Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law

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Applicant Ahmed Hamid-Ahmed appealed a Vermont Board of Bar Examiners (Board) denying his application to take the Vermont bar exam. Applicant has a bachelor’s degree with a major in criminal justice and a Master of Laws degree (LLM) from Widener University School of Law. However, he does not have a Juris Doctor (JD) or a substantially equivalent law degree from a foreign or domestic non-approved law school, he has not enrolled in a law office study program, and he has not been admitted to any other bar, foreign or domestic. Despite this, applicant argues that he is eligible to take the bar exam under Vermont Rule of Admission to the Bar 8(c)(4)’s “curing provision” by virtue of his LLM. He further argues that the Board violated his due process rights when it denied his application but did not explicitly notify him of the process for appealing that decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. Because appellant did not meet the requirements outlined in the Vermont Rules of Admission to the Bar, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In re Ahmed M. Hamid-Ahmed" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review centered on whether a court could terminate parents’ parental rights following a hearing in which, over an objection, the State was represented by the same lawyer who had previously represented the children in the same matter. Mother and father separately appealed the court’s order terminating their parental rights with respect to three of their daughters. The Supreme Court did not address many of their challenges to the trial court’s findings and conclusions because the Court concluded a conflict of interest by the State’s counsel compromised the proceedings. Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded for a new hearing. View "In re L.H., L.H. and L.H., Juveniles" on Justia Law

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After a bench trial, the trial court concluded that defendant attorney’s failure to adequately inform plaintiff Hannah Sachs of the risks of delay in filing a parentage action “negligently fell short of the standard of reasonably competent legal representation.” Despite the court’s conclusion that defendant breached her professional duty of care, the trial court determined that plaintiff failed to demonstrate direct causation or measurable damages as a result of defendant’s negligent advice. On appeal, plaintiff challenges the court’s legal conclusions and contends that the court’s factual findings established both causation and damages. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed with plaintiff, and reversed. View "Sachs v. Downs Rachlin Martin, PLLC" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Stevens Law Office appealed a trial court decision denying assignment of a future structured settlement payment from a fund administered by Symetra Assigned Benefits Service Company for legal services rendered by petitioner on behalf of beneficiary Shane Larock. Shane Larock retained petitioner to represent him in a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) proceeding which he expected to follow the birth of his daughter in early 2016. As payment, petitioner asked Larock for a $16,000 nonrefundable retainer which would be paid through assignment of that sum from a $125,000 structured settlement payment due to Larock in 2022. Under this arrangement, the structured settlement payment issuer, Symetra Assigned Benefits Service Company, would pay petitioner $16,000 directly when the 2022 periodic payment became due under the original terms of the settlement. Larock agreed to the fee arrangement and the assignment. The trial court issued a written order concluding that it could not find that the fee arrangement was reasonable because, given petitioner’s ongoing representation of Larock, such a determination would be speculative. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed and remanded so that the trial court can conduct the best-interest analysis required by statute before determining whether to deny or approve assignment of a structured settlement payment. View "In re Stevens Law Office" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend an exception to the general rule to the circumstances of this case, which wanted to impose on attorneys a duty to prospective beneficiaries of undrafted, unexecuted wills. Doing so, in the Court’s view, would undermine the duty of loyalty that an attorney owes to his or her client and invite claims premised on speculation regarding the testator’s intent. Plaintiff filed a complaint against both defendant and his law firm alleging that defendant committed legal malpractice and consumer fraud, specifically alleging defendant breached a duty of care by failing to advise mother on matters of her estate and failing to draft a codicil reflecting her intent. The court granted defendants a partial motion to dismiss on the consumer fraud allegation. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, adding another count of legal malpractice. This amended complaint alleged that defendant breached a duty owed to plaintiff to the extent that he could have successfully challenged mother’s will. According to plaintiff, he filed six affidavits from mother’s relatives, friends, and neighbors indicating that mother was committed to leaving a House she owned to plaintiff. Defendants again moved for summary judgment in which they argued that an attorney did not owe “a duty to a non-client prospective beneficiary of a nonexistent will or other estate planning document.” The trial court ruled there was no duty to beneficiaries of a client’s estate under Vermont law. The Supreme Court agreed. View "Strong v. Fitzpatrick" on Justia Law

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The information filed by the State charged Serendipity Morales with six counts of unauthorized practice of law. Morales was an inmate at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center, and it was alleged she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by helping fellow inmates in their cases, including performing legal research and drafting motions. In this probable cause review, the issue presented for the Supreme Court's consideration was whether there was probable cause to believe that Morales committed the alleged offenses. The Court concluded that there was not and accordingly dismissed the State’s information without prejudice. View "In re Serendipity Morales" on Justia Law

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K.F.'s (a juvenile) father appealed the termination of his parental rights. On appeal to the Supreme Court, he argued the trial court erred in denying his motion for new counsel since his previous lawyer had a conflict of interest. As justification, father argued that his trial counsel failed to pursue certain strategies he suggested, and that she would not introduce or object to what he felt was important evidence at trial because she had been a foster parent and was therefore sympathetic to the Department for Children and Families (DCF). The trial court did not find these arguments persuasive and denied father's motion to remove father's trial counsel. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that father did not demonstrate that his lawyer rendered ineffective counsel, and accordingly affirmed the trial court's decision. View "In re K.F." on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case centered on a jury award of emotional distress and economic damages in a legal malpractice action. Defendant challenged the damages award on the grounds that emotional distress damages were not available in a legal malpractice case and that the award of economic damages equal to the amount plaintiff paid to settle the underlying case was improper because plaintiff failed to establish that the underlying settlement was reasonable. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed as to the award of emotional distress damages and affirmed as to the economic damages award. View "Vincent v. DeVries" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Celeste Puppolo, executor of the Estate of Eva Puppolo, appealed a jury verdict in favor of Defendant Donovan & O'Connor, LLC stemming from a legal malpractice action. Plaintiff claimed that the trial court erred in denying a motion to withdraw her counsel, that she was denied a fair trial when the court allowed Defendant’s attorney to testify to the merits of the underlying medical malpractice action, and that the trial court improperly admitted expert testimony that exceeded the scope of the defendant’s expert disclosure. Plaintiff's was unpersuaded by the results of investigations into the death of her aunt Eva, and consulted with Defendant about bringing a wrongful death and survivorship claim against the aunt's nursing home and attending physicians. In light of the autopsy report, and the conclusions of the police, Defendant declined to take the case. Defendant told Plaintiff that the limitations period for the survival action began to accrue when she was appointed executor of the estate. Defendant conceded that this statement was incorrect and that the limitations period had actually begun to accrue two months earlier, when the original executor was appointed. Defendant also conceded that it failed to specifically notify Plaintiff of the two year limitations period for the wrongful death action. Plaintiff filed a complaint against the home and physicians through another attorney. Both claims were dismissed on summary judgment as time-barred. Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against Defendant, claiming that her reliance on its legal advice deprived her of the opportunity to pursue the wrongful death and survivorship claims for her aunt's death. Upon review, the Supreme Court found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its decisions in Plaintiff's case. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the jury verdict against Plaintiff. View "Puppolo v. Donovan & O'Connor, LLC" on Justia Law