Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Wyoming Supreme Court
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This case involves a legal malpractice claim brought by Victoria Loepp against her former attorneys and their law firm. The dispute originated from an inheritance issue involving a house that Loepp was supposed to sell to her sister, Ms. Scott. Loepp hired attorney Ryan Ford to assist with the sale, but disagreements arose, leading to litigation. After a series of events, Loepp refused to accept the settlement terms negotiated by Ford, leading to his withdrawal from the case. Scott Murray replaced Ford as Loepp's counsel, but a court later ruled in favor of Scott. Loepp then filed a legal malpractice action against Ford, Murray, and their firm, alleging multiple instances of malpractice, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and gross negligence.The District Court of Natrona County dismissed Loepp's claims based on a summary judgment order that struck her malpractice expert, Michael Watters, an attorney from California. The court found that Watters was not a qualified expert because he was not familiar with legal practice in Wyoming. The court also granted summary judgment on all claims, arguing that without Watters's expert testimony, Loepp could not prove the elements of legal malpractice.The Supreme Court of Wyoming reversed the lower court's decision, finding that the district court did not fully analyze the reliability and fitness of the proffered expert under W.R.E 702. The court held that where a lawyer is licensed or practices is just one factor to consider in the W.R.E 702 analysis. The court remanded the case for further proceedings on the motion to strike and the related summary judgment decision. View "Loepp v. Ford" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around Kenya H. Bindner, who was convicted of possession of marijuana and possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. The authorities executed a search warrant at Bindner's residence, where they found methamphetamine and marijuana. Bindner was standing near the location where the drugs were found. He was charged with one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, one count of felony possession of methamphetamine, and one count of misdemeanor possession of marijuana.During the trial, Bindner's defense was that while the drugs were present in the residence, they were not his and he did not possess them. However, a text message exchange between Bindner and his girlfriend suggested that he had knowledge of the methamphetamine and had an intent to control it. The jury found Bindner guilty on all three counts. The district court dismissed the count for possession of methamphetamine on double jeopardy grounds and sentenced Bindner to a combined prison term of five to eight years on the remaining counts.Bindner appealed, claiming that his counsel was deficient in his failure to produce a potentially exculpatory witness statement. After an evidentiary hearing, the court concluded that defense counsel's performance was deficient as he failed to reasonably investigate the witness statement, which ultimately led to the exclusion of the witness's testimony. However, the court concluded that Bindner had not demonstrated a reasonable probability that the result of his trial would have been different. Therefore, the court denied Bindner's motion for a new trial. The Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the lower court's decision. View "Bindner, Jr. v. The State of Wyoming" on Justia Law

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Solomon Bolen was convicted of multiple offenses, including attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault and battery. Bolen appealed, arguing that the district court violated his due process rights by not instructing the jury on his plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness or deficiency (NGMI). He also claimed that his attorneys were ineffective for not seeking those instructions. Additionally, Bolen contended that his convictions for attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault and battery violated his right against double jeopardy.The district court had found Bolen mentally fit to proceed with the trial. Despite Bolen's NGMI plea, the court-designated examiner, Dr. Wilkinson, opined that Bolen did not meet the statutory criteria for an NGMI defense. She noted that Bolen's altered state of mind and psychosis at the time of the crimes were caused by self-induced intoxication, which is specifically excluded from the statutory definition of mental illness or deficiency. Bolen's attorneys did not pursue the NGMI defense and focused instead on the self-induced intoxication defense.The Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that Bolen did not present competent evidence to support an NGMI defense, and thus was not entitled to have the jury instructed on the defense. The court also found that Bolen's attorneys were not ineffective for not pursuing the NGMI defense, as the instructions would not have been proper even if they had renewed their request for them. Lastly, the court held that Bolen's convictions for attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault and battery did not violate his right against double jeopardy, as the crimes contained separate elements. View "Bolen v. State" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed in part and affirmed in part the judgment of the district court in favor of Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, P.C. and Kelly Rudd (collectively, BCR) in this action brought by the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Wind River Hotel & Casino (collectively, the Tribe), holding that the district court's order imposing sanctions on the Tribe was erroneous.The Tribe brought this action seeking injunctions for the return of tribal funds and documents, an accounting, and damages for conversion and civil theft. The district court granted summary judgment for BCR on the accounting and injunctions claims and, after a jury trial, entered final judgment on the conversion and civil theft claim. The Tribe appealed, arguing, among other things, that the district court erred by awarding sanctions under Wyo. R. Civ. P. 11. The Supreme Court reversed in part, holding that (1) the district court erred in imposing sanctions because BCR failed to comply with the procedural requirements of Rule 11; (2) the district court did not err when it granted summary judgment for BCR on the Tribe's accounting claim; and (3) the Tribe failed to show the verdict would have been more favorable if racially charged evidence had not been admitted. View "Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, P.C." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial District holding State Public Defender Diane Lozano in contempt, holding that the circuit court erred in ruling that the public defender must accept all appointments to serve as counsel for indigent defendants unless and until the appointing court rules otherwise.In May 2019, Lozano notified the circuit court that the public defender was unavailable to take appointments to represent misdemeanor defendants due to a heavy caseload and shortage of attorneys in its Campbell County office. The circuit court subsequently entered orders appointing Lozano or her representative to represent misdemeanor defendants in two cases. The local public defender's office declined the appointments. Thereafter, the court held Lozano in contempt. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) section 105(b) of the Public Defender Act affords the public defender discretion to decline an appointment or appointments; (2) the circuit court's order mandating that the public defender accept the two misdemeanor appointments was not lawful because it disregarded the public defender's determination that no public defender was available; and (3) because there was no lawful order, the circuit court erred in finding Lozano in contempt. View "Lozano v. Circuit Court of Sixth Judicial District" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the district court affirming the decision in favor of Petitioner’s former attorneys (Respondent-law firm) by a panel of the Wyoming State Bar Committee for Resolution of Fee Disputes. The Court held (1) the panel’s conclusion that it was neither unreasonable nor abusive for Respondent to bill its time using minimum increments of fifteen minutes was supported by substantial evidence; and (2) substantial evidence supported the panel’s conclusion that Respondent exercised billing judgment and did not excessively bill Petitioner for substantive and necessary communication between firm members and employees about Petitioner's case. View "Manigault v. Daly & Sorenson, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2014, a newspaper reporter asked Judge Ruth Neely, a municipal court judge and part-time circuit court magistrate, if she was “excited” to be able to perform same-sex marriages. Neely answered that she would not perform same-sex marriages in her judicial capacity as a part-time circuit court magistrate due to her religious beliefs. The matter came to the attention of the Wyoming Commission on Judicial conduct and Ethics. After an investigation, the Commission’s Investigatory Panel determined that there was probable cause to find a violation of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct. The Commission’s Adjudicatory Panel granted the Commission’s motion for partial summary judgment. The full Commission adopted the Adjudicatory Panel’s findings and recommendations and recommended that Judge Neely be removed from her positions as municipal court judge and part-time circuit court magistrate. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Judge Neely violated the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct by announcing that she would perform marriages only for opposite-sex couples. The Court, however, did not accept the Commission’s recommendation for removal, and, instead, order public censure with specific conditions. View "Inquiry Concerning Honorable Ruth Neely" on Justia Law

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After Barbara Magin purchased property in the Solitude subdivision, the Solitude site committee informed her that pre-existing fences and a barn were in violation of the subdivision covenants. Solitude filed a complaint against Magin, alleging violations of the covenants and seeking to recover attorney fees. Attorney Glenn Ford, who practiced in the same firm as the first attorney Magin hired before retaining other counsel, acted as Solitude's counsel. No written waiver of conflict was executed. Magin filed a motion to disqualify Ford from acting as Solitude's counsel due to conflict of interest. The motion was dismissed. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Solitude. On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding (1) Solitude's counsel had a conflict of interest, but the district court did not err by refusing to disqualify the firm because Magin's motion to disqualify was untimely; (2) the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Solitude; and (3) the district court abused its discretion by ordering Magin to pay the attorney fees generated by her former firm because it failed to segregate the non-recoverable fees associated with clearing the conflict.