Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

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In 2019, Tennessee imposed new requirements for conducting voter-registration activities. The law required individuals to register with the state; complete state-administered “training”; file a “sworn statement” agreeing to obey Tennessee’s voter-registration laws; and return “completed” voter-registration forms within 10 days. Plaintiffs argued that the law significantly burdened their rights of speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment, and was unconstitutionally vague. The court stated that the defendants had offered “little, if any, evidence” in support of the Act’s requirements, “despite having had an opportunity” and held that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits, further noting “the vagueness about the scope and nature" of the Act. The court “ordered” the defendants “not to take any steps to implement” or otherwise enforce the challenged provisions. The defendants did not appeal. Seven months later, the state repealed the provisions.The district court approved a stipulation to dismiss the case without prejudice. Plaintiffs were awarded attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988, as the “prevailing party.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A preliminary injunction that, as a practical matter, concludes the litigation in the plaintiffs’ favor and that is not challenged on appeal, is, in this case, enduring enough to support prevailing-party status under section 1988. View "Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP v. Hargett" on Justia Law

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In September 2022, the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission sent letters to Fischer, who is running for the Kentucky Supreme Court, and Winter, who is running for the Court of Appeals, stating that unidentified individuals had filed complaints, alleging they had “engaged in political or campaign activity inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary," including references to the Republican Party and “pledges, promises or commitments in connection with cases, controversies, or issues likely to come before the Court—specifically the issue of abortion.” The candidates requested additional information, identifying statements that might have prompted the complaints and explaining why the First Amendment protected the statements. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, raising facial and as-applied challenges to Kentucky's Judicial Conduct Rules. They sought an emergency injunction pending appeal, justifying their request based on “the passage of 12 days without a ruling in the middle of an election cycle,” and the “specter of … self-censorship.”That day, the district court denied the request for a preliminary injunction on standing grounds. The Sixth Circuit granted a preliminary injunction, protecting specific campaign statements. The candidates have standing and have demonstrated a likely constitutional violation. There is a credible threat of enforcement of the Rules. The candidates have guessed which of their statements might have violated the rules; the First Amendment protects each. “When a judicial commission sends vague and threatening letters to candidates on the eve of election, it puts the candidates to a choice between self-censorship and uncertain sanctions.” View "Fischer v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Memphis attorney Skouteris practiced plaintiff-side, personal injury law. He routinely settled cases without permission, forged client signatures on settlement checks, and deposited those checks into his own account. Skouteris was arrested on state charges, was disbarred, and was indicted in federal court for bank fraud. At Skouteris’s federal trial, lay testimony suggested that Skouteris was not acting under any sort of diminished cognitive capacity. Two psychologists examined Skouteris. The defense expert maintained that Skouteris suffered from a “major depressive disorder,” “alcohol use disorder,” and “seizure disorder,” which began during Skouteris’s college football career, which, taken together, would have “significantly limited” Skouteris’s “ability to organize his mental efforts.” The government’s expert agreed that Skouteris suffered from depression and alcohol use disorder but concluded that Skouteris was “capable of having the mental ability to form and carry out complex thoughts, schemes, and plans.” Skouteris’s attorney unsuccessfully sought a jury instruction that evidence of “diminished mental capacity” could provide “reasonable doubt that” Skouteris had the “requisite culpable state of mind.”Convicted, Skouteris had a sentencing range of 46-57 months, with enhancements for “losses,” abusing a position of trust or using a special skill, and committing an offense that resulted in “substantial financial hardship” to at least one victim. The district court varied downward for a sentence of 30 months plus restitution of $147,406. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the jury instructions, and the sentence. View "United States v. Skouteris" on Justia Law

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Class Counsel discovered the Social Security Administration's (SSA’s) systemic failure to perform “Subtraction Recalculations” and recovered over $106 million in past-due disability benefits. After performing the Subtraction Recalculations for all the claimants, the SSA argued that the district court did not have authority under the Social Security Act’s judicial-review provision, 42 U.S.C. 405(g), to order the Subtraction Recalculations and that Class Counsel cannot recover attorney fees under section 406(b) for representation of the claimants.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the award of $15.9 million in attorney fees to Class Counsel. SSA “may not hide behind” the statutory provisions merely because it erred at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the benefits-award process. The district court appropriately exercised judicial review under section 405(g), properly ordered the SSA to perform the Subtraction Recalculations, and properly awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees. The SSA failed to award claimants additional past-due benefits to which they were entitled. Counsel successfully sought judicial assistance to obtain those benefits. Congress did not create a statute that allows attorneys to recover fees when the SSA initially fails to award benefits, only to foreclose fee recovery when the SSA later unlawfully withholds additional benefits. View "Steigerwald v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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As special counsel, the law firm of Silverman & Morris recovered $38,000 for the estate in the Village Apothecary bankruptcy proceeding and requested $37,063 in fees. The bankruptcy court, finding that the benefit of the services did not warrant awarding the full amount, halved the award.The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Bankruptcy courts can consider “results obtained” when determining whether fees are reasonable under 11 U.S.C. 330(a)(3) and the bankruptcy court did not abuse its discretion in reducing the fees by half. In determining the amount of reasonable compensation to be awarded to a professional person, the court shall consider the nature, the extent, and the value of such services; section 330(a)(3) instructs the courts to “tak[e] into account all relevant factors, including” the time spent, rates charged, “whether the services were necessary . . . or beneficial at the time at which the service was rendered,” as well as other factors, including “results obtained.” Here, the “results obtained” were minimal. The law firm’s efforts to recover $1.6 million dollars resulted in only $38,000. Had the bankruptcy court awarded the law firm all its fees, it would have left virtually nothing for the estate. View "In re: Village Apothecary, Inc." on Justia Law

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Gayle died in 2006. Attorney Johnston filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions on behalf of Gayle in 2016 and 2018 at the request of Gayle’s daughter, Elizabeth, the Administratrix of her mother’s probate estate. After the dismissal of the 2018 petition, Elizabeth, pro se, filed three Chapter 13 petitions on Gayle’s behalf. The Chapter 13 Trustee sought sanctions against Bagsby after she filed yet another Chapter 13 petition.The bankruptcy court ordered Johnston to show cause why he should not be subject to sanctions for filing the two Chapter 13 petitions on behalf of a deceased person. After a hearing, the bankruptcy court reopened the first two cases and issued sanctions sua sponte against Johnston and Bagsby. The bankruptcy court determined that Johnston failed to conduct any inquiries or legal research, there was no basis in existing law to support a reasonable possibility of success, and the cases were filed for the express purpose of delaying foreclosure actions. The bankruptcy court concluded Johnston violated Rule 9011 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the sanctions order. Johnson had admitted to the factual findings. The bankruptcy court was not required to find that Johnson acted in bad faith, in a manner “akin to contempt of court,” or with a specific mens rea but only whether Johnston’s conduct was reasonable. View "Johnston v. Hildebrand" on Justia Law

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Lawyers brought claims against schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400. After the claims failed, the schools sought their attorney’s fees from the lawyers under the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision. The School Districts alleged that, during the administrative process, the attorneys presented sloppy pleadings, asserted factually inaccurate or legally irrelevant allegations, and needlessly prolonged the proceedings. The lawyers asked their insurer, Wesco, to pay the fees. Wesco refused on the ground that the requested attorney’s fees fell within the insurance policy’s exclusion for “sanctions.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Wesco. The IDEA makes attorney misconduct a prerequisite to a fee award against a party’s lawyer, so the policy exclusion applied. The court noted that the legal community routinely describes an attorney’s fees award as a “sanction” when a court grants it because of abusive litigation tactics. View "Wesco Insurance Co. v. Roderick Linton Belfance, LLP" on Justia Law

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NPF sued a franchisee, SY Dawgs, which operated a fast-pitch softball team in the National Pro Fastpitch League, alleging violation of a non-competition agreement. Two-and-a-half years of discovery disputes and repeated sanctions motions followed. The district court imposed sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 against NPF’s counsel for failure to produce documents and its engagement in other discovery abuses. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the award of sanctions against the individual attorneys who represented NPF, but vacated the award against their law firm. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 does not allow for law-firm sanctions where, as here, the firm was not a party to the lawsuit. View "NPF Franchising, LLC v. SY Dawgs, LLC" on Justia Law

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Attorney Romanzi referred a personal injury case to his employer, the Fieger law firm; meanwhile, creditors were winning default judgments against Romanzi. The case settled for $11.9 million; about $3.55 million was awarded as attorney’s fees after Romanzi quit the firm. Romanzi’s employment at the firm entitled him to a third of the fees. Before Romanzi could claim his due, his creditors forced him into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The trustee commenced an adversary proceeding against the firm to recover Romanzi’s third of the settlement fees for the bankruptcy estate. The parties agreed to arbitration.Two of the three arbitrators found for the trustee in a single-paragraph decision that was not "reasoned" to the firm’s satisfaction. The district court remanded for clarification rather than vacating the award. On remand, the panel asked for submissions from both parties, which the trustee provided; the firm refused to participate. The arbitrators’ subsequent supplemental award, approved by the district court, awarded the trustee the fees plus interest. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the arbitrators’ original award was compromised according to at least one factor allowing vacation under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 10(a); that the act of remanding and the powers exercised by the arbitrators on remand violated the doctrine of functus officio; and that the supplemental award should have been vacated under the section 10(a) factors. The district court’s and panel’s actions fall under the clarification exception to functus officio. View "In re: Romanzi" on Justia Law