Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
Kellogg, et al. v. Watts Guerra, et al.
This appeal stemmed from mass litigation between thousands of corn producers and an agricultural company (Syngenta). On one track, corn producers filed individual suits against Syngenta; on the second, other corn producers sued through class actions. The appellants were some of the corn producers who took the first track, filing individual actions. (the “Kellogg farmers.”) The Kellogg farmers alleged that their former attorneys had failed to disclose the benefits of participating as class members, resulting in excessive legal fees and exclusion from class proceedings. These allegations led the Kellogg farmers to sue the attorneys who had provided representation or otherwise assisted in these cases. The suit against the attorneys included claims of common-law fraud, violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (RICO) and Minnesota’s consumer-protection statutes, and breach of fiduciary duty. While this suit was pending in district court, Syngenta settled the class actions and thousands of individual suits, including those brought by the Kellogg farmers. The settlement led to the creation of two pools of payment by Syngenta: one pool for a newly created class consisting of all claimants, the other pool for those claimants’ attorneys. For this settlement, the district court allowed the Kellogg farmers to participate in the new class and to recover on an equal basis with all other claimants. The settlement eliminated any economic injury to the Kellogg farmers, so the district court dismissed the RICO and common-law fraud claims. The court not only dismissed these claims but also assessed monetary sanctions against the Kellogg farmers. The farmers appealed certain district court decisions, but finding that there was no reversible error or that it lacked jurisdiction to review certain decisions, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. View "Kellogg, et al. v. Watts Guerra, et al." on Justia Law
Hayes v. Skywest Airlines
Plaintiff John Hayes prosecuted his employment discrimination case to a favorable verdict and judgment. During trial, two instances of misconduct prompted Defendant SkyWest Airlines, Inc. to request a mistrial. But it was Defendant’s own misconduct. Thus, the district court tried to remedy the misconduct and preserve the integrity of the proceedings, but did not grant Defendant’s request. After the trial, exercising its equitable powers, the district court granted Plaintiff’s request for a front pay award. Following final judgment, Defendant moved for a new trial based, in part, on the district court’s handling of the misconduct incidents and on newly discovered evidence. The district court denied that motion. Defendant appealed, asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse and remand for a new trial or, at the very least, to vacate (or reduce) the front pay award. Finding the district court did not abuse its discretion or authority in this case, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the front pay award. View "Hayes v. Skywest Airlines" on Justia Law
United States v. Carter
Four appellants: David Zabel, Sheri Catania, Kim Flannigan, and Terra Morehead, were Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) for the District of Kansas who testified in court about practices of the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO). At the close of the proceeding, the district court made statements reflecting negatively on the four AUSAs. They appealed, arguing the district court deprived them of due process. The Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeals for lack of appellate standing: as fact witnesses, the four AUSAs lacked a particularized and significant stake in the appeal. View "United States v. Carter" on Justia Law
United States v. Carter
This appeal grew out of United States v. Black, et al., which involved allegations of drug crimes committed at a detention facility. In the course of this prosecution, the United States Attorney’s Office in Kansas (USAO) obtained video and phone call recordings from the detention facility. Some of the recordings involved attorney-client communications between detainees and their attorneys. After learning that the USAO had these recordings, the Federal Public Defender (FPD) intervened for the defendants in Black, who had been housed at the detention facility. After intervening, the FPD moved for return of the recordings containing attorney-client communications, invoking Rule 41(g) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. This motion spurred the district court to order an investigation into the USAO and its possession of the recordings. When the investigation ended, the district court: (1) dismissed the indictment against the last remaining defendant in Black (Defendant. Karl Carter); and (2) ordered the USAO to provide the FPD with all of the recordings of attorney-client communications in the USAO’s possession. In the course of these rulings, however, the district court made statements adverse to the USAO and found contempt based partly on a failure to preserve evidence. The investigation led over a hundred prisoners to file post-conviction motions. The USAO didn’t question the dismissal of Carter’s indictment or the order to furnish the FPD with the recordings. Instead, the USAO argued that the investigation was unlawful, the district court made erroneous statements and findings about possible violations of the Sixth Amendment, the district court clearly erred in its contempt findings, and the district judge erred by stating that she would reassign herself to the post-conviction cases. The Tenth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction and prudential ripeness. View "United States v. Carter" on Justia Law
SE Property Holdings v. Stewart
Attorney Ruston Welch received approximately $350,000 in fees for representing David and Terry Stewart in their Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. This appeal stemmed from Welch's failure to disclose his fee arrangements and payments until ordered to do so by the bankruptcy court more than two years after he should have disclosed his fee agreement, and more than a year after he should have disclosed the payments. For these violations the bankruptcy court sanctioned Welch, requiring him to pay $25,000 to the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy appellate panel (BAP) affirmed the sanction after the Stewarts’ largest creditor, SE Property Holdings (SEPH), which had initiated the proceedings as an involuntary bankruptcy, challenged the sanction as so inadequate as to constitute an abuse of discretion. SEPH appealed that decision. The Tenth Circuit concurred, reversed and remanded the matter for further consideration. "The presumptive sanction ... is forfeiture of the entire fee. For good reason the bankruptcy court can impose a lesser sanction. But the court thus far has not provided good reason. It assumed facts that were not in evidence and, most importantly, apparently assumed good faith without examining the possible motives for nondisclosure." View "SE Property Holdings v. Stewart" on Justia Law
Bledsoe v. Vanderbilt
The circumstances that gave rise to this case stemmed from Plaintiff Floyd Bledsoe’s allegedly wrongful conviction for the 1999 rape and murder of fourteen-year-old C.A. C.A> lived with Plaintiff and his wife Heidi, C.A.'s older sister. Plaintiff and Heidi reported C.A. missing when C.A.'s coat and book bag were found, but C.A. was not. The couple spent the next forty-eight hours or so looking for the missing girl. A breakthrough came days later when Tom Bledsoe, Plaintiff’s older brother, confessed that he had killed C.A. Tom led the officers to C.A.’s body, which had been buried under a large amount of dirt and plywood. C.A. had been shot once in the back of the head and several times in the torso. The coroner later found semen in her vagina but could not say whether she had been forcibly raped. Near her body, investigators found three bullet casings, a pornographic video, and a t-shirt printed with the name of the church Tom attended. Tom’s attorney also surrendered a Jennings nine-millimeter handgun—the professed murder weapon—to the authorities. Authorities soon charged Tom with the first-degree murder of C.A. Despite this evidence, authorities switched course and decided to pin C.A.’s death on Plaintiff instead. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether the prosecutor enjoyed absolute immunity from suit for fabricating evidence against Plaintiff during the preliminary investigation of the crime. The Tenth Circuit determined Supreme Court precedent dictated that the prosecutor did not, the district court’s order denying the prosecutor absolute immunity was affirmed. View "Bledsoe v. Vanderbilt" on Justia Law
Bistline v. Jeffs
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
Evanston Insurance v. Law Office Michael P. Medved
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
Auto-Owners Insurance Co. v. Summit Park Townhome Assoc.
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
Auto-Owners Insurance Co. v. Summit Park Townhome Assoc.
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