Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
by
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

by
Golubitsky, as a Virgin Islands Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panelist, was appointed counsel for Bellille, an indigent defendant in a multi-defendant RICO prosecution. Golubitsky unsuccessfully moved to withdraw, arguing that he was no longer a CJA panelist, having moved to an in-house counsel role, and was contractually barred from the representation. Weeks later, Golubitsky purportedly started an of-counsel relationship at the DiRuzzo law firm and filed an emergency motion to withdraw as Bellille’s counsel, arguing that DiRuzzo represented Ayala, who was likely to testify against Bellille, which created a conflict of interest. Golubitsky and DiRuzzo explained that Golubitsky was “on [the firm’s] system,” could bill using the firm’s software, and was added to DiRuzzo’s malpractice insurance. Golubitsky worked full-time as in-house counsel while working part-time for DiRuzzo’s Florida firm, litigating four matters together. They had no involvement in the other’s work related to Bellille’s case nor had they shared any information about the case. The court denied Golubitsky’s motion and ordered DiRuzzo and Golubitsky to wall off the latter’s representation of Bellille from DiRuzzo’s representation of Ayala.The Third Circuit vacated and remanded, noting many “factual gaps,” surrounding the relationship between DiRuzzo and Golubitsky and why the relationship was established. The situation cannot be both ways. Either the of-counsel relationship was not genuine and there was no basis for imposing a screen or there was a true of-counsel relationship and a screen alone could not cure the conflict. View "United States v. Bellille" on Justia Law

by
In November 2013, three men robbed a Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania bank. A bank employee, Kane, later admitted to assisting them. The next morning, the three were pulled over in North Carolina. Wilson stated they were driving to Georgia and admitted that they had a lot of cash in the car. The officer, suspecting that they were going to buy drugs in Atlanta, searched the car, found the stolen cash, turned it over to federal agents, then released the men. A week later, three men robbed a Phoenixville, Pennsylvania bank. The police got a tip from Howell, whom Wilson had tried to recruit for the heists. Howell provided Wilson's cell phone number. Police pulled his cell-site location data, which put him at the Bala Cynwyd bank right before the first robbery and showed five calls and 17 text messages to Kane that day. Howell identified Wilson and Moore from a video of the robbery.Kane and Foster took plea bargains. Wilson and Moore were tried for bank robbery, conspiracy, and using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Moore was sentenced to 385 months’ imprisonment. Wilson received 519 months. The Third Circuit affirmed. Counsel’s stipulation that the banks were federally insured did not violate the Sixth Amendment, which does not categorically forbid stipulating to a crime’s jurisdictional element without the defendant’s consent or over the defendant’s objection. View "United States v. Wilson" on Justia Law

by
Reyes-Romero was prosecuted for unlawful reentry, 8 U.S.C. 1326. The district court dismissed the indictment, finding that irregularities in Reyes-Romero’s removal proceeding constituted fundamental errors that caused him prejudice. The court stated that the government’s subjective motivation for its motion to dismiss was a desire to rely on the 2011 removal order in future immigration proceedings, which“taint[ed]” the Government’s effort. The court then awarded Reyes-Romero fees pursuant to the Hyde Amendment, under which a prevailing defendant in a federal criminal prosecution can apply to have his attorney’s fees and costs covered by the government if the defendant shows that “the position of the United States” in the prosecution “was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith,” 18 U.S.C. 3006A.The Third Circuit reversed. “Although assuredly born of good intentions and understandable frustration with faulty processes in the underlying removal proceeding,” the award was not based on the type of pervasive prosecutorial misconduct with which the Amendment is concerned. Reyes-Romero’s 2011 expedited removal proceeding deviated from the required ordered, sensible process and reasonable minds may differ about how the prosecution should have reacted once those issues became apparent. Where reasonable minds may differ, however, and where the government made objectively reasonable and defensible choices, there can be no Hyde Amendment liability. View "United States v. Reyes-Romero" on Justia Law

by
Sepling, represented by SC, pled guilty to importing GBL, a controlled substance analogue, 21 U.S.C. 952; Sepling’s sentence would be calculated without consideration of the Guidelines career offender section. Sepling was released on bond pending sentencing and became involved in a conspiracy to import methylone, another Schedule I controlled substance. He was charged under 21 U.S.C. 963. A search uncovered three kilograms of methylone. Subsequent investigation revealed that the conspiracy involved approximately 10 kilograms. A Public Defender (APD) represented Sepling on the new charges. The prosecution agreed to withdraw the new charge; in exchange, Sepling’s involvement in the conspiracy would be factored into his GBL sentence as relevant conduct. The APD ceased representing Sepling. Sepling’s unmodified Guideline range for the GBL was 27-33 months. The methylone relevant conduct dramatically increased his base offense level. The PSR analogized methylone to MDMA, commonly called “ecstasy,” and held him responsible for 10 kilograms, resulting in responsibility equivalent to that for conspiring to distribute five and a half tons of marijuana, for a sentencing range of 188-235 months. SC did not object to that calculation, nor did he file a sentencing memorandum. Rather than researching the pharmacological effect of methylone, SC relied upon Sepling to explain the effects of methylone. SC, the government, and the court all confessed that they did not possess any substantive knowledge of methylone The Third Circuit vacated the 102-month sentence. Sepling was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness. View "United States v. Sepling" on Justia Law

by
Wolfington brought a claim under the Truth in Lending Act, 15 U.S.C. 1601, stemming from reconstructive knee surgery he received from Reconstructive Orthopaedic Associates (the Rothman Institute). Wolfington alleged that Rothman failed to provide disclosures required by the Act when it permitted him to pay his deductible in monthly installments following surgery. The district court entered judgment, rejecting Wolfington’s claim because it determined he had failed to allege that credit had been extended to him in a “written agreement,” as required by the Act’s implementing regulation, Regulation Z. The court also sua sponte imposed sanctions on Wolfington’s counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed in part, agreeing that Wolfington failed to adequately allege the existence of a written agreement, but concluded that counsel’s investigation and conduct were not unreasonable. In imposing sanctions, the district court placed emphasis on the statement by Rothman’s counsel, not Wolfington’s. The statement by Wolfington’s counsel did not amount to an “unequivocal” admission that there was no written agreement. View "Wolfington v. Reconstructive Orthopaedic Associates II, PC" on Justia Law

by
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Golden was researching Golden’s then-forthcoming book, Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. Golden requested documents from public universities, including three requests to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, N.J. Stat. 47:1A-1–47:1A-13 (OPRA). Many of the NJIT documents originated with the FBI and were subject to prohibitions on public dissemination. The FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records. NJIT obliged, claiming exemption from disclosure. After this suit was filed, NJIT and the FBI reexamined the previously withheld records and produced thousands of pages of documents, formerly deemed exempt. Golden then sought prevailing plaintiff attorneys’ fees under OPRA. The district court denied the fee motion. The Third Circuit reversed. Under the catalyst theory, adopted by the Supreme Court of New Jersey, plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys’ fees if there exists “a factual causal nexus between [the] litigation and the relief ultimately achieved” and if “the relief ultimately secured by plaintiffs had a basis in law.” Before Golden filed suit, NJIT had asserted OPRA exemptions to justify withholding most of the requested records. Post-lawsuit, NJIT abandoned its reliance on those exemptions and produced most of the records. Golden’s lawsuit was the catalyst for the production of documents and satisfied the test. That NJIT withheld records at the behest of the FBI does not abdicate its role as the records custodian. View "Golden v. New Jersey Institute of Technology" on Justia Law

by
Brooks, Debtor's CEO, was charged with financial crimes. In class action and derivative lawsuits, Debtor proposed a global settlement that indemnified Brooks for liability under the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX), 15 U.S.C. 7243. Cohen, Debtor’s former General Counsel and a shareholder, claimed that the indemnification was unlawful. The district court approved the settlement, Cohen, represented by CLM, appealed. The Second Circuit vacated, noting that the EDNY would determine CLM’s attorneys’ fees award. Debtor initiated Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The Bankruptcy Court confirmed Debtor’s liquidation plan, with a trustee to pursue Debtor’s interest in recouping its losses from the ongoing actions.Brooks died in prison. Because his appeal had not concluded, some of his convictions and restitution obligations were abated. Stakeholders negotiated a second global settlement agreement, under which $142 million of Brooks’ restrained assets were to be distributed to his victims; $70 million has been remitted to Debtor. The Bankruptcy Court awarded CLM fees for the SOX 304 claim; the amount would be determined if Debtor received any funds on account of the claim. CLM’s Fee Appeal remains pending at the district court.CLM requested a $25 million reserve for payment of its fees. The Bankruptcy Court ordered Debtor to set aside $5 million. CLM’s Fee Reserve Appeal remains pending. CLM then moved, unsuccessfully, for a stay of Second Settlement Agreement distributions. In its Stay Denial Appeal, CLM’s motion requesting a stay of distributions was denied. The Third Circuit affirmed. The $5 million reserve is sufficient. A $5 million attorneys’ fees award for 1,502.2 hours of legal work totaling $549,472.61 of documented fees would yield an hourly rate of $3,328.45 and a lodestar multiplier of over nine. In common fund cases where attorneys’ fees are calculated using the lodestar method, multiples from one to four are the norm. View "SS Body Armor I, Inc. v. Carter Ledyard & Milburn, LLP" on Justia Law

by
In 2010, Pennsylvania inmate Houser sued prison officials (42 U.S.C.1983), claiming deliberate indifference to his medical needs. Houser unsuccessfully requested appointed counsel. Discovery proceeded. The defendants moved for summary judgment in 2013. Houser filed opposition papers pro se but again moved to appoint counsel. The court denied the defendants’ motions, granted Houser’s motion, and conducted a search to secure pro bono counsel. After two attorneys declined the case, Reed Smith assumed Houser’s representation and devoted over 1,000 hours to the case before moving to withdraw based on fundamental disagreements with Houser on strategy, a breakdown in communication, and an irremediably broken attorney-client relationship. The court told Houser that it could not dictate strategy, and stated: “We’re not going to ask anyone else... do you want to ... represent yourself?” Houser never gave a straightforward answer. The court granted Reed Smith’s motion. Houser unsuccessfully requested that the court put him back on the “appointment of counsel” list and stay the case. Noting that the case was five years old, the court pushed the trial to December 2015. In October 2015, Houser unsuccessfully moved to appoint counsel. A jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Houser unsuccessfully moved for a new trial based on the denial of his motion to appoint counsel. Houser moved to reconsider, arguing his claims had merit and involved “medical issues that were complex including requiring an expert” and the “conflicting testimony of multiple witness[es].” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion; denying Houser new counsel was not an abuse of discretion. View "Houser v. Folino" on Justia Law

by
In 2017, the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvania Democratic voters filed a state court lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional districting map. They alleged that Republican lawmakers drew the map to entrench Republican power in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and disadvantage Democratic voters and that the Republican redistricting plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by burdening and disfavoring Democratic voters’ rights to free expression and association and by intentionally discriminating against Democratic voters. Five months later, State Senate President Pro Tempore Scarnati, a Republican lawmaker who sponsored the 2011 redistricting plan, removed the matter to federal court, contending federal jurisdiction existed because of a newly scheduled congressional election. The federal district court remanded the matter to state court, where the suit has since concluded with a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Citing 28 U.S.C. 1447(c), the federal court directed Senator Scarnati personally to pay $29,360 to plaintiffs for costs and fees incurred in the removal and remand proceedings. The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Scarnati, citing the Supreme Court’s directive that courts carefully adhere to the distinction between personal and official capacity suits, The court upheld a finding that the removal lacked an objectively reasonable basis. View "League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law