Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Utah Supreme Court
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Lippa and Manmohan Grewal sold a gas station to Theodore Hansen, who later sold it to Junction Market Fairview, L.C. (JMF). The sale contract required Hansen to make regular installment payments, with the final balance due after three years. Hansen missed many payments and failed to pay the full balance when due. The Grewals initiated foreclosure proceedings over six years after Hansen's first missed payment. The applicable statute of limitations for a breach of contract action is six years, raising the question of when the statute begins to run for installment contracts.The Sixth District Court in Sanpete County granted partial summary judgment in favor of JMF, concluding that the statute of limitations began when Hansen missed the first payment, making the Grewals' foreclosure action too late. The court awarded sole control of the gas station to JMF and ordered the Grewals to release the title. When the Grewals failed to comply, JMF seized the station and sold it to a third party. The district court also awarded JMF attorney fees under the Public Waters Access Act and the reciprocal attorney fees statute.The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the case and found that the sale of the gas station to a third-party bona fide purchaser rendered the Grewals' appeal on the title issue moot, as no court action could affect the litigants' rights to the property. However, the issue of attorney fees was not moot. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees to JMF under the reciprocal attorney fees statute. The court affirmed the award of attorney fees and remanded to the district court to determine the amount of reasonable attorney fees JMF incurred in defending against the appeal. View "Grewal v. Junction Market Fairview" on Justia Law

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The case involves the trustees of the Stanley and Sandra Goldberg Trusts, C. Leon Nelson and Marilynn Tetrick, who hired legal counsel to assist them in their duties. The same attorneys later defended them in a lawsuit brought by several beneficiaries of the trusts. The jury found that the trustees had breached their fiduciary duties, and the district court entered a judgment against them, most of which was payable to the trusts. The court then removed the trustees and appointed successor trustees. The former trustees, still represented by the same attorneys, asked the court to reduce the amount of the judgment against them. The successor trustees moved to disqualify the former trustees’ attorneys, arguing that a conflict had surfaced under rule 1.9(a) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. The district court agreed and disqualified the attorneys.On appeal, the Supreme Court of the State of Utah reversed the district court's decision. The Supreme Court held that an attorney-client relationship does not automatically arise merely because an attorney represents a trustee. In this case, the attorneys represented the former trustees only, not the trusts, which were not named in the suit. Thus, because the attorneys never represented the trusts in the litigation, rule 1.9(a) does not prevent the attorneys from continuing to represent the former trustees. View "In re Estate of Goldberg" on Justia Law

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In this civil action for reimbursement of attorney fees incurred in the successful defense of criminal charges the Supreme Court held that Utah Code 52-6-201 did not require Bret Rawson P.C. to subtract a donation made from a legal defense fund in calculating "reasonable attorney fees and court costs."Defendant, a West Valley City police officer, was charged with manslaughter arising out of conduct in the line of duty. After a preliminary hearing, the charge was dismissed. Defendant assigned his claim to a right of reimbursement of his attorney fees to Rawson. Rawson then filed this action seeking reimbursement of reasonable attorney fees under section 52-6-201. West Valley City filed a motion asserting that the amount of available fees was limited in two ways. The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and remanded, holding (1) the district court properly found that a $60,000 donation by a legal defense fund should not be subtracted from the total amount of fees "necessarily incurred" in the defense of the charge against Defendant; and (2) as to the City's argument that the amount of fees "necessarily incurred" was capped by a flat fee agreement entered into between Defendant's defense team and his counsel, the case must be remanded for further proceedings. View "West Valley City v. Rawson" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court denied Petitioner's petition for extraordinary relief asking the Court to order his admission to the Utah State Bar by waiving one of the rules governing the Utah Bar, holding that, while Petitioner raised important questions about the way in which the Utah Bar interacts with those requesting accommodation, Petitioner did not convince the Court that it should exercise its discretionary authority to grant the relief he sought.Petitioner suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and initially sought accommodation for the July 2018 Bar Examination in Utah. Petitioner later rescinded his accommodation request and took the Bar Exam without any accommodation. Petitioner fell just short of a passing score. Petitioner then brought this petition for extraordinary relief asking the Court to waive one of three rules governing the Utah Bar. The Supreme Court denied the petition, holding that while Petitioner gave the Court reason to think about ways in which the Bar can provide more transparent and responsive service to those seeking accommodation, Petitioner did not meet his burden of demonstrating that the Court should grant him the relief he sought. View "Durbano v. Utah State Bar" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court sanctioned Judge Michael Kwan to a six-month suspension without pay for Kwan's violations of the Utah Code of Judicial Conduct, holding that a six-month suspension was an appropriate sanction.Judge Kwan violated the Utah Code of Judicial Conduct when he made politically charged comments to a defendant in his courtroom and when he improperly used his judicial authority to seek the removal of a member of the court's staff from the premises. Kwan further violated the code of conduct when he made an online post critical of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Judicial Conduct Commission recommended a six-month suspension. Judge Kwan argued that the sanction was inappropriate because it was an unlawful attempt to regulate his constitutionally-protected speech. The Supreme Court concluded that a six-month suspension without pay was appropriate, holding (1) a judicial disciplinary proceeding is an improper venue to press Judge Kwan's constitutional claims, and, bound by precedent, this Court declines to address the constitutional questions; and (2) Judge Kwan's online speech that he conceded the Court could permissibly sanction, combined with the other misconduct, warranted the six-month suspension. View "In re Inquiry of Honorable Judge Michael Kwan" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals reversing the district court’s order awarding a portion of settlement funds as fees to Clyde Snow & Sessions, P.C. in a wrongful death action. The wrongful death action settled after six years of litigation. Prior to dismissal or final judgment, Clyde Snow asserted a lien against a portion of the settlement funds based on its claim for attorney fees. The district court upheld the viability of that claim. Thomas Boyle, who was affiliated with Clyde Snow and represented the plaintiff in the wrongful death action, objected, citing procedural deficiencies in Clyde Snow’s intervention. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Boyle waived any objection to the defects in Clyde Snow’s intervention. View "Boyle v. Clyde Snow & Sessions, P.C." on Justia Law

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Attorney Donald Gilbert represented the Utah Down Syndrome Association and several of its founders in litigation between the Association and the Utah Down Syndrome Foundation, Inc. Gilbert filed this petition for extraordinary relief challenging (1) a 2008 district court judgment ordering Gilbert to disgorge $30,000 taken from Foundation bank accounts to pay his attorney fees, (2) an injunction that originally barred Gilbert’s clients from paying him with Foundation funds, (3) an order denying Gilbert’s motion to vacate the 2008 judgment, and (4) an order denying Gilbert’s motion for relief from the 2008 judgment. The Supreme Court denied Gilbert’s petition for extraordinary relief, holding (1) Gilbert unreasonably delayed seeking extraordinary relief from the injunction, the disgorgement order, and the denial of his motion to vacate; and (2) Gilbert failed to pursue the plain, speedy, and adequate remedy of direct appeal from the denial of his motion for relief from judgment. View "Gilbert v. Third Dist. Court Judges" on Justia Law

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Attorneys in Utah representing injured workers in workers’ compensation claims receive their fees out of the compensation awarded to the worker. IWA challenged the statute delegating the authority to regulate these fees to the Labor Commission and the Labor Commission's fee schedule. The court held that the regulation of attorney fees is included within the power to govern the practice of law. Because the Utah Supreme Court is vested with exclusive inherent and constitutional authority to govern the practice of law - and the court cannot under the separation-of-powers doctrine delegate the regulation of attorney fees to the legislature or the Commission - the court held the Commission’s fee schedule and its authorizing statute unconstitutional. The court declined to enact a fee schedule regulating the fees of injured workers' attorneys at this time. View "Injured Workers Ass'n of Utah v. State" on Justia Law

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From 2009 onward, Judge Kevin Christensen was employed as a justice court judge by four Utah municipalities. Following an investigation, the Judicial Conduct Commission (JCC) found that the salary of Judge Christensen exceeded the statutory cap on the salaries of justice court judges who are employed by more than one municipality. The JCC recommended that Judge Christensen be censured and ordered to repay the excess amounts. Before the Supreme Court, Judge Christensen argued that the statutory provision he stipulated to having violated was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court adopted the recommendations of the JCC, holding (1) Judge Christensen cannot challenge for the first time in a disciplinary hearing the constitutionality of a statute he has violated; and (2) none of the mitigating factors offered by Judge Christensen would render the proposed sanctions unjust or improper, and the ordered repayments would not violate Utah law. View "In re Judge Christensen" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether an attorney-client relationship that existed between a religious trust (Trust), and the Trust's attorneys at a law firm (Law Firm) continued after the Trust was reformed cy pres. Specifically, the Supreme Court was required to determine whether the district court's reformation of the Trust altered the Trust to such an extent that it could no longer be considered the same client for purposes of the attorney-client privilege and the Utah Rules of Professional Misconduct. The district court (1) ordered Law Firm to disgorge privileged attorney-client information to the reformed Trust (Reformed Trust), concluding that reformation of the Trust did not sever the attorney-client privilege; and (2) disqualified Law Firm from representing Movants in substantially related matters in which Movants' interests were materially adverse to the Reformed Trust. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Trust and Reformed Trust were not the same client, and therefore, there was no attorney-client relationship between Law Firm and the Reformed Trust; and (2) therefore, the district court erred when it disqualified Law Firm from representing Movants and ordered Law Firm to disgorge privileged attorney-client information to the special fiduciary of the Reformed Trust. View "Snow, Christensen & Martineau v. Dist. Court" on Justia Law