Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Attorney Conn represented Plaintiffs and thousands of other claimants in seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Conn bribed doctors to certify false applications and bribed an ALJ to approve those applications. After Conn’s scheme was uncovered, the SSA identified over 1,700 applications for redetermination of eligibility. Years of litigation ensued. Both Plaintiffs sought attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(A). Both courts awarded fees less than the amounts requested.The Sixth Circuit vacated the awards. Courts can award attorney’s fees for work performed during “all phases of successful civil litigation addressed by” the EAJA; one district court erred by holding that the EAJA does not authorize fees for work performed after the judgment becomes final. Both district courts abused their discretions by awarding below-market hourly rates. Plaintiffs’ unrefuted evidence established a market range of $205-500 but the courts concluded that the relative simplicity of the actions justified rates of only $125 and $150, although there is no evidence that any lawyer in the relevant communities would accept these rates for any kind of service. The complexity of the action is relevant to determine where the particular attorney’s representation lies along the spectrum of the market for legal services. It cannot be invoked to justify a rate below the established spectrum. View "Doucette v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Michigan attorneys, like those in most other states, must join an integrated bar association in order to practice law. Taylor, a Michigan attorney, argued that requiring her to join the State Bar of Michigan violates her freedom of association and that the State Bar’s use of part of her mandatory membership dues for advocacy activities violates her freedom of speech. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of Taylor’s First Amendment claims as foreclosed by two Supreme Court decisions that have not been overruled: Lathrop v. Donohue (1961) Keller v. State Bar of California (1990). The court rejected Taylor's argument that Lathrop and Keller no longer control because of the 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees where the Court held that First Amendment challenges to similar union laws are to be analyzed under at least the heightened “exacting scrutiny” standard Even where intervening Supreme Court decisions have undermined the reasoning of an earlier decision, courts must continue to follow the earlier case if it “directly controls” until the Court has overruled it. View "Taylor v. Buchanan" on Justia Law

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The Orlans law firm, sent a letter on law-firm letterhead, stating that Wells Fargo had referred the Garland loan to Orlans for foreclosure but that “[w]hile the foreclosure process ha[d] begun,” “foreclosure prevention alternatives” might still be available if Garland contacted Wells Fargo. The letter explained how to contact Wells Fargo “to attempt to be reviewed for possible alternatives,” the signature was typed and said, “Orlans PC.”Garland says that the letter confused him because he was unsure if it was from an attorney and “raised [his] anxiety” by suggesting “that an attorney may have conducted an independent investigation and substantive legal review ... such that his prospects for avoiding foreclosure were diminished.” Garland alleges that Orlans sent a form of this letter to thousands of homeowners, without a meaningful review of the homeowners’ foreclosure files, so the communications deceptively implied they were from an attorney. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits misleading debt-collection communications that falsely imply they are from an attorney.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the purported class action for lack of jurisdiction. Garland lacks standing. That a statute purports to create a cause of action does not alone create standing. A plaintiff asserting a procedural claim must have suffered a concrete injury; bare allegations of confusion and anxiety do not qualify. Whether from an attorney or not, the letter said nothing implying Garland’s chance of avoiding foreclosure was “diminished.” View "Garland v. Orlans, PC" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Manso-Zamora was convicted of conspiring to commit Hobbs Act robbery, three Hobbs Act robberies, and three counts of possessing and brandishing or discharging a firearm in furtherance of those robberies, and was sentenced to 776 months' imprisonment. In 2020, Manso-Zamora sought release under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1), asserting that he was at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. He was hospitalized for several weeks in 2019 for bone marrow aplastic anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, and low white blood cells and platelets. He noted his rehabilitation efforts and that, had he been sentenced under the 2018 First Step Act, he would not have been subject to mandatory consecutive 300-month sentences for his firearm convictions. The district court denied the motion. The Sixth Circuit allowed appointed counsel to withdraw and directed the clerk to appoint new counsel, then declined to consider Manso-Zamora’s pro se motions to voluntarily dismiss his appeal and to appoint a medical expert. Prisoners have no constitutional right to counsel in collateral post-conviction proceedings or in section 3582(c) proceedings. The "Anders" procedures are not required in section 3582(c) proceedings. Counsel is entitled to withdraw to honor his ethical obligation not to pursue a claim that he honestly believes to be frivolous. Given that Manso-Zamora and his attorney “disagree” about his medical conditions, it would be “unreasonable” to compel that attorney to continue providing services. View "United States v. Manso-Zamora" on Justia Law

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Braden and Strong used the Tennessee state courts to resolve the dissolution of their business partnership. During that process, Strong believed she was the victim of legal malpractice. She hired the Parrish Law Firm to represent her in a lawsuit against her original attorney. Strong’s malpractice case was later dismissed when the Parrish Firm did not comply with discovery deadlines. Strong assigned some of her rights in the partnership dissolution action to the Parrish Firm for costs and expenses in the malpractice action. When the Parrish Firm sued to recover $116,316 under the assignment, Strong filed counterclaims, which were resolved in state court. A jury awarded Strong $2,293,878.70. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed. The Firm filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment, alleging that the Tennessee Court of Appeals judges made false statements in a judicial opinion violating its rights to a “fair trial” under the Due Process Clause and “to access justice” under the Equal Protection Clause. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit and directed the Firm and its counsel to show cause why sanctions should not be assessed. The suit is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; the complaint essentially sought another round of state appellate review. The complaint failed to present a justiciable case or controversy. Federal courts “are not in the business of pronouncing that past actions which have no demonstrable continuing effect were right or wrong.” View "Larry E. Parrish, P.C. v. Bennett" on Justia Law

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The Laniers were charged with a scheme to fraudulently obtain government contracts. During deliberations, a juror contacted assistant district attorney Nelson—a social acquaintance, not involved with the Laniers's case. Nelson informed the district judge that Juror 11 called her and said that there was a “problem” with the deliberations. No juror alerted court personnel to any problems. Convicted, the Laniers unsuccessfully requested to interview the jurors and moved for a mistrial. No one interviewed the jurors nor questioned Nelson in open court. The Sixth Circuit remanded for a Remmer hearing in 2017.On remand, the district court summoned the jurors and Nelson, ordering them not to discuss or research the case. Juror 11 nonetheless texted Nelson, suggesting that the juror had researched the case online. Nelson reported the texts to the district judge, who failed to notify the Laniers but ordered Juror 11 to preserve her texts and web-browsing history. Weeks later, the court ordered Juror 11 to turn over her phone and laptop and asked his IT staffer and law clerk to examine the devices. They discovered that the web-browsing data had been deleted. The Laniers unsuccessfully sought a full forensic exam. After Sixth Circuit intervention, the court allowed the Laniers’ expert to forensically examine the devices. Juror 11 revealed that she had discarded her phone months earlier; any potentially deleted texts and web-browsing data are unrecoverable.The district court denied the Laniers’ motions for a new trial. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Laniers were deprived of a “meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate juror bias and are entitled to a new trial to be held before another district judge. View "United States v. Lanier" on Justia Law

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For many years, attorney Conn obtained social security benefits for his clients by submitting fraudulent reports and bribing an Administrative Law Judge. After the government discovered this fraud, the SSA decided to redetermine whether each of Conn’s 1,500 claimants was actually eligible for disability benefits. The SSA held hearings and allowed the claimants to submit evidence but categorically excluded medical reports created by the doctors with whom Conn had conspired because it had “reason to believe” fraud was involved in the creation of the reports (42 U.S.C. 1383(e)(7)(A)(ii))). The claimants were not permitted to challenge that finding. After the denials of their claims, 57 plaintiffs filed suit.The Sixth Circuit held that the exclusion of the reports violated the Due Process Clause and the APA. On remand, the district courts concluded that remand to the SSA was proper because “the Commissioner erred in some respect in reaching the decision to deny benefits.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed the subsequent denial of the plaintiffs’ motions for attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The government’s position in the litigation was “substantially justified,” in light of the precedent cited by the government, the rationale for the decision, and the fact that district courts across the country have split on this issue. The case involved numerous issues of first impression. Despite the fact that the government’s arguments were rejected, a reasonable person could have believed them to be correct. View "Wireman v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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In 2008, the Blasingames met with attorneys Fullen and Grusin to discuss their financial situation and signed engagement agreements. The Blasingames filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition with Fullen as the attorney of record. Fullen constructed the bankruptcy schedules, obtaining the Blasingames’ financial information from Grusin. The Blasingames claimed less than $6,000 in assets. The bankruptcy court later found the Blasingames failed to disclose millions of dollars in assets that they controlled through a complex web of family trusts, shell companies, and shifting “clearing accounts.”In 2011, the bankruptcy court granted the Trustee summary judgment, denying the Blasingames’ discharge and disqualified the attorneys from further representation of the Blasingames. Although the Blasingames’ new counsel was able to obtain relief from the summary judgment order, their discharge was again denied in 2015. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) affirmed.A major creditor, CJV1, obtained derivative standing from the bankruptcy court to file a malpractice claim against the filing attorneys on behalf of the estate. CJV, in the bankruptcy court, and the Blasingames, in Tennessee state court, filed malpractice complaints. The bankruptcy court refused to approve the Blasingames’ settlement with the attorneys; the BAP and Sixth Circuit dismissed the Blasingame’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction. CJV asserted that the malpractice claims are property of the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court, the BAP, and the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the Blasingames. Under Tennessee law, the legal malpractice claims accrued arose post-petition. View "Church Joint Venture, L.P. v. Blasingame" on Justia Law

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Rembert, a nurse, routinely worked more than 40 hours per week for A Plus but did not receive overtime. Rembert filed a purported class action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Department of Labor investigated. The court certified a class and ordered A-Plus to provide a list of persons potentially fitting within the class. The deadline passed. A magistrate scheduled a phone conference; defense counsel failed to appear. A Plus provided responsive information about five weeks after the deadline. The parties began discovery, which was notable for defense counsel’s repeated failure to comply. Rembert’s counsel finally filed a motion to compel. The magistrate granted the motion and ordered A Plus to pay “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.” Defense counsel failed to respond. Rembert filed another motion. As a result of the DOL investigation, some class members received full payment of the amounts owed to them. The parties ultimately agreed to the entry of judgment in favor of Rembert and the remaining class members, $18,961.Rembert moved for an award of fees and costs under the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. 216(b). Her lawyers requested hourly rates of $350 and $300, respectively, and submitted detailed records for 21.2 hours of work for the motion to compel and 98.7 hours on the remainder of the case. The court approved the rates but reduced counsel’s total compensable hours to 46.2 and cut the fee award an additional $1,660. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The plaintiffs obtained 100% of the recovery due to them. The court did not explain which hours it rejected and apparently did not consider the impact of delays caused by defense counsel. The court remanded with instructions to grant the petition for fees and costs in the amount of $38,765.00. View "Rembert v. A Plus Home Health Care Agency, LLC" on Justia Law

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Alemarah sued her former employer, GM, in both state and federal court, claiming employment discrimination based upon identical factual allegations. The state suit asserted state claims, the federal suit, federal claims. The state court dismissed that case after a case evaluation ($400,000); the federal district court granted GM summary judgment. Alemarah challenged the court’s grant of summary judgment, its denial of her motion to recuse the judge, and an award ($4,715) of costs.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court properly granted summary judgment. Under Michigan law, the state court’s order dismissing her claims after acceptance of the case evaluation was a judgment on the merits, Alemarah and GM were parties in both case, and the matter in the second case could have been resolved in the first, so res judicata bars every claim arising from the same transaction that the parties, exercising reasonable diligence, could have raised. The court acknowledged that a reasonable observer could conclude that the district judge’s statement in a letter to Alemarah’s counsel expressed anger and another of the judge’s actions could be seen as punitive but those actions were not “so extreme as to display clear inability to render fair judgment.” GM submitted as costs the amount it paid for deposition transcripts that it attached to its summary judgment motion; the costs were allowable. View "Alemarah v. General Motors, LLC" on Justia Law