Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Following a False Claims Act lawsuit against Stericycle, customers were leaving and the price of Stericycle’s common stock dropped. On behalf of the company’s investors, Florida pension funds filed a securities fraud class action against Stericycle, its executives, board members, and the underwriters of its public offering, alleging that the defendants had inflated the stock price by making materially misleading statements about Stericycle’s fraudulent billing practices. The parties agreed to settle for $45 million. Lead counsel moved for a fee award of 25 percent of the settlement, plus costs. Petri, a class member, objected to the fee award, arguing that the amount was unreasonably high given the low risk of the litigation and the early stage at which the case settled. Petri moved to lift the stay the court had entered while the settlement agreement was pending so that he could seek discovery regarding class counsel’s billing methods, the fee allocation among firms, and counsel’s political and financial relationship with a lead plaintiff, a public pension fund.The district court approved the settlement and the proposed attorney fee and denied Petri’s discovery motion. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court did not give sufficient weight to evidence of ex-ante fee agreements, all the work that class counsel inherited from earlier litigation against Stericycle, and the early stage at which the settlement was reached. The court upheld the denial of the objector’s request for discovery into possible pay-to-play arrangements. View "Petri v. Stericycle, Inc." on Justia Law

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Under rules adopted and enforced by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wisconsin lawyers must join and pay dues to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Active membership in the association is “a condition precedent to the right to practice law” in the state. This regulatory regime, often called an “integrated, mandatory[,] or unified bar,” authorizes the State Bar to use membership dues to aid the courts in the administration of justice, conduct a program of continuing legal education, and maintain “high ideals of integrity, learning, competence… public service[,] and high standards of conduct” in the bar of the state.Attorney File contends that requiring him to join and subsidize the State Bar violates his First Amendment free speech and associational rights. Recognizing that Supreme Court precedent forecloses this claim (Keller v. State Bar of Cal. (1990)), File argued that the Court’s more recent cases—particularly “Janus” (2018)--implicitly overruled Keller. The district court rejected this argument. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Keller “may be difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s more recent First Amendment caselaw, but on multiple occasions and in no uncertain terms, the Court has instructed lower courts to resist invitations to find its decisions overruled by implication.” View "File v. Kastner" on Justia Law

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Camacho-Valdez, through attorney Thomann, petitioned for review of the denial of his applications for asylum, withholding of removal, and relief under the CAT. Thomann filed an emergency motion for a stay of removal, stating in general terms that the petition was likely to succeed because the agency overlooked Camacho-Valdez’s claim that he feared persecution based on family membership and erroneously concluded that he could reasonably relocate within Guatemala. The motion also generally mentioned ineffective assistance of counsel. Thomann did not pay the docketing fee or move to proceed in forma pauperis.The Seventh Circuit entered a temporary stay. The government responded that Camacho-Valdez never previously argued that his family membership put him in danger and the stay motion failed to identify any particular flaw in the conclusion that he could safely relocate. Thomann missed the deadline for filing a court-ordered supplement to the motion, then missed an extended deadline despite a reminder. The Seventh Circuit denied the stay motion and ordered Thomann to show cause why he should not be disciplined. He responded a day late that notifications on his smartphone were not working. The court dismissed the petition, finding that excuse unacceptable and noting that the docketing fee remained unpaid. The court imposed a sanction of $1,000, and, noting his history of noncompliance, ordered Thomann to show cause why he should not be suspended or removed from the Seventh Circuit bar. View "Camacho-Valdez v. Garland" on Justia Law

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Bell, Hernandez, and Rayas, fraudulently promised victims that they could save their homes from foreclosure or lower their mortgage payments. They targeted monolingual Spanish‐speakers. They charged a $5,000-$10,000 "membership fee" and spent the fees on personal expenses. Their fraudulent entity never prevented a foreclosure. More than 60 homeowners joined, losing almost $260,000.Bell, Hernandez, and Rayas were charged with mail fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1341. Although Bell consistently refused legal representation, the district court assigned an experienced stand-by attorney. On the eve of trial, Bell moved to retain Joyce, who was newly admitted to the Illinois bar, had never tried a case, and had met Bell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center days earlier, at the behest of Eliades, co‐defendant Rayas’s counsel. Later, Eliades and Joyce denied that Eliades asked Joyce to visit Bell. Conflict attorneys from the Federal Public Defender’s Office discussed the situation with Bell and Rayas separately and held a conflict hearing for Hernandez. Rayas and Hernandez chose new attorneys. Bell insisted on Joyce, signing a waiver in which he acknowledged his right to conflict‐free counsel and the potential conflicts associated with Joyce.Convicted, Bell was sentenced to 150 months’ imprisonment and ordered to pay $259,211 in restitution. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Bell’s waiver was knowing and voluntary; he has not demonstrated actual or serious potential for conflict that would have obliged the court to disregard his waiver. View "United States v. Bell" on Justia Law

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Burkhart, the CEO of ASC, a private company that operates Indiana nursing homes and long-term care facilities, orchestrated an extensive conspiracy exploiting the company’s operations and business relationships for personal gain. Most of the funds involved in the scheme came from Medicare and Medicaid. After other defendants pled guilty and Burkhart’s brother agreed to testify against him, Burkhart pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and healthcare fraud (18 U.S.C. 1349); conspiracy to violate the AntiKickback Statute (18 U.S.C. 371); and money laundering (18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)). With a Guidelines range of 121-151 months, Burkhart was sentenced to 114 months’ imprisonment.Burkhart later filed a habeas action, contending that his defense counsel, Barnes & Thornburg provided constitutionally deficient representation because the firm also represented Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, a victim of the fraudulent scheme. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. While the firm labored under an actual conflict of interest, that conflict did not adversely affect Burkhart’s representation. Nothing in the record shows that the firm improperly shaded its advice to induce Burkhart to plead guilty; the advice reflected a reasonable response to the “dire circumstances” facing Burkhart. The evidence of Burkhart’s guilt was overwhelming. View "Burkhart v. United States" on Justia Law

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In May 2007, SunTrust hired Birch to perform a portfolio valuation on a property located in Indiana. The Birch report valued the property at $3.23 million. PNC Bank provided financing for the mortgage loan; both PNC and SunTrust accepted the report. In October 2007, the owner sold the property to a SunTrust affiliate subject to a $2.3 million loan PNC extended to SunTrust. The loan was later acquired by Regent. After consulting with independent appraisal experts, Regent hired a law firm and employed a certified appraiser, Potter, to evaluate the original Birch report. Potter’s report detailed several deficiencies in Birch’s 2007 appraisal.Regent filed a federal complaint, with state law claims, but soon moved to dismiss the complaint. Birch then filed its own lawsuit against Regent for malicious prosecution. Regent counterclaimed for attorney’s fees under the Indiana frivolous litigation statute. The district court dismissed both claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Birch cannot establish the elements of a successful malicious-prosecution claim, but its lawsuit was not frivolous under Indiana law. Regent did not act maliciously in commencing the underlying action; it had probable cause based on advice from outside counsel, a detailed report by a certified appraiser, and justifiable reliance on the report. View "Birch Rea Partners, Inc. v. Regent Bank" on Justia Law

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Farnolo helped his clients file short‐form complaints in the multidistrict “Cook” litigation, involving product liability claims alleging injuries caused by Cook’s medical device—a filter designed to prevent pulmonary embolism. The case management order instructed all plaintiffs to complete a profile form with general personal and medical background information and details about their device and alleged injuries. In May 2019, the defendants notified attorney Farnolo that they did not have forms from his four clients. By late June, the forms still had not been filed. Farnolo never responded to the defendants' motion to dismiss.The district court dismissed the cases on July 19, 2019. Farnolo learned about the dismissal not by monitoring the docket, but from his client more than a year later. On August 18, 2020, he moved for reconsideration and reinstatement of the cases, claiming that he did not receive an electronic docket notification of the motion to dismiss; he attributed his delay in asking for reconsideration to his email inbox sending the dismissal order to his junk folder. The district court denied Farnolo’s motion as both untimely and meritless. The Seventh Circuit affirmed; all Rule 60(b) motions must be made within a “reasonable time” and Rule 60(c)(1) specifically requires requests for reconsideration predicated on excusable neglect to be brought within one year of entry of judgment. Inexcusable attorney negligence is not an exceptional circumstance justifying relief. View "Sides v. Cook Medical Inc." on Justia Law

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Okada, “a titan of the gambling industry,” hired Bartlit to represent him in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Wynn Resorts. The litigation settled in Okada’s favor for $2.6 billion. Okada refused to pay the $50 million contingent fee specified in the parties’ engagement agreement, which included an arbitration clause. Bartlit initiated arbitration before CPR in Chicago, the agreed-upon forum. Okada participated in the arbitration for over a year.Less than 72 hours before the evidentiary hearing, Okada informed the arbitrators that he would not be attending. The Panel stated that it would proceed without him and that his nonattendance could subject him to default. Okada replied that he rejected the validity of the engagement agreement and was unable to make the journey from Japan to Chicago for undisclosed medical reasons. Okada announced that he would not authorize his attorneys to participate in the arbitration, and canceled all witnesses, reservations, and services. The Panel held him to be in default and found that Okada owed the firm $54.6 million, including a $963,032 sanction for the costs and fees of the proceeding.Okada moved to vacate the award, arguing that he had been deprived of a fundamentally fair proceeding when the Panel decided the case without his participation or his evidence. The district court and Seventh Circuit rejected his argument. The Panel had several reasonable bases for proceeding without him and there was nothing unfair about the proceeding. View "Bartlit Beck, LLP v. Okada" on Justia Law

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The Seventh Circuit upheld the bankruptcy court's ruling that the costs of plaintiff's attorney disciplinary proceedings imposed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court were not dischargeable under a provision of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(7). The court explained that, although there are several types of proceedings in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court may order costs, see Wis. S.C.R. 22.24(1), attorney discipline uniquely requires a "finding of misconduct" as a precondition for doing so. The court stated that the structure of Rule 22.24(1m) unambiguously singles out attorney discipline as a penal endeavor, and that conclusion has a statutory consequence under section 523(a)(7). Furthermore, the cost order amounts to compensation for actual pecuniary loss under section 523(a)(7). Finally, the court's conclusion that plaintiff's disciplinary costs are nondischaregable under section 523(a)(7) finds firm support in Supreme Court precedent and the court's own case law. View "Osicka v. Office of Lawyer Regulation" on Justia Law

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In 2017, Freydin, a Chicago lawyer, posed a question on Facebook: “Did Trump put Ukraine on the travel ban list?! We just cannot find a cleaning lady!” After receiving online criticism for the comment, Freydin doubled down. People angered by Freydin’s comments went to his law firm’s Facebook, Yelp, and Google pages and left reviews that expressed their negative views of Freydin. Various defendants made comments including: An “embarrassment and a disgrace to the US judicial system,” “unethical and derogatory,” “hypocrite,” “chauvinist,” “racist,” “no right to practice law,” “not professional,” “discriminates [against] other nationalities,” do not “waste your money.,” “Freydin is biased and unprofessional attorney,” “terrible experience,” “awful customer service,” “disrespect[],” and “unprofessional[ism].” None of the defendants had previously used Freydin’s legal services.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Freydin’s suit, which alleged libel per se, “false light,” tortious interference with contractual relationships, tortious interference with prospective business relationships, and civil conspiracy. None of the reviews contained statements that are actionable as libel per se under Illinois law; each was an expression of opinion that could not support a libel claim. Freyding did not link the civil conspiracy claims to an independently viable tort claim. View "Law Offices of David Freyd v. Chamara" on Justia Law