Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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In 1998, Bay and Oxbow entered into a limestone supply contract, agreeing to resolve any disputes according to specified “Dispute Resolution Procedures.” Oxbow began to provide lower quality limestone that posed a danger to Bay’s equipment. Bay agreed to pay—under protest—a price in excess of that permitted by the contract for adequate limestone. Negotiations and mediation failed. Bay filed a demand for arbitration. An arbitration panel unanimously held that Oxbow had breached the contract and awarded nearly $5 million in damages, costs, and interest. The panel did not award attorneys’ fees, concluding that the Dispute Procedures expressly deny it the jurisdiction to do so. The district court confirmed the award, agreeing that the contract did not permit the prevailing party to recover its attorneys’ fees.The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Procedure authorizing the allocation of costs states,“(but excluding attorneys’ fees which shall be borne by each party individually). The provision immediately following that grants the prevailing party a right to attorneys’ fees and another provision refers to attorneys’ fees. Those provisions can either be read together to permit the recovery of attorneys’ fees in court but not before an arbitration panel, or they are hopelessly contradictory and unenforceable. Bay presents a reasonable construction of the terms to harmonize them. View "Bay Shore Power Co. v. Oxbow Energy Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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Some Vita-Mix blenders contained tiny flecks of polytetrafluoroethylene, a substance commonly used in kitchen appliances and used in the blenders' seals. Normal wear-and-tear caused tiny pieces to rub off from the seal into the blender container. Blender owners filed this class action. The parties entered into a settlement for two classes of plaintiffs: a household class and a commercial class. Household class members could request either a $70 gift card or a replacement blade assembly. Commercial class members could request only a replacement blade assembly. The court preliminarily approved this settlement.The court calculated attorneys' fees by multiplying the hours class counsel reasonably worked on the case by a reasonable hourly rate, resulting in an award of about $2.2 million. Based on the purportedly exceptional nature of the litigation, the court enhanced that figure by 75% for a final award of about $4 million, plus post-judgment interest.The Sixth Circuit vacated. The district court correctly used the lodestar method of calculation and correctly interpreted the settlement agreement but erred when it determined the billing rates based on class counsel’s affidavits. A lawyer seeking fees has the burden to show the reasonableness of his billing rate with something in addition to the attorney’s own affidavits” The district court abused its discretion when it used an upward multiplier, without addressing a crucial question: whether this case involves “rare and exceptional circumstances.” The court upheld the award of post-judgment interest. View "Vicki Linneman v. Vita-Mix Corp." on Justia Law

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Van Hoven, a Michigan attorney, defaulted on a credit card debt. The Buckles law firm, collecting the debt, won a state court lawsuit. Van Hoven did not pay. Buckles filed four requests for writs of garnishment. Van Hoven says those requests violated the Michigan Court Rules by including the costs of the request ($15 filing fee) in the amount due and, in later requests, adding the costs of prior failed garnishments. Van Hoven filed a class-action lawsuit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from making false statements in their dunning demands, 15 U.S.C. 1692e. Years later, after “Stalingrad litigation” tactics, discovery sanctions, and professional misconduct allegations, Van Hoven won. The court awarded 168 class members $3,662 in damages. Van Hoven’s attorneys won $186,680 in attorney’s fees.The Sixth Circuit vacated. When Buckles asked for all total costs, including those of any garnishment request to date, it did not make a “false, deceptive, or misleading representation.” It was a reasonable request at the time and likely reflected the best interpretation of the Michigan Rules. The court remanded for determinations of whether Buckles made “bona fide” mistakes of fact in including certain costs of prior failed garnishments and whether its procedure for preventing such mistakes suffices. In some instances, Buckles included the costs of garnishments that failed because the garnishee did not hold any property subject to garnishment or was not the debtor’s employer. View "Van Hoven v. Buckles & Buckles, P.L.C." on Justia Law

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The Gaetanos run a cannabis dispensary. After a failed business transaction, a third party sued the Gaetanos and their attorney, Goodman, and filed a disciplinary complaint against Goodman. An ethics inquiry uncovered multiple violations. Goodman lost his license to practice law. The Gaetanos severed their relationship with him. The IRS later audited the Gaetanos’ tax returns and contacted Goodman for assistance. Goodman threatened the Gaetanos that unless they gave him a “significant down-payment” he would see them “take[n] down”. They did not oblige, Goodman sent menacing emails. The Gaetanos contacted the IRS. Goodman assured the IRS that his information was not privileged but was obtained through on-line searches and a private investigator; he discussed several aspects of the Gaetanos’ business. Goodman then taunted the Gaetanos, who again notified the IRS. The Gaetanos filed suit, seeking to stop the government from discussing privileged information with Goodman and requiring it to destroy attorney-client confidences. The IRS asserted that the court lacked jurisdiction, citing the Anti-Injunction Act, 26 U.S.C. 7421(a). The Sixth Circuit agreed that the Act bars the lawsuit; the “Williams Packing” exception does not apply. The exception requires that the taxpayer show that under no circumstances could the government prevail against their claims and that “equity jurisdiction otherwise exists.” The Gaetanos have not identified any privileged information that Goodman provided to the IRS and have adequate remedies at law. View "Gaetano v. United States" on Justia Law

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Beane, formerly an Air Force electrical engineer, became involved in a conspiracy theory that the government creates for each citizen a "straw man" and that the Federal Reserve holds in trust that citizen’s inherent “unlimited value.” Proponents believe that by filing the correct paperwork, they can use those funds. Beane, deeply in debt, became involved with Tucci-Jarraf, a former attorney who ran a website, contributed to talk shows, and produced faux-legal documents that purported to allow individuals to access their secret accounts. Beane found a Facebook video that purported to teach viewers how to access their accounts; it actually taught them how to commit wire fraud by exploiting a deficiency in the “Automated Clearing House” bank network. With Tucci-Jarraf's support, Beane logged onto his bank’s website, followed those instructions, and made fraudulent payments on his debts and bought $31 million in certificates of deposit with Federal Reserve funds. He started cashing the certificates and spending money. A bank froze his account. Tucci-Jarraf advised Beane to place his new assets in trust; she prepared pseudo-legal documents and made calls. Agents arrested Beane as he was driving off the dealership lot in a new motor home. Officers arrested Tucci-Jarraf in Washington, D.C., where she was requesting a meeting with the President. Beane and Tucci-Jarraf filed multiple frivolous motions and asked to represent themselves. The judge concluded that they had knowingly and intelligently waived their right to counsel but appointed standby counsel. A jury convicted Beane of bank and wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1343, and both of conspiracy to commit money laundering, section 1956(h). The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the court should have forced them to accept counsel. They knowingly and intelligently made their choice; self-lawyering does not require the individual to subscribe to conventional legal strategies or orthodox behavior. View "United States v. Beane" on Justia Law

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Doe sued the University for violating his due-process rights during a disciplinary hearing. The Sixth Circuit remanded Doe’s case in light of a related ruling requiring live hearings and cross-examination in such proceedings. Upon remand, the district judge, frustrated with the University’s apparent foot-dragging, scheduled a settlement conference and required the University’s president to attend. The University requested that the president be allowed to attend by telephone but the district judge refused. The University then requested permission to send someone with both more knowledge about the sexual assault policy at issue and full settlement authority. The judge again refused, stating he wanted the president to be there even if someone else with full settlement authority attended, and “even if the parties [we]re able to resolve" the issue. The University planned for the president to attend. Two days before the settlement conference, the district judge decided that the conference (which he had assured the University would be private) should be a public event, stating that “the University’s public filing of a Motion to Dismiss . . . . The filing incited confusion amongst the media.” The Sixth Circuit issued a writ of mandamus, finding that the district judge acted beyond his power and abused his discretion. Neither Congress nor the Constitution granted the judge the power to order a specific state official to attend a public settlement conference. View "In re: University of Michigan" on Justia Law

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A 2004 Ohio statute regulated the "off-label" prescription of mifepristone (RU-486), which is commonly used in conjunction with misoprostol, to induce first-trimester abortions without surgery. Planned Parenthood challenged the statute under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Sixth Circuit affirmed a preliminary injunction “insofar as it prohibits unconstitutional applications of the [statute].” In 2006, the district court entered a permanent injunction. After the Ohio Supreme Court answered certified questions, the Sixth Circuit remanded for a determination regarding the injunction’s scope. In 2011, the district court clarified that the statute was enjoined only as it applied to instances where the health of the patient was at risk and denied broader relief, leaving one remaining claim. In 2016, the FDA amended its approval and label for mifepristone, authorizing the off-label uses at issue. The statute remains in force, requiring physicians to prescribe medication abortion according to the FDA’s updated approval. Planned Parenthood sought $10,365.35 to cover costs for litigation on the merits and attorneys’ fees at 2016 rates to offset lost interest. Using this rate, the requested fees for the preliminary injunction litigation totaled $372,164.63. The district court granted that request, finding the requested hours and rates reasonable. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that Planned Parenthood does not properly qualify as a “prevailing party” because its relief was narrow and preliminary; that the court erred in refusing to apply a blanket fee reduction based on the degree of success; and that the court erred in applying 2016 rates rather than 2006 rates The court properly engaged in a contextual, case-specific review, considered the aims of section 1988, and adequately explained its rationale. View "Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region v. DeWine" on Justia Law

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Ohio Revised Code 4123.88 addresses how workers' compensation claimant information is handled and protected by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and contains the solicitation ban at issue: “No person shall directly or indirectly solicit authority” (1) to “represent the claimant or employer in respect of” a worker’s compensation “claim or appeal,” or (2) “to take charge of” any such claim or appeal. The district court rejected Bevan's challenge on summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the state has prohibited all solicitation, whether oral or written, by any person to represent a party with respect to an Ohio workers’ compensation claim or appeal and that such a prophylactic ban violates the First Amendment under the Supreme Court’s 1988 "Shapero" decision. The court rejected an argument that the constitutionally questionable language is part of a larger statutory scheme that Bevan allegedly violated by obtaining claimant information from the Bureau in an unlawful manner. Whether Bevan violated other statutory provisions governing disclosure of claimant information is not relevant to whether the solicitation ban itself is constitutional. The solicitation ban makes no distinction as to how the person doing the soliciting learned of the claimant’s information: it bans all solicitation regardless of where or how that information was obtained. The prohibition is repugnant to the First Amendment's free speech clause. View "Bevan & Associates, LPA v. Yost" on Justia Law

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Chase sued to recover millions of dollars under a credit agreement "between Chase and entities owned and operated by [Winget]” and obtained an award of over $425 million. Winget’s personal trust was liable for the full amount. Winget, protected by a limitation in his personal guaranty, owed Chase only $50 million, which he paid. The parties then litigated attorneys’ fees and whether Winget was personally liable for Chase’s $12.6 million in fees and expenses. The Sixth Circuit held that despite Winget’s limited personal guaranty, he “is still liable for Chase’s costs and expenses associated with collection of the Guaranteed Obligation.” The district court then entered a final amended judgment against Winget and his trust. Rather than use the trust’s assets to pay Chase, Winget transferred the assets out of his trust and filed a new lawsuit, seeking a declaration that Chase had no recourse against those assets. Chase filed counterclaims, alleging that the transfers were fraudulent conveyances. The district court consolidated the new lawsuit with the previous litigation, calling it “the functional equivalent of post-judgment proceedings,” and granted one motion, awarding Chase another $2 million for expenses from June 2015 through November 2016. The court noted that “Chase’s efforts to collect the Guaranteed Obligations are ongoing.” The Sixth Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction, reasoning that the order is not a “final decision” under 28 U.S.C. 1291. View "JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Winget" on Justia Law

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The Debtors filed their bankruptcy petition in 2008. Grusin provided them legal advice before the filing and at the beginning of the bankruptcy case. Fullen filed the petition and represented them in the chapter 7 case. In 2011, the bankruptcy court granted the Trustee summary judgment in an adversary proceeding seeking to deny the Debtors’ discharge and disqualified both lawyers from further representation of the Debtors in that case. The Debtors hired new counsel, who obtained relief from the summary judgment order. Following a trial, in 2015, the bankruptcy court again denied the Debtors’ discharge. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed. In 2012, the bankruptcy court granted CJV derivative standing to pursue a malpractice action on behalf of the estate against Grusin and Fullen. Malpractice complaints were filed in the bankruptcy court and in Tennessee state court. In 2014, CJV filed another adversary proceeding, seeking declaratory relief that the malpractice claims constituted property of Debtors’ estate. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed the bankruptcy court in holding that the malpractice action for denial of debtors’ discharges based on errors and omissions contained in a bankruptcy petition, as well as pre and post-petition legal advice, was not property of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate. There was no pre-petition injury; the Debtors were injured by that negligence when their discharges in bankruptcy were denied. View "In re Blasingame" on Justia Law