Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The Supreme Court of Texas answered two certified questions, holding that the time for determining the existence and amount of unpaid commission due under Tex. Bus. & Com. Code section 54.001(1) is the time the jury or trial court determines the liability of the defendant, whether at trial or through another dispositive trial-court process such as a summary judgment; and that a plaintiff may recover attorney's fees and costs under section 54.004(2) even if the plaintiff does not receive treble damages, if the factfinder determines that the fees and costs were reasonably incurred under the circumstances. The Fifth Circuit held that CPTS was not entitled to treble damages, and the district court was thus correct to grant summary judgment to Horsburgh on the treble damages claim. In this case, there were no unpaid commissions due at the time of judgment, because Horsburgh had already paid all of its outstanding commissions, plus interest. The court also held that CPTS was eligible for attorney's fees simply by virtue of Horsburgh's breach. Therefore, the district court correctly concluded that CPTS was not entitled to treble damages, but erred by granting summary judgment to Horsburgh without awarding CPTS reasonable attorney's fees and costs. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "JCB, Inc. v. The Horsburgh & Scott Co." on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the 28 U.S.C. 1927 sanctions imposed against attorney John Morgan for advancing a meritless, immunity-barred claim against Judge Layne Walker. Morgan represented an attorney in an action alleging that Judge Walker fabricated a perjury accusation against her. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing the sanctions where the district court was best positioned to assess the propriety of Morgan's litigation misconduct. In this case, it could not be seriously disputed that Morgan unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings where he pursued a baseless claim with reckless disregard for his duty to the court. Furthermore, the court upheld the district court's award of Judge Walker's legal expenses. View "Morrison v. Walker" on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for habeas relief seeking reinstatement of his earned-release supervision (ERS) and trusty time. The district court dismissed the petition for failure to exhaust state remedies and denied Montalto's unopposed motions for sanctions and contempt, as well as criticized MDOC and its counsel for disregarding orders for production and not properly investigating the circumstances of Montalto's revocations. The Fifth Circuit held that judicial criticism amounting to an actual finding of attorney misconduct is directly appealable. Because the court was unable to determine whether the district court made actual findings of professional misconduct, the court remanded with instructions for the district court to clarify its findings regarding counsel's professional misconduct. View "Montalto v. Mississippi Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit held that the magistrate judge's dual role—generator and administrator of court fees—creates a conflict of interest when the judge sets an arrestee's bail, and therefore violates due process. Like the mayor in Ward v. Monroeville, the court held that because a magistrate judge must manage his chambers to perform the judicial tasks the voters elected him to do, he has a direct and personal interest in the fiscal health of the public institution that benefits from the fees his court generates and that he also helps allocate. Furthermore, the bond fees impact the bottom line of the court to a similar degree that the fines did in Ward. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's determination that the magistrate judge's institutional incentives create a substantial and unconstitutional conflict of interest when he determines the class's ability to pay bail and sets the amount of that bail. View "Caliste v. Cantrell" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for plaintiffs in an action against Judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Judges' practices in collecting criminal fines and fees violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court agreed and held that the district court did not err in applying the principles from Tumey v. State of Ohio, which held that officers acting in a judicial or quasi judicial capacity are disqualified by their interest in the controversy to be decided, and Ward v. Vill. of Monroeville, which presented a situation in which an official perforce occupies two inconsistent positions and necessarily involves a lack of due process of law in the trial of defendants charged with crimes before him. In this case, the Judges have exclusive authority over how the Judicial Expense Fund is spent, they must account for the OPCDC budget to the New Orleans City Council and New Orleans Mayor, and the fines and fees make up a significant portion of their annual budget. View "Cain v. White" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit denied a petition for attorneys' fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act. In this case, the court granted the government's motion to remand to allow the BIA to consider the issues raised in petitioners' opening brief. The court held that attorneys' fees were unwarranted because the government was the prevailing party on the bulk of petitioner's claims and was substantially justified in denying protection under the Convention Against Torture. View "W. M. V. C. v. Barr" on Justia Law

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Law Funder filed suit against defendant and his law firm for legal malpractice. The district court found a series of discovery violations and related malfeasance, striking defendant's answer. After defendant did not move to replead, the district court entered a default judgment against him and awarded Law Funder $3 million. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's entry of default judgment against defendant, but held that the district court improperly calculated damages under Texas law. In this case, the district court erred in awarding Law Funder compensatory damages for attorney fees and costs that it would have incurred regardless of defendant's negligence. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's final judgment and remanded for a new trial on damages. View "Law Funder, LLC. v. Munoz" on Justia Law

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This dispute between the bankruptcy court and Chapter 13 debtor's attorneys involved no-money-down business models where the debtor's attorney agrees to advance the costs of filing fees, credit counseling course fees, and credit report fees on behalf of the debtor. The bankruptcy court concluded that these fees were non-reimbursable under the district's no-look fee order and that counsel could never be reimbursed by statute. The Fifth Circuit held that debtor's counsel in this case was not entitled to additional reimbursement for advancing the costs of the filing fees, credit counseling fees, and credit report fees as administrative expenses necessary for preserving the estate under 11 U.S.C. 503(b)(1). However, 11 U.S.C. 503(b) and 330 provide bankruptcy courts with the discretion to compensate debtor's counsel for advancing the costs of filing fees, credit counseling fees, and credit report fees if they choose to do so. Therefore, the court held that the bankruptcy court did not err in interpreting its own standing order on no-look fee compensation, but that it did err in its conclusion that bankruptcy courts lack the discretion to ever award reimbursement of those fees. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and vacated in part. View "McBride v. Riley" on Justia Law

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Under Texas law, an attorney is immune from civil suits brought by a non-client when the conduct at issue occurred within the scope of the attorney's representation of a client. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court and rejected three purported exceptions to this doctrine. This case related to the R. Allen Stanford Ponzi Scheme and an attorney that was practicing at Greenberg Traurig who was involved in the scheme. Plaintiffs filed suit against defendants under a respondeat superior theory, alleging that the attorney conspired with Stanford to further the fraud. Denying the motion for certification, the court held that it was not persuaded that the Supreme Court of Texas would apply the attorney immunity doctrine in the non-litigation context; criminal conduct does not automatically negate immunity, but in the usual case it will be outside the scope of representation; immunity can apply even to criminal acts so long as the attorney was acting within the scope of representation; and the Supreme Court of Texas would not consider itself sure that the Texas Legislature intended to abrogate attorney immunity in the context of Texas Securities Act claims. View "Troice v. Greenberg Traurig, LLP" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of attorneys' fees in plaintiff's action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although the district court correctly determined that Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), provided the relevant legal framework in this case, the court held that the district court was in the best position to determine whether this lawsuit achieved a compensable public goal justifying a fee award. Plaintiff argued that this was an unusual case justifying a fee award because the litigation secured an ASL interpreter for Nelson Arce, achieved recognition of the rights of deaf probationers and prisoners to disability accommodations, deterred future ADA violations, and prompted necessary reforms in the defendants' policies toward deaf individuals. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Shelton v. Louisiana State" on Justia Law