Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Schulman v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., Inc.
This case involves Jeremy Schulman, a former shareholder at the Maryland law firm Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker. Schulman sued insurance companies AXIS Surplus Insurance Company, Endurance American Specialty Insurance Company, and Prosight Syndicate 1110 at Lloyd’s, for breach of contract, detrimental reliance, and lack of good faith, claiming that they wrongfully denied his claim for coverage under his law firm's professional liability insurance policy. The dispute hinges on whether Schulman's indictment in a criminal case qualifies as a "claim" under his professional liability insurance policy, and whether a letter from the insurance companies promising to cover certain costs relating to a subpoena also covered costs related to the later indictment. Schulman also alleges that the insurers acted in bad faith.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, granting summary judgment to the defendants. The court held that Schulman's indictment in the criminal case did not constitute a "claim" under his professional liability insurance policy, and that the insurers' letter did not promise to cover costs related to the indictment. The court also held that Schulman's claim of bad faith could not succeed because he was not entitled to coverage under the policy and the insurers did not breach any tort duty by denying coverage. View "Schulman v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., Inc." on Justia Law
Matthew Gibson v. Louise Goldston
Plaintiff filed suit in federal district court against Judge Goldston and others present at the search. Plaintiff claimed that the warrantless search and seizure of his property violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, that the restrictions on recording the incident violated the First Amendment, and that Judge Goldston’s practice of conducting “home visits” violated the Equal Protection Clause by disadvantaging pro se litigants like himself. He sought compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, as well as attorney’s fees and injunctive and declaratory relief. Judge Goldston moved for summary judgment, claiming she was entitled to absolute judicial immunity. The district court denied her motion. At issue on appeal is whether Judge Goldston is entitled to judicial immunity. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that judicial immunity protects only judicial acts. It does not shield the conduct of judges who step outside their judicial role, as Judge Goldston did when searching Plaintiff’s home. The court explained that while Judge Goldston might have had the authority to order a search, the proper authority to conduct the operation was the local sheriff’s department or some other appropriate law enforcement agency. The court explained that just as “judges do not do double duty as jailers,” so too they do not do double duty as sheriffs. View "Matthew Gibson v. Louise Goldston" on Justia Law
Halscott Megaro, P.A. v. Henry McCollum
Law firm Halscott Megaro, P.A. (“Halscott Megaro” or “the firm”) sued former clients and their guardians (collectively “former clients”), seeking to recover unpaid legal fees and expenses. A district court dismissed the action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court took judicial notice of a North Carolina State Bar Disciplinary Hearing Commission (“Commission”) decision that found the firm’s lead partner misled the former clients and engaged in other unethical conduct. The court then held the firm was precluded from relitigating issues decided by the Commission. It held that Halscott Megaro failed to plausibly plead claims for which relief could be granted. Halscott Megaro appealed, arguing the district court improperly considered matters outside the pleadings and failed to accept its allegations and all reasonable inferences from them as true in concluding that the Commission’s decision as to its lead partner bound the law firm. The Fourth Circuit affirmed and held that the district court committed no reversible error in granting the former clients’ motion to dismiss or in denying the law firm’s motion for recusal. The court wrote that it agreed with the district court’s conclusion that the Commission was acting in a judicial capacity when it entered its discipline order against Megaro. The court also agreed that Megaro received a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issues and due process protections. Further, the court held that the firm’s allegations of impartiality were not related to any particular facts, sources or statements. A presiding judge is not required to recuse himself simply because of unsupported or highly tenuous speculation. View "Halscott Megaro, P.A. v. Henry McCollum" on Justia Law
Martin Conway v. Smith Development, Inc.
Attorney and his law firm, Pesner Kawamato Conway, P.C. (collectively, Conway), appealed the district court’s order rejecting the bankruptcy court’s report and recommendation to enjoin Smith Development, Inc.’s legal malpractice suit against Conway and to impose sanctions for violating the Barton doctrine and the automatic stay. The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal, finding that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the district court’s decision rests on the abstention principles. The court explained that Conway suggests the district court had no authority to enter an abstention order because, under Barton, the district court itself lacked jurisdiction over Smith Development’s malpractice claims. However, the court wrote that this argument fares no better than the first. Barton concerns subject-matter jurisdiction over a separate action, not jurisdiction over the proceedings in which a party seeks Barton protection in the first place. And even if the court accepted the argument’s doubtful premise, it fails on its own logic because the bankruptcy court issued a report and recommendation to the district court, thereby authorizing the district court to rule on the matter. Further, the court found that even if it recognized a narrow exception to Section 1334(d)’s clear jurisdictional bar, the district court’s order would not fall within it. View "Martin Conway v. Smith Development, Inc." on Justia Law
U. S. Trustee v. Darren Delafield
A bankruptcy court imposed sanctions against Defendant. The sanctions arose from an adversary proceeding in the bankruptcy court brought by the United States Trustee against Defendant, UpRight Law LLC, Sperro LLC and other defendants. UpRight is a Chicago-based bankruptcy legal services company that operates through a nationwide network of “local partners.” After Defendant signed a partnership agreement with UpRight, he filed more than 30 bankruptcy cases as a partner. The bankruptcy court also found that Delafield violated Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 5.1 and 5.3. After the district court affirmed sanctions, Defendant appealed, asserting the sanctions order violated his due process rights. The court explained that to be sure, a lawyer facing suspension or disbarment is entitled to notice of the charges for which such discipline is sought and an opportunity to be heard on those issues. The court explained that the complaint did not cite to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct that Defendant was ultimately found to have violated. Identifying such rules is certainly preferred in an action seeking suspension or disbarment. But this omission did not violate Defendant’s due process rights. The complaint adequately notified Defendant of the conduct for which he was being accused and the sanctions that were being sought. View "U. S. Trustee v. Darren Delafield" on Justia Law
William Garey v. James S. Farrin, P.C.
Plaintiffs, a group of drivers, sued Defendants, a group of personal injury lawyers, after Defendants sought and obtained car accident reports from North Carolina law enforcement agencies and private data brokers and then sent Plaintiffs unsolicited attorney advertising material. Plaintiffs' claims were brought under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”).The district court held that, although Plaintiffs have standing to bring their claims, the claim failed on the merits.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Plaintiffs have a legally recognizable privacy interest in the accident reports. However, Defendant's conduct in obtaining the records did not constitute a violation of DPPA. Defendants obtained Plaintiffs’ personal information from the accident reports; however, Plaintiffs failed to preserve the argument that those accident reports are“motor vehicle records under DPPA. View "William Garey v. James S. Farrin, P.C." on Justia Law
Cantu-Guerrero v. Lumber Liquidators, Inc.
Objectors challenge, for the second time, the district court's award of attorney's fees in association with a class-action settlement. The underlying 2018 settlement resolved two multidistrict litigation (MDL) proceedings related to Lumber Liquidators's sale of defective laminate flooring products. Objectors now contest the district court's application of the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) and its use of the lodestar method in calculating the attorney's fees.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the attorney's fee order, concluding that it is satisfied that the district court correctly applied the relevant CAFA settlement provisions and did not abuse its discretion in approving the attorney's fee award as reasonable. The court agree with the prevailing interpretation of CAFA and thus approved the district court's determination that 28 U.S.C. 1712(b) allowed it to apply the lodestar method in this litigation. Especially in consideration of the district court's intimate familiarity with the litigation that proceeded before it and its unique advantage in determining the fee award is reasonable, the court approved of the district court's lodestar analysis and its assessment of the "success obtained" by class counsel. The court discerned no error in the district court's application of the CAFA "coupon" settlement provision and was satisfied that the attorney's fees order does not reflect an abuse of discretion. Finally, the court upheld the district court's award of fees in the amount of $10.08 million. View "Cantu-Guerrero v. Lumber Liquidators, Inc." on Justia Law
Coley v. DIRECTV, Inc.
Coley fraudulently procured satellite television programming from DIRECTV, then sold and distributed that programming to unwitting customers. On a cross-complaint against Coley under the Federal Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. 605(a), the district court found that Coley was liable for 2,393 violations, and awarded DIRECTV a $2,393,000 judgment plus $236,000 in attorneys’ fees. Coley attempted to thwart DIRECTV’s recovery, failing to participate in post-judgment discovery, engaging in extensive dilatory litigation to prevent recovery against his shell companies, failing to comply with court orders, and other fraudulent acts.The district court amended the damages award to specify that it could be enforced against Coley and the related companies the court found were Coley’s alter egos, with joint and several liability, and later appointed a receiver to aid in the execution of the judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. DIRECTV then sought attorneys’ fees related to the appeal and all post-judgment enforcement proceedings. Coley filed a suggestion of bankruptcy that resulted in an automatic stay of court proceedings. DIRECTV obtained relief from the automatic stay and renewed its motion for $57,295 in fees and $1,403.03 in costs not covered by prior order. The Fourth Circuit granted the motion. Attorneys’ fees and costs incurred while pursuing post-judgment collection and enforcement litigation, including appeals, qualify for compensation under the mandatory fee-shifting provision of the Act. View "Coley v. DIRECTV, Inc." on Justia Law
Ge v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Services
Ge, then a citizen of China, entered the U.S. on a student visa. After pursuing his education for four years, he enlisted in the Army through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which allows foreign nationals to enlist in the armed forces and thereafter apply for naturalization under 8 U.S.C. 1440(a). Ge filed his application in May 2016. After completing interviews and tests administered by USCIS, he received notice in July 2017, that his naturalization oath ceremony had been scheduled for later that month. Days later, he was informed that the ceremony had been canceled. USCIS had a new policy, requiring that enhanced Department of Defense background checks for all MAVNI applicants before their naturalization applications could be granted.Ge filed suit in December 2018, under 8 U.S.C. 1447(b). The district court directed USCIS to adjudicate Ge’s naturalization application within 45 days. Shortly after the court’s remand order, Ge reported that he had been sworn in as a citizen. The court dismissed Ge’s action. Ge then sought attorneys fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412, alleging that he was the “prevailing party” and that USCIS’s position was not “justified in law and fact at all stages.” The district court denied his motion, ruling that Ge did not qualify as a prevailing party because its remand was not a judgment on the merits or consent decree that created a “material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties.” The Fourth Circuit affirmed. After the remand order, Ge was still the applicant; USCIS was still the agency that could grant or deny the application. The legal relationship had not changed. View "Ge v. United States Citizenship & Immigration Services" on Justia Law
United States v. Glover
Before pleading guilty, Glover attempted to hire an attorney. The attorney sent thousands of dollars sent by Glover's family to the DEA, believing the funds were drug proceeds. The government seized the funds under 21 U.S.C. 881(a)(6). Glover began filing pro se motions concerning the seized funds. Glover and his second appointed counsel (Ehlies) requested a “Farmer” hearing on the subject of the seized funds. The government acknowledged that a hearing pursuant to Farmer "might be necessary.” Instead of setting such a hearing, the court focused on Glover’s frequent pro se motions and whether Glover wanted to continue to be represented by counsel. The court stated that it would not appoint new counsel and indicated that it would not address the “Farmer” issue unless Glover chose to represent himself.Glover pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a drug containing cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana; and conspiracy to conduct financial transactions involving proceeds of unlawful activity. Before sentencing, Glover filed a pro se motion requesting to withdraw his plea, making numerous allegations of misconduct by Ehlies. The court declined to appoint new counsel, determining that Glover could either proceed pro se (he again declined) or be represented by Ehlies, and denied the motion.The Fourth Circuit vacated. Precedent precluded Glover’s argument that the government wrongly seized untainted assets needed to hire the counsel of his choice but Glover’s attorney had a conflict of interest at his plea withdrawal hearing and substitute counsel should have represented him there. View "United States v. Glover" on Justia Law