Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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Plaintiffs were all former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“FLDS”), which illegally practiced polygamy. In 2016, plaintiffs filed suit against the FLDS Prophet, Warren Jeffs, and Jeff’s lawyers, the law firm of Snow Christensen & Martineau (“SC&M”) and one of its partners, Rodney Parker, alleging defendants: (1) directly worked with Jeffs to create a legal framework that would shield him from the legal ramifications of child rape, forced labor, extortion, and the causing of emotional distress by separating families; (2) created an illusion of legality to bring about plaintiffs’ submission to these abuses and employed various legal instruments and judicial processes to knowingly facilitate the abuse; (3) held themselves out to be the lawyers of each FLDS member individually, thus creating a duty to them to disclose this illegal scheme; and (4) intentionally misused these attorney-client relationships to enable Jeffs’ dominion and criminal enterprise. Jeffs defaulted, and the district court dismissed every cause of action against the remaining defendants under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The issue before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stemmed from the district court’s dismissal of all claims against SC&M and Parker (collectively “defendants”). Reviewing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. For fifteen plaintiffs who brought legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty claims, the Court determined they pled facts sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss: a factual question remained for each of these plaintiffs regarding whether (and how long) equitable tolling applies to their limitations periods, and whether individual implied attorney-client relationships existed. Twelve plaintiffs pled facts sufficient to survive dismissal of their fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation claims, again, there was a factual question regarding when they discovered their claims, thereby starting the running of the statutory period, and whether an implied attorney-client relationship existed. Civil RICO claims were deemed forfeited as inadequately presented in plaintiffs’ opening brief. With respect to TVPRA claims, nine plaintiffs pled facts sufficient to pass muster under the plausibility standard and thus survived dismissal. View "Bistline v. Jeffs" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved the extent of a duty to defend under a “professional services” policy of liability insurance issued to a law firm. The issue arose when the law firm was confronted with allegations of overbilling. The insurer, Evanston Insurance Company, defended the law firm, The Law Office of Michael P. Medved, P.C., under a reservation of rights but ultimately concluded that the allegations of overbilling fell outside the law firm’s coverage for professional services. The law firm disagreed with this conclusion; the district court agreed with the insurer. The Tenth Circuit concurred with the district court and affirmed summary justment in favor of Evanston on all claims and counterclaims. View "Evanston Insurance v. Law Office Michael P. Medved" on Justia Law

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William Harris and David Pettinato were two attorneys who represented Summit Park Townhome Association who represented Summit Park in a lawsuit against its insurer. The two attorneys were sanctioned for failing to disclose information. The Tenth Circuit affirmed sanctions against them, finding that regardless of whether the district court had authority to require the disclosures, the attorneys were obligated to comply. They did not, and the district court acted reasonably in issuing sanctions, determining the scope of the sanctions, and calculating the amount of the sanctions. View "Auto-Owners Insurance Co. v. Summit Park Townhome Assoc." on Justia Law

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William Harris and David Pettinato were attorneys who represented Summit Park Townhome Association. While representing Summit Park against its insurer, the two attorneys were sanctioned for failing to disclose information. In this appeal, the attorneys raised five arguments to challenge the sanctions. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed: “Regardless of whether the district court had authority to require the disclosures, the attorneys were obligated to comply. They did not, and the district court acted reasonably in issuing sanctions, determining the scope of the sanctions, and calculating the amount of the sanctions.” View "Auto-Owners Insurance Co. v. Summit Park Townhome Assoc." on Justia Law

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Kansas distinguishes between legal malpractice claims: some sound in contract, others sound in tort. Plaintiff Cory Sylvia sued his former attorneys, James Wisler and David Trevino, for legal malpractice allegedly sounding in tort and breach of contract arising from their representation of Sylvia in a suit for wrongful termination against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (“Goodyear”), his former employer. Later, Sylvia amended his complaint to add as a defendant Xpressions, L.C. (“Xpressions”), a limited liability company formerly known as the Wisler Law Office, L.C. Sylvia’s initial complaint characterized his claims as sounding both in tort and in contract. Specifically, he faulted: (1) both individual defendants for failing to include in, or to later amend, his complaint to aver a workers’ compensation retaliation claim; and (2) solely Wisler for voluntarily dismissing Sylvia’s case on the erroneous belief that all claims could be refiled, causing one of his claims to become barred by the statute of limitations. For each of these claims, Sylvia advanced both tort and contract theories of liability. This case presented a difficult question of Kansas law for the Tenth Circuit's review: when do legal malpractice claims involving a failure to act sound in tort rather than contract? After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed in part and vacated in part the district court’s judgment dismissing Sylvia’s tort-based legal malpractice claims. However, regarding the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants on the breach of contract claims, the Court affirmed. View "Sylvia v. Wisler" on Justia Law

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In 2010, the Kansas Disciplinary Administrator filed a formal complaint against plaintiff-appellant Phillip Kline for violations of the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct (KRPC). A panel held a disciplinary hearing in two phases from February to July 2011. In October, it released a 185-page report finding multiple violations of the KRPC. It recommended an indefinite suspension from the practice of law. Kline filed exceptions to the report. The case went to the Kansas Supreme Court. In May 2012, Kline moved to recuse five justices based on participation in earlier cases involving him, arguing recusal would “not hinder [his] appeal from being heard” because “the Supreme Court may assign a judge of the court of the appeals or a district judge to serve temporarily on the supreme court.” The five justices voluntarily recused. In November 2012, Kline argued his case before the Kansas Supreme Court. In October 2013, the court found “clear and convincing evidence that Kline committed 11 KRPC violations.” It ordered indefinite suspension. In February 2014, Kline moved to vacate or dismiss the judgment, claiming the court was unlawfully composed because Justice Biles lacked authority to appoint replacement judges. The Clerk of the Kansas Appellate Courts did not docket the motion because the case was closed. In March, Kline petitioned for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, alleging due process and free speech violations. The Supreme Court denied the petition. In October 2015, Kline sued in federal district court, asserting ten counts for declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Counts one through nine attacked the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision. Count ten was a “prospective challenge” to the “unconstitutionally vague” Kansas Supreme Court Rule 219. The district court dismissed count three as a non-justiciable political question. It dismissed the other nine counts for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Kline appealed, but finding no reversible error in the district court's judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Kline v. Biles" on Justia Law

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Brett Williamson was charged with and convicted of various child pornography offenses. Prior to trial, it came to light that his defense counsel and the prosecutor trying the case had a history together: they were divorced and shared custody of their child. For that and numerous other reasons, Williamson asked for new counsel, but the district court denied his request. Williamson proceeded without an attorney and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal of his conviction, Williamson argued the district court should have inquired into his defense counsel’s potential personal conflict of interest to determine if the relationship might have affected his right to a fair trial, and that failure to do so requires automatic reversal. The Tenth Circuit concluded Williamson failed to make a showing that his counsel was laboring under an actual conflict of interest, so it rejected his conflict of interest argument based on his defense counsel’s personal relationship with the prosecutor. The Court also rejected Williamson’s alternative arguments for new counsel: that his filing of a criminal complaint against his counsel constituted an actual conflict of interest, and that Williamson demonstrated a complete breakdown of communications between his attorney and himself. View "United States v. Williamson" on Justia Law