Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Linda Battise was the mother of Joseph Aucoin, deceased. Joseph and Sheila Aucoin were married and had two daughters. After Joseph’s death, Sheila began restricting Linda’s visitation with the children because Linda was not abiding by Sheila’s parental decisions. Through counsel, Linda petitioned for grandparent visitation. The chancellor encouraged the parties to confer because Sheila made some statements showing that they could come to a visitation agreement without court involvement. Linda and Sheila reached an agreement; however, the chancellor declined to sign the agreed order. The chancellor advised Sheila to retain an attorney because she did not believe that Sheila fully understood the implications of the agreement. Furthermore, the chancellor told Sheila that she was entitled to attorney’s fees. Shiela hired an attorney, and filed a motion to dismiss or stay proceedings until fees were paid in advance. The chancellor denied Linda’s motion to recuse, and ordered Linda to pay $3,500 to Sheila for attorney’s fees within thirty days or else she could not proceed with her case. Linda appealed, arguing that: (1) the chancellor erred by requiring her to prepay attorney’s fees to Sheila before Linda’s case could be heard; (2) the chancellor erred by not entering a final judgment; and (3) the chancellor erred by not recusing. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancellor's denial of the motion to recuse. The Court reversed the prepayment order, and remanded for further proceedings on the merits. View "Battise v. Aucoin" on Justia Law

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The Laniers were charged with a scheme to fraudulently obtain government contracts. During deliberations, a juror contacted assistant district attorney Nelson—a social acquaintance, not involved with the Laniers's case. Nelson informed the district judge that Juror 11 called her and said that there was a “problem” with the deliberations. No juror alerted court personnel to any problems. Convicted, the Laniers unsuccessfully requested to interview the jurors and moved for a mistrial. No one interviewed the jurors nor questioned Nelson in open court. The Sixth Circuit remanded for a Remmer hearing in 2017.On remand, the district court summoned the jurors and Nelson, ordering them not to discuss or research the case. Juror 11 nonetheless texted Nelson, suggesting that the juror had researched the case online. Nelson reported the texts to the district judge, who failed to notify the Laniers but ordered Juror 11 to preserve her texts and web-browsing history. Weeks later, the court ordered Juror 11 to turn over her phone and laptop and asked his IT staffer and law clerk to examine the devices. They discovered that the web-browsing data had been deleted. The Laniers unsuccessfully sought a full forensic exam. After Sixth Circuit intervention, the court allowed the Laniers’ expert to forensically examine the devices. Juror 11 revealed that she had discarded her phone months earlier; any potentially deleted texts and web-browsing data are unrecoverable.The district court denied the Laniers’ motions for a new trial. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Laniers were deprived of a “meaningful opportunity” to demonstrate juror bias and are entitled to a new trial to be held before another district judge. View "United States v. Lanier" on Justia Law

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Holly Cook appealed an administrative order entered by an Administrative District Judge (“ADJ”) declaring her to be a vexatious litigant pursuant to Idaho Court Administrative Rule 59. The order prohibited Cook from filing any new litigation pro se in Idaho without first obtaining leave of the court where the litigation was proposed to be filed. Ms. Cook petitioned for a divorce from her husband (“Mr. Cook”) in 2015. During the lengthy and contentious divorce proceedings, Ms. Cook had assistance of counsel for portions of the proceedings, but represented herself pro se when she did not. Some aspects of the divorce proceedings were appealed to the district court. Mr. Cook filed a moved that Ms. Cook declared a vexatious litigant. Neither party requested a hearing on Mr. Cook’s motion. The district judge presiding over the appeal referred the matter to the ADJ. The ADJ found that Ms. Cook largely failed to appear at dates set in scheduling orders that she (with and without counsel) agreed to. She failed at obtaining continuances, at having the trial judge disqualified, and to move the court for reconsideration of many intermediate decisions. She attempted to collaterally attack the default judgment of divorce, and at some point, was held in contempt for failing to respond to court orders during the divorce proceedings. Separate from the divorce proceedings, the ADJ noted Ms. Cook had filed nine pro se civil protection orders, all of which had been dismissed in favor of the parties from whom she sought protection. The Idaho Supreme Court determined the ADJ abused its discretion in declaring Ms. Cook a vexatious litigant; the ADJ did not review the merits and reason for dismissal in the nine civil protection actions, causing the ADJ to conclude incorrectly the final determinations were adverse to her. Furthermore, with respect to the divorce proceedings, the Court determined the ADJ abused its discretion by failing to make factual findings that Ms. Cook repeatedly attempted to relitigate issues already finally decided by the magistrate court. The Supreme Court concluded the ADJ did not make sufficient findings to support the conclusion that Ms. Cook’s filings were frivolous, unmeritorious, or filed with the intent to cause unnecessary delay. Accordingly, the Court reversed the prefiling order and remanded to allow the ADJ the opportunity to reconsider this matter. View "Cook v. Wiebe" on Justia Law

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Guo owned TVGC, which operated a Pleasanton spa. TVGC agreed to sell the business to Mazurova's corporation, LSI. The sale was partially financed through a promissory note. The sales agreement and promissory note contained provisions allowing a party prevailing in a legal action to recover attorney fees. After the sale, a dispute arose regarding Guo’s alleged nondisclosure of outstanding coupons for free spa services and Mazurova’s alleged failure to make payments. A judgment was entered for $161,085.58 against Guo and TVGC, which was affirmed. A subsequent order specifically stated that LSI and Mazurova were deemed the prevailing parties under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1032, “entitled to recover their costs of suit and reasonable attorney fees.” Mazurova and LSI assigned the judgment to Moorpark, which engaged in collection efforts and moved for attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 685.040.The court denied the motion because the underlying judgment did not include an award of attorney’s fees. The court of appeal reversed. The judgment awarded reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing parties, although it did not set a particular amount of fees and no costs bill including such fees was ever filed. The court’s failure to include a specific amount in the judgment does not defeat section 685.040. View "Guo v. Moorpark Recovery Service, LLC" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate to overturn Westmont College's determination that he committed sexual assault, the trial court granted plaintiff's petition. Plaintiff then moved for attorney fees, which the trial court denied. Westmont appealed from the judgment, but plaintiff did not appeal from the postjudgment order denying his attorney fee motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. After remittitur issued, plaintiff moved for attorney's fees based on the court's decision. The trial court denied the motion.The Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied the wrong standards when it denied plaintiff's attorney fee motion. In this case, the trial court erred when it denied plaintiff's post-appeal motion for attorney fees because his action against Westmont resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, and his action conferred significant benefits on a large group of people. Furthermore, the trial court abused its discretion by failing to consider whether public enforcement of plaintiff's fair hearing rights was available or adequate. The trial court also failed to consider whether the financial burden hoisted on plaintiff in prosecuting his case outweighed his own personal interests, focusing instead on the "punishment" that would be inflicted on Westmont for exercising its right to appeal. The court also agreed with plaintiff that the trial court erred when it denied his attorney fee motion due to his failure to provide a basis for apportionment between the fees he incurred to advance his private interests and those that advanced the public interest. Therefore, the court vacated the denial order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Doe v. Westmont College" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Appellants Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC and Meso Scale Technologies, LLC (collectively “Meso”) filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery against Appellee entities Roche Diagnostics GmbH, Roche Diagnostics Corp., Roche Holding Ltd., IGEN LS LLC, Lilli Acquisition Corp., IGEN International, Inc., and Bioveris Corp. (collectively “Roche”), all of which were affiliates or subsidiaries of the F. Hoffmann -- La Roche, Ltd. family of pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies. Meso alleged two counts of breach of contract. Roche prevailed at trial, and the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in 2014. In 2019, Meso brought a new action asking the court to reopen the case, vacate the judgment entered after trial, and order a new trial. Meso alleged that the Vice Chancellor who decided its case four years earlier had an undisclosed disabling conflict, namely, that Roche’s counsel had been simultaneously representing him in an unrelated federal suit challenging the constitutionality of Delaware’s law providing for confidential business arbitration in the Court of Chancery, 10 Del. C. 349. In that federal litigation, which ended in 2014, the Chancellor and Vice Chancellors of the Court of Chancery, as the parties responsible for implementing the challenged statute, were nominal defendants (hereinafter, the “Judicial Officers”). The Court of Chancery denied relief and dismissed the action. Meso appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery. View "Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Dean Sherman appealed a superior court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Appellee Stephen P. Ellis, Esquire. The appeal presented two issues: (1) whether the traditional “but for” test for proximate cause applied in a “transactional” legal negligence case, or whether it is sufficient that the alleged negligence creates an increased risk of future damages; and (2) whether the evidence satisfied the summary judgment requirement that there be no genuine issue as to any material fact. As to the first issue, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the traditional “but for” test, not a risk of future damages test, was the appropriate test for determining proximate cause. As to the second issue, the Court concluded the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Sherman, raised a genuine issue of material fact, and that summary judgment should have been denied. This second conclusion required that the superior court's judgment be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Sherman v. Ellis" on Justia Law

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For many years, attorney Conn obtained social security benefits for his clients by submitting fraudulent reports and bribing an Administrative Law Judge. After the government discovered this fraud, the SSA decided to redetermine whether each of Conn’s 1,500 claimants was actually eligible for disability benefits. The SSA held hearings and allowed the claimants to submit evidence but categorically excluded medical reports created by the doctors with whom Conn had conspired because it had “reason to believe” fraud was involved in the creation of the reports (42 U.S.C. 1383(e)(7)(A)(ii))). The claimants were not permitted to challenge that finding. After the denials of their claims, 57 plaintiffs filed suit.The Sixth Circuit held that the exclusion of the reports violated the Due Process Clause and the APA. On remand, the district courts concluded that remand to the SSA was proper because “the Commissioner erred in some respect in reaching the decision to deny benefits.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed the subsequent denial of the plaintiffs’ motions for attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The government’s position in the litigation was “substantially justified,” in light of the precedent cited by the government, the rationale for the decision, and the fact that district courts across the country have split on this issue. The case involved numerous issues of first impression. Despite the fact that the government’s arguments were rejected, a reasonable person could have believed them to be correct. View "Wireman v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement plaintiff Brian Delaney signed when he engaged the representation of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. was enforceable in light of the fiduciary responsibility that lawyers owe their clients and the professional obligations imposed on attorneys by the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs). In 2015, Delaney, a sophisticated businessman, retained Sills to represent him in a lawsuit. He met with a Sills attorney who presented him with a four-page retainer agreement. It was understood that Trent Dickey was slated to be the attorney primarily responsible for representing Delaney reviewed and signed the retainer agreement in the presence of the Sills attorney without asking any questions. After the representation was terminated, a fee dispute arose and, in August 2016, Sills invoked the JAMS arbitration provision in the retainer agreement. While the arbitration was ongoing, Delaney filed a legal malpractice action against Dickey and the Sills firm. The complaint alleged that Dickey and Sills negligently represented him. The complaint also alleged that the mandatory arbitration provision in the retainer agreement violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and wrongly deprived him of his constitutional right to have a jury decide his legal malpractice action. The trial court held that the retainer agreement’s arbitration provision was valid and enforceable. Additionally, the court determined that Delaney waived his right to trial by jury by agreeing to the unambiguously stated arbitration provision. The Appellate Division disagreed, stressing that Sills should have provided the thirty-three pages of JAMS arbitration rules incorporated into the agreement, that Sills did not explain the costs associated with arbitration, and that the retainer included a fee-shifting provision not permissible under New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that, for an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement to be enforceable, an attorney must generally explain to a client the benefits and disadvantages of arbitrating a prospective dispute between the attorney and client. "Delaney must be allowed to proceed with his malpractice action in the Law Division. We affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand to the Law Division" for further proceedings. View "Delaney v. Dickey" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's award of attorney's fees to plaintiff after a jury trial on plaintiff's lemon law claims. HNL argued that plaintiff's counsel failed to provide evidence of their hourly rates, (2) the trial court erred in refusing to apportion attorney's fees, (3) the trial court erred in applying a lodestar multiplier, and (4) TD was not liable for attorney's fees under title 16, section 433.2 of the Code of Federal Regulations (2020) (the Holder Rule).The court upheld the amount of attorney's fees award, finding no abuse of discretion. The court explained that substantial evidence supported the Lodestar amount; there was no abuse of discretion in refusing to apportion the fee award; and there was no abuse of discretion applying a Lodestar multiplier. The court also upheld the trial court's ruling that TD is liable for attorney's fees, and concluded that the Holder Rule does not limit the attorney's fees that a plaintiff may recover from a creditor-assignee. View "Pulliam v. HNL Automotive Inc." on Justia Law