Justia Legal Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
United States v. Swan
The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit vacated the conviction of John Miguel Swan, who had pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. Swan appealed the district court's denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that his plea was unknowing and involuntary due to a material misrepresentation made by his plea counsel. His counsel had told him, just before he decided to plead guilty, that all minorities would be removed from his jury, and his case would be tried before exclusively white jurors. The court held that this misrepresentation about Swan's right to an impartial jury selected through racially nondiscriminatory means rendered his plea unknowing and involuntary. The court found that the misrepresentation was not corrected during the district court’s plea colloquy nor negated by Swan’s prior experience in the criminal-justice system. As such, the court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying Swan’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea, vacated Swan's conviction, and remanded for the district court to allow Swan to withdraw his guilty plea and for further proceedings. View "United States v. Swan" on Justia Law
United States v. Kearn
In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, Jonathan Kearn, was initially indicted on three child pornography offenses involving his own children. He faced up to 30 years’ imprisonment for these charges. However, the government offered a plea agreement for a 10-year sentence if Kearn pled guilty to one of the counts. Following a six-minute conversation with his trial counsel about the plea agreement, Kearn decided to reject the offer and proceed to trial. He was then convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 24 years in prison. After exhausting his appeals, Kearn filed a pro se motion arguing that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective during the plea-bargaining phase.The district court granted Kearn's motion, finding that his trial counsel provided deficient advice about the proposed plea deal, and that there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, Kearn would have pleaded guilty. The court ordered the government to reoffer the plea. It then accepted Kearn’s guilty plea, vacated the prior judgment, and resentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment.On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found that Kearn's trial counsel's brief discussion with him was inadequate to explain the complexities of the plea and that counsel had given Kearn inaccurate and misleading information. The court also found that given the substantial difference in sentencing exposure—20 years—and the evidence suggesting Kearn was amenable to pleading guilty if he had been adequately advised, the district court reasonably found that Kearn would have accepted a properly presented plea deal and avoided trial. View "United States v. Kearn" on Justia Law
United States v. Swan
In this appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the defendant, John Miguel Swan, appealed the district court’s denial of his presentence motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The case originated from a grand jury indictment of Swan for being a felon in possession of ammunition. Swan initially plead guilty, but five months later, the district court allowed Swan's plea counsel to withdraw and appointed new counsel. Swan later wrote a pro se letter to the district court asserting his factual innocence and indicating that his plea counsel had compelled him to plead guilty. This appeal focuses on the claim that plea counsel materially misrepresented the nature of Swan's right to a jury trial, which, Swan argued, rendered his guilty plea unknowing and involuntary.The court found that Swan’s plea counsel informed him that all minorities would be removed from his jury and his case would be tried before exclusively white jurors. This was seen as a material misrepresentation about Swan’s right to an impartial jury selected through racially nondiscriminatory means. The court determined that under these circumstances, Swan’s plea was unknowing and involuntary, and the district court abused its discretion in denying Swan’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Accordingly, the court reversed the lower court's decision and remanded the case back to the district court to allow Swan to withdraw his guilty plea for further proceedings. View "United States v. Swan" on Justia Law
Obeslo, et al. v. Empower Capital, et al.
Two law firms that represented Plaintiffs in this litigation, Schlichter Bogard & Denton LLP (“SBD”) and Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky LLP (“SWCK”), appealed the district court’s order imposing sanctions against them under 28 U.S.C. § 1927. Plaintiffs’ counsel represented individual shareholders and an employee retirement plan in a lawsuit claiming that the investment company, investment adviser, and recordkeeper (collectively “Empower”) servicing their mutual funds charged excessive fees in violation of its fiduciary duties under § 36(b) of the Investment Company Act. Following denial of Empower’s summary judgment and Daubert motions, the case proceeded to a bench trial where the district court ruled in favor of Empower. Thereafter, the court sanctioned Plaintiffs’ counsel for “recklessly pursu[ing] their claims through trial despite the fact that they were lacking in merit” and held SWCK and SBD jointly and severally liable for $1.5 million in Empower’s trial costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court abused its discretion and therefore reversed the order imposing sanctions. Accordingly, the Court did not reach the issues of SWCK and SBD’s joint and several liability or the court’s denial of SWCK’s motion to amend the judgment. View "Obeslo, et al. v. Empower Capital, et al." on Justia Law
Chung v. Lamb, et al.
After a prior remand to the district court, the Tenth Circuit reviewed the propriety of that court’s revised award of attorney fees under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, which permitted monetary sanction when an attorney has unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings. Appellant Karen Hammer claimed the district court failed to make the findings necessary to support an award under § 1927, failed to abide by the statutory requirement that a court award only excess fees incurred because of the sanctioned attorney’s multiplication of proceedings, and failed to apply the law of the case. She also argued the court erred in striking a surreply that she filed without leave. With one exception, the Tenth Circuit found no merit in these arguments. The Court affirmed except to remand for one reduction in the fee award. View "Chung v. Lamb, et al." on Justia Law
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