Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Robbins defaulted on a debt to a hospital for services provided to her children. After MED-1, hired to collect the debt, filed a small-claims action, Robbins paid the $1,499 debt but refused to pay $375 attorney’s fees as required by the agreement she signed with the hospital. MED-1 then incurred more attorney’s fees (fees-on-fees) attempting to recover the initial attorney’s fees. The Indiana small-claims court ordered Robbins to pay both the initial attorney’s fees and the fees-on-fees. Robbins’s appeal initiated a de novo proceeding, so MED-1 filed a new complaint.Robbins filed a federal suit against MED-1 under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692–1692p. A magistrate stayed the case pending the outcome of the state case, which was eventually dismissed for failure to prosecute. In federal court, Robbins raised res judicata, arguing that the state court’s dismissal precluded MED-1 from claiming that the contract required her to pay attorney’s fees and fees-on-fees. Alternatively, she advanced an argument that she was not required to pay fees-on-fees and that MED-1 violated the Act by trying to collect sums she did not owe. The Seventh Circuit affirmed judgment for MED-1. The Indiana court’s dismissal does not have preclusive effect. Because Robbins’s contract with the hospital required her to pay all collection costs, including attorney’s fees, MED-1 did not violate the FDCPA by attempting to collect fees-on-fees. View "Robbins v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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Vega, a Hispanic woman, sued the Park District based on its investigation and termination of her employment for allegedly falsifying her timesheets, citing national origin discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and Title VII. A jury returned a verdict for Vega on the discrimination claims, but not the retaliation claims, and awarded $750,000. The judge reduced the award to Title VII’s statutory maximum of $300,000, ordered the District to reinstate Vega, pay backpay, provide her with the cash value of lost benefits, and pay prejudgment interest and a tax component. The Seventh Circuit affirmed except for the tax-component award,Vega submitted a fee petition totaling $1,073,901.25, with a 200-page document listing details. Vega’s counsel submitted evidence to support her current hourly rate of $425 for general tasks and $450 for in-court work. The district court granted Vega’s petition in the amount of $1,006,592, noting the District’s “scorched-earth litigation approach.” Vega filed a second fee petition totaling $254,635.69 for work following the first petition. The district court awarded $218,221.69 and granted Vega a tax-component award of $49,224.30. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that the award was “rather high for the type of litigation and monetary and equitable relief that Vega achieved,” but that the district court’s analysis and reasoning demonstrate an appropriate exercise of its discretion. View "Vega v. Chicago Park District" on Justia Law

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency for financial matters under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, 12 U.S.C. 5511(a)–(b), lacks “supervisory or enforcement authority with respect to an activity engaged in by an attorney as part of the practice of law under the laws of a State in which the attorney is licensed.”The Bureau sued two companies and four associated lawyers that provided mortgage-assistance relief services to customers across 39 states. The firms had four attorneys at their Chicago headquarters and associated with local attorneys in the states in which they conducted business. The bulk of the firms’ work was performed by 30-40 non-attorneys (client intake specialists), who enrolled customers, gathered and reviewed necessary documents, answered consumer questions, and submitted loan-modification applications. The "specialists" and attorneys worked off scripts. The firms charged each customer a retainer, followed by recurring monthly fees. On average, the firms collected $3,375 per client. Customers paid separately for additional work, such as representation in foreclosure or bankruptcy, An attorney at headquarters reviewed each loan modification file and forwarded it to an attorney in the customer’s home state. The local attorneys were paid $25-40 for each task. Most reviews took five-10 minutes. Local attorneys almost never communicated directly with customers. One firm obtained loan modifications for 1,369 out of 5,265 customers; the other obtained loan modifications for 190 out of 1,116. The companies ceased operations in 2013.The district court partially invalidated sections of the attorney exemption and granted summary judgment against the defendants for charging unlawful advance fees, failing to make required disclosures, implying in their welcome letter to customers that the customer should not communicate with lenders, implying that consumers current on mortgages should stop making payments, and misrepresenting the performance of nonprofit alternative services. The tasks completed by the firms’ attorneys did not amount to the “practice of law.” The court ordered restitution and enjoined certain defendants from providing “debt relief services.” The Seventh Circuit agreed that the firms and lawyers were not engaged in the practice of law; further proceedings are necessary concerning remedies. View "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Consumer First Legal Group, LLC" on Justia Law

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In his employment discrimination action, Nichols obtained a judgment of $1.5 million in damages (later reduced to the statutory cap of $300,000) and $952,156 in equitable relief. His attorney, Longo petitioned for $1,709,345 in attorneys’ fees and $4,460.47 in costs under Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5(k). He submitted that his hourly rate was $550 and that he had worked 3,107.9 hours on Nichols’s case; he requested a 15% upward adjustment, arguing that Nichols’s case was “risky”; the successful outcome; and the deterrent impact of a large award.The Seventh Circuit affirmed an award of $774,584.50 in fees and $4,061.02 in costs. Relying on other then-recent fee awards for Longo, the court set the reasonable hourly rate at $360 for attorney work and $125 for paralegal work. The court reduced Longo’s request by 962.1 hours, including 109.2 hours that Longo had billed for trips from his office to the courthouse; 18.5 hours for paralegal work billed at an attorney’s rate; a 10% reduction (298.0 hours) for excessive billing for clerical work; and another 20% reduction (536.4 hours) for general excessive billing. The court permitted Longo 2,145.8 hours at an attorney’s rate and 18.5 hours at a paralegal’s rate and denied Longo fees for litigating the fee petition, noting Longo’s lack of billing judgment and overly voluminous petition. View "Nichols v. Illinois Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Linda and her husband Milton set up an estate plan with the help of attorney Roth. Milton created a trust and designated himself as sole trustee. Upon his death, Linda and his accountant, Sanders, would become cotrustees. Milton’s assets included a $1.5 million Vanguard account. Milton later changed the Vanguard account and other accounts to transfer on death directly to Linda as the sole primary beneficiary. Milton died in 2016. Linda believed that Roth was still her attorney. Roth and Sanders convinced Linda to waive her rights as co-trustee and to disclaim her interest in the Vanguard account; they suggested that she had acquired these interests through wrongdoing. Roth then transferred the disclaimed Vanguard account directly to Milton’s son, David, instead of to the trust. David sued Linda and obtained an Indiana state court judgment that she exerted undue influence on Milton and that the trust was the proper owner of certain assets Milton had transferred to Linda.Linda sued in federal court, asserting fraud, conspiracy, and malpractice against Roth and Sanders, claiming the two “duped” her into disclaiming certain assets and that Roth committed malpractice by transferring the account to David rather than the trust. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit; issue preclusion based on the Indiana judgment foreclosed Linda’s claims because the Indiana jury’s finding of undue influence showed that Roth and Sanders’s advice to disclaim her illegally-obtained interests was neither negligent nor fraudulent. View "Bergal v. Roth" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff was injured from a slip and fall in a Home Depot parking lot, he filed suit against the store claiming that he sustained substantial injuries and alleging that his injuries required multiple surgeries, as well as physical and occupational therapy.The Seventh Circuit concluded that plaintiff's appeal is limited to the district court's denial of his second post-judgment motion filed under Rule 60(b). The court noted that, as a practical matter, that conclusion changes very little because plaintiff's appeal is all and only about whether the district court abused its discretion in dismissing his case for lack of prosecution. The court explained that the district court's denial of the Rule 60(b) motion effectively amounted to reinforcing and standing by its original dismissal decision. In this case, the court concluded that the district court acted well within its discretion dismissing plaintiff's suit where plaintiff's counsel missed many conferences. Because plaintiff chose counsel as his agent, he bears the consequences of counsel's actions. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's refusal to reopen the case. View "Krivak v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc." on Justia Law

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Triplett pleaded guilty to three charges of human trafficking, pimping and pandering, and possession of a firearm by a felon, in exchange for the dismissal of 17 charges (including attempted first-degree homicide and kidnapping), which were to be “read-in” at sentencing (essentially allowing the judge to consider them as relevant conduct), Triplett’s total sentencing exposure was reduced from 354 years to a maximum of 47.5 years. The judge confirmed with defense counsel that the dismissed charges would be read-in. Defense counsel noted that Triplett did not admit the truth of the charges. In signing his plea agreement, Triplett acknowledged that “although the judge may consider read-in charges when imposing sentence, the maximum penalty will not be increased.” The judge ordered Triplett to serve 11 years in prison followed by nine years of supervision.Triplett unsuccessfully moved to withdraw his plea. Without conducting a hearing, the court determined that even if Triplett was given incorrect advice about the read-charges, Triplett was not prejudiced. The plea questionnaire and waiver of rights warned Triplett that the court could consider those charges. The court also represented that it had not considered the read-in charges at sentencing. Wisconsin's Court of Appeals and Supreme Court upheld the decision. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. The Wisconsin court’s rejection of Triplett's ineffectiveness claim rests on an adequate, independent state ground--Triplett’s failure to allege objective facts in support of his claim of prejudice. View "Triplett v. McDermott" on Justia Law

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Thill was convicted of sexual contact with A.M.M., his ex‐girlfriend’s eight‐year‐old daughter. A.M.M. testified that Thill had sexually assaulted her; Thill’s semen was found on her underwear. Thill’s defense was that his jilted ex‐girlfriend framed him by saving his semen for over a year, planting it on her daughter’s underwear, and coaching her to make false accusations. While cross‐examining Thill and in closing arguments, the prosecutor referenced Thill’s failure to tell the police during his initial interview that he believed his ex‐girlfriend had the means or motivation to frame him. In postconviction proceedings, Thill argued that the prosecutor impermissibly used his silence after receiving Miranda warnings to impeach him and that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded Thill had not demonstrated prejudice.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that conclusion not contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The state court correctly paraphrased Strickland’s prejudice standard and nothing in its analysis suggested it used a standard “‘substantially different’ from or ‘opposite to’” that standard. The state presented significant direct evidence of a specific sexual assault. Thill’s defense had significant holes that extended far beyond his failure to raise this defense to the police; it was “weak and unpersuasive” and largely rested on Thill’s “self‐serving testimony.” View "Thill v. Richardson" on Justia Law

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Rexing sought a ruling that Rexing was excused from its obligations to purchase eggs under its contract with Rembrandt. Rembrandt filed a counterclaim seeking damages for Rexing’s repudiation of the contract, attorneys’ fees, and interest. Following discovery, the district court granted Rembrandt summary judgment on liability but concluded that there were genuine issues of triable fact as to damages. A jury awarded Rembrandt $1,268,481 for losses on eggs it had resold and another $193,752 for losses on eggs that it was not able to resell. The court determined that the interest term in the parties’ agreement was usurious, so that Rembrandt was not entitled to contractual interest or attorneys’ fees.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the damages award. The district court properly concluded that the resale remedy under Iowa’s version of the Uniform Commercial Code, Iowa Code 554.2706, was the appropriate mechanism for calculating Rembrandt’s damages and Rexing waived its arguments challenging the award by not presenting them to the district court in a post-verdict motion. Reversing in part, the court held that the parties’ agreement fell within the “Business Credit Exception” to Iowa’s usury statute, Iowa Code 535.5(2)(a)(5), and remanded the denial of Rembrandt’s request for interest and fees. View "Rexing Quality Eggs v. Rembrandt Enterprises, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, a start‐up company and its founder (Marlowe), sued the company’s former chief legal officer, Fisher, to recover losses from an arbitration award that held them liable for years of unpaid wages owed to Fisher himself. The award comprised unpaid wages and statutory penalties totaling $864,976 and an additional $366,460 because Fisher did not receive written notice of his contract nonrenewal. Plaintiffs alleged that Fisher advised them to enter into what they now say was an illegal agreement to defer Fisher’s compensation until the company was able to secure more funding.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Even if Marlowe was Fisher’s client regarding her own compensation agreement and a decision not to purchase directors and officers insurance, the plaintiffs failed to plead any plausible malpractice claims arising from those matters. Plaintiffs did not allege that they would have opted against using the compensation agreements had Fisher fully advised them. The company violated the Illinois Wage Act by failing to pay Fisher as agreed. The agreement did not aggravate or add to those violations; it made sense as an interim measure to forestall litigation by acknowledging the obligation and committing the company to one way to satisfy it. View "UFT Commercial Finance, LLC v. Fisher" on Justia Law