Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Kwasnik was an estate-planning attorney who convinced clients to open irrevocable family trusts in order to avoid federal and state taxes and to ensure that they earned interest on the funds. Kwasnik named himself as a trustee, with authority to move assets into and out of the trust accounts. He received the account statements. In reality, Kwasnik moved the funds from his clients’ trust accounts to accounts of entities that he controlled. Within days, the funds were depleted. Clients were defrauded of approximately $13 million.Kwasnik pleaded guilty to money laundering, 18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(1)(B)(i), then moved to withdraw his plea. The district court denied the motion and sentenced him. Kwasnik then filed a notice of appeal. He later filed three more post-appeal motions in the district court concerning his guilty plea. The court denied them. The Third Circuit affirmed with respect to the denial of the first motion. The district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Kwasnik did not have “newly discovered” evidence. The court declined to consider the others. A party must file a new or amended notice of appeal when he seeks appellate review of orders entered by a district court after he filed his original appeal, Fed.R.App.P. 4(b). View "United States v. Kwasnik" on Justia Law

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Langley was arrested in connection with a Newark drug trafficking operation. Langley agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 28 grams or more of crack-cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, which carries a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, agreeing that he would not argue for a sentence below five years’ imprisonment and that he would enter into an appellate waiver, applicable to any challenges to a sentence of five years or below. During his plea hearing, the district court engaged in a thorough colloquy and ensured that Langley had discussed his plea agreement with his counsel and that he understood the appellate waiver. The court considered his arguments concerning the pandemic, the effect of the crack/powder cocaine disparity on the Guidelines calculation, and the age of his criminal convictions. The court determined that the applicable guideline range was 110-137 months and sentenced Langley to 60 months’ imprisonment.In lieu of filing an appellate brief, Langley’s counsel moved to withdraw, asserting in his Anders brief that he identified “no issue of even arguable merit.” Langley submitted a pro se brief, arguing for a further sentencing reduction. The Third Circuit dismissed. Langley’s court-appointed counsel filed an Anders brief that, on its face, met the standard for a “conscientious investigation" of possible grounds for appeal. Counsel is not required to anticipate or address all possible arguments. There are no non-frivolous issues for Langley to raise on appeal. View "United States v. Langley" on Justia Law

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A class action claimed that BMW knowingly manufactured and sold vehicles equipped with defective engines and included 20 causes of action, including alleged breach of warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, 15 U.S.C. 2301 (a federal fee-shifting statute), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, violations of state consumer fraud and deceptive trade practice statutes, and unjust enrichment. The parties reached a settlement to reimburse class members for expenses incurred and provide them with extended warranties. The district court concluded the settlement was worth at least $27 million. BMW stipulated that it would not object to Settlement Class Counsel’s application for an award of attorneys’ fees of up to $1,500,000 in the aggregate. The parties agreed that Counsel could apply for an award of attorneys’ fees not to exceed $3,700,000 in the aggregate. Class counsel sought $3.7 million.Applying the lodestar approach (multiplication of the hours counsel reasonably billed by a reasonable hourly rate) the district court adopted Class Counsel’s requested lodestar amount of $1,934,000, then applied a requested multiplier of 1.9 to reach a total fee award of $3.7 million. The Third Circuit vacated. The lodestar was based on an insufficient record. The charts provided by Counsel do not establish whether certain hours are duplicative or whether the total hours billed were reasonable for the work performed. View "Gelis v. BMW of North America LLC" on Justia Law

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Maxus Trust, represented by White, sued YPF, represented by Sidley. Boelter, a partner at Sidley, participated in Sidley’s initial pitch to represent YPF, helped negotiate the engagement letter, worked on motions, was admitted pro hac vice in the proceeding, was copied on correspondence, attended several meetings, and was considered as “an integral part” of YPF’s legal team. She billed 300 hours to the YPF representation.Lauria, a partner in White’s restructuring group, did not record any time related to the case. He was listed as counsel for a creditor during the Chapter 11 proceedings, but never entered an appearance. Sidley knew Boelter and Luria lived together; it is unclear whether YPF knew. Boelter moved to Luria’s firm, White, and immediately went through a conflict-screening process. White implemented an ethical wall on Boelter’s first day; obtained her acknowledgment that she would comply with it; and periodically certified her compliance. White did not give any portion of its fee from the YPF adversary proceeding to Boelter. White gave YPF written notice of Boelter’s employment the day she began with the firm, with an explanation of the firm’s and of Boelter’s compliance with the ABA Model Rules. YPF believed no screen could be good enough and moved to disqualify White from representing the Trust.The Third Circuit affirmed the Bankruptcy Court's denial of the motion. Exceptional circumstances did not exist to impute Boelter’s conflict to the entire firm despite a screen. View "In re: Maxus Energy Corp" on Justia Law

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A group of insurance companies appealed an order appointing a representative for the interests of unidentified future asbestos and talc claimants in an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. According to these insurers, who fund the asbestos claims trust established under 11 U.S.C. 524(g), this “future claimants’ representative” (FCR) has a conflict of interest precluding him from serving in this role because the FCR’s law firm also represented two of the insurance companies in a separate asbestos-related coverage dispute.The Third Circuit held that the Bankruptcy Court did not abuse its discretion in appointing the FCR. The court gave due consideration to the purported conflict, and correctly determined that the interests of both the insurance companies and the future claimants were adequately protected. View "In re: Imerys Talc America, Inc." on Justia Law

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Century issued insurance to BSA and purchased reinsurance. After BSA made claims related to sexual abuse litigation, Century sought to collect on those policies and hired the Sidley’s Insurance Group. The representation did not extend to the underlying direct insurance; BSA was not a party to the reinsurance disputes. BSA later retained Sidley to explore restructuring; the engagement letter specified that Sidley would not “advis[e] [BSA] on insurance coverage.” Sidley filed BSA’s bankruptcy petition.Through Haynes, its insurance counsel, BSA engaged in substantive discussions with its insurers, including Century. Sidley attorneys were present at some meetings. Century did not object. When Century later objected, Sidley implemented a formal ethics screen between its restructuring team and its reinsurance team. Ultimately, the Bankruptcy Court recognized Sidley’s withdrawal. Century is separately pursuing its grievances about Sidley’s representation in arbitration.The Bankruptcy Court concluded that while Sidley may have received confidential information in the reinsurance matter relevant to BSA’s bankruptcy, no privileged or confidential information was shared between the Sidley's legal teams; it approved Sidley’s retention nunc pro tunc, finding no violation of 11 U.S.C. 372(a). The district court and Third Circuit affirmed. Century continued to have standing and the matter is not moot. Because Sidley’s representation of BSA did not prejudice Century, but disqualifying it would have been a significant detriment to BSA, it was well within the Court’s discretion to determine that the drastic remedy of disqualification was unnecessary. View "In re: Boy Scouts of America" on Justia Law

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Brace, a farmer, owns hundreds of acres in Erie County, Pennsylvania. He cleared 30 acres of wetlands, draining it to grow crops. In 1994, the Third Circuit affirmed that Brace had violated the Clean Water Act. In 2012, Brade bought 14 additional acres of wetlands. Again, he engaged in clearing, excavation, and filling without required permits. During a second suit under the Act, Brace’s counsel submitted perfunctory pleadings and failed to cooperate in discovery, repeatedly extending and missing deadlines. Counsel submitted over-length briefs smuggling in extra-record materials. The court repeatedly struck Brace’s materials but generally chose leniency. Eventually, the court struck Brace’s opposition to summary judgment after analyzing the “Poulis factors,” then granted the government summary judgment on liability, holding that Brace had violated the Act. The court ordered Brace to submit a proposed deed restriction and restoration plan.The Third Circuit rejected Brace’s appeal. While “it stretches credulity [to believe that Brace had] no idea how counsel [wa]s conducting this case,” the court gave Brace the benefit of the doubt. Brace’s lawyer’s misconduct forced the government to waste time and money “deciphering incomprehensible pleadings, scouring through noncompliant briefs, and moving again and again for compliance" to no avail. Counsel acted in bad faith; repeated orders to show cause, warnings, and threats of sanctions did not deter counsel’s chronic misbehavior. The sanction “was hardly an abuse of discretion.” View "United States v. Brace" on Justia Law

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Three clients filed separate discrimination cases, which were consolidated for discovery. The defendants obtained summary judgment. The clients filed a notice of appeal, then hired Paddick, who entered into a contingency fee agreement with each client, providing that Paddick would serve as counsel on remand and promising Paddick a 40 percent fee of any trial or settlement proceeds. Paddick prevailed in the appeal, then took 24 depositions, presented two oral arguments, attended two settlement conferences, and filed nine substantive motions or responses. When it came time to retain an expert witness, Paddick was unable to advance the necessary funds. The clients terminated their relationship with Paddick and retained Thompson to pursue their claims for a 35 percent contingent fee. Paddick informed Thompson of his work, noting that “fees remain due.” Thompson did not respond. The case settled for $380,000; Thompson’s share was $133,000. The district court acknowledged the settlements and dismissed the cases.A month later, Paddick successfully moved to intervene to enforce an attorney’s charging lien against the settlement proceeds. The Third Circuit affirmed an order that Thompson pay Paddick $54,562.73 from Thompson’s portion of the recovery. The district court had ancillary enforcement jurisdiction to resolve Paddick’s lien motion. The clients did not produce clear and convincing evidence of duress; imperfect representation does not necessarily bar Paddick from recovery. A client “should never be made to pay twice.” View "Butt v. United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America" on Justia Law

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The Appellants, with a $594,000 Small Business Administration loan, bought a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania property that became a pub. They executed a note, mortgage, and unconditional guarantees, providing that federal law would control the enforcement of the note and guarantees and that they could not invoke any state or local law to deny their obligations. The Appellants defaulted on the loan and sold the property. The SBA allowed the sale to proceed but declined to release the Appellants from their loan obligations, which were assigned to CBE for collection. The Appellants sued, citing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. 1692, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. 1681, and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). CBE sought sanctions under Federal Rules 11 and 37, arguing that the Appellants brought frivolous claims and disobeyed discovery orders. The Appellants filed an untimely brief opposing sanctions and summary judgment, which did not include the separate responsive statement of material facts required by Local Rule. The district court granted summary judgment and denied the sanctions motions, reasoning that neither FDCPA not UTPCPL applies to commercial debts and the Appellants identified no material facts supporting their other claims. The Third Circuit affirmed and granted CBE FRAP 38 damages. The Appellants filed a brief that was essentially a copy of the one filed in the district court. The substance of their appeal “is as frivolous as its form.” View "Conboy v. United States Small Business Administration" on Justia Law

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Two counties sued Sherwin-Williams in state court, seeking abatement of the public nuisance caused by lead-based paint. Anticipating suits by other counties, Sherwin-Williams sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Sherwin-Williams claimed that “[i]t is likely that the fee agreement between [Delaware County] and the outside trial lawyers [is] or will be substantively similar to an agreement struck by the same attorneys and Lehigh County to pursue what appears to be identical litigation” and that “the Count[y] ha[s] effectively and impermissibly delegated [its] exercise of police power to the private trial attorneys” by vesting the prosecutorial function in someone who has a financial interest in using the government’s police power to hold a defendant liable. The complaint pleaded a First Amendment violation, citing the company’s membership in trade associations, Sherwin-Williams’ purported petitioning of federal, state, and local governments, and its commercial speech. The complaint also argued that the public nuisance theory would seek to impose liability “that is grossly disproportionate,” arbitrary, retroactive, vague, and “after an unexplainable, prejudicial, and extraordinarily long delay, in violation of the Due Process Clause.”The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Sherwin-Williams failed to plead an injury in fact or a ripe case or controversy because the alleged harms hinged on the County actually filing suit. View "Sherwin Williams Co. v. County of Delaware" on Justia Law