Firm's class action, which assisted the Bock Firm in settling their class action quickly and to the detriment of the class. The district court granted summary judgment for defendant and the Bock Firm.The Eleventh Circuit held that the duties owed to a class representative do not differ from the duties owed to a class. The court also clarified the duties owed by class counsel in class actions generally and in the context of this case specifically. In this case, the court determined that in filing this action M&C and a principal at the AW Firm launched an impermissible collateral attack on the Bock Firm's attempt to certify and settle a class action. The court explained that their assertions should have been made only before the court that was exercising jurisdiction over the Rule 23 putative class action — the court in which the request to certify a settlement class and approve the settlement was made. The court found no error in the district court's determination that M&C failed to establish that it was damaged by any alleged breach of a fiduciary duty owed to it by defendant. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant and the Bock Firm. View "Medical & Chiropractic Clinic, Inc. v. Oppenheim" on Justia Law
Tufts v. Hay
This case arose out of a dispute between two sets of lawyers who provided legal work for a mutual client. Thomas Tufts and the Tufts Law Firm, PLLC appealed the district court's order granting a motion to dismiss on grounds of subject matter jurisdiction. Edward Hay and Pitts, Hay & Hugenschmidt, P.A. also filed a second motion to dismiss Tufts's action against them on the additional ground that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction over them. After the district court found personal jurisdiction, Hay and his firm cross appealed.The Eleventh Circuit held that the district court erred by dismissing the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Barton Doctrine. In this case, Tufts counsel initiated their action against Hay—court-approved counsel—and Tufts did not obtain leave of the bankruptcy court before doing so. The court held that the Barton doctrine has no application when jurisdiction over a matter no longer exists in the bankruptcy court. Thus, the bankruptcy court was properly vested with jurisdiction to consider this action if it could conceivably have an effect on the client's bankruptcy estate. Here, the action could not conceivably have an effect on the client's bankruptcy estate and thus the Barton doctrine does not apply. The court also held that the district court properly exercised personal jurisdiction over Hay. The court reversed the district court's ruling on subject matter jurisdiction and remanded. View "Tufts v. Hay" on Justia Law
J.J. Rissell, Allentown PA, Trust v. Kapila
The Eleventh Circuit dismissed bankruptcy appeals filed by attorney Breuer of Moffa & Breuer, who purported to represent the Trust. The bankruptcy court disqualified attorney Moffa and Moffa & Breuer from representing the Trust. Because the Trust was a 50 percent shareholder of the debtor created to ensure that Moffa & Breuer would collect its legal fees, the bankruptcy court concluded that Moffa & Breuer’s representation of a shareholder in which it had a business interest conflicted with its simultaneous representation of the debtor. Moffa & Breuer repeatedly ignored the disqualification order. Moffa, purportedly pro se in his capacity as trustee of the Trust and as an attorney for related entities, filed a competing plan of reorganization that would have released the debtor’s claims against his firm and made him president of the reorganized debtor.There has been no indication of an intent to appeal from any qualified agent of the Trust, only from disqualified attorneys. Moffa had no authority to act pro se in the bankruptcy court, so his filings do not suggest that the Trust intended to appeal. There is no justification for excusing these defective notices of appeal. When an appeal is taken on behalf of an artificial entity by someone without legal authority to do so, the appeal should be dismissed. View "J.J. Rissell, Allentown PA, Trust v. Kapila" on Justia Law
Northeastern Engineers Federal Credit Union v. Home Depot, Inc.
The parties appealed the district court's award of attorney's fees in a class action settlement brought by banks against Home Depot to recover resulting losses from a data breach.The Eleventh Circuit held that this was a contractual fee-shifting case, and the constructive common-fund doctrine did not apply. The court held that the district court erred by enhancing class counsel's lodestar based on risk; the district court did not abuse its discretion in compensating class counsel for time on the card-brand recovery process and for time spent finding and vetting class representatives; and there was no merit to Home Depot's contention that the district court's order did not allow for meaningful review. The court also held that the district court properly excluded attorney's fees from the class benefit, and the district court did not abuse its discretion by including the $14.5 million premiums in the class benefit. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded. View "Northeastern Engineers Federal Credit Union v. Home Depot, Inc." on Justia Law