Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The First Circuit reversed the judgment of the federal district court imposing Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 sanctions against attorney Michael McArdle, counsel on a state court complaint, holding that the district court erred in imposing Rule 11 sanctions against McArdle based on the amended complaint and that Rule 11's procedural requirements were not met in this case.Nicholas Triantos, a lawyer, sued several defendants in Massachusetts Superior Court asserting various claims arising out of a foreclosure on his property. McArdle was counsel of record for Triantos and signed the state court complaint. After the case was removed to federal district court McArdle did not enter a notice of appearance. Triantos himself entered a pro se notice of appearance and signed and filed an amended complaint. The district court later dismissed the amended complaint for failure to state a claim. Appellant moved for sanctions against Triantos and McArdle under Rule 11, which the district court granted. McArdle moved for relief from this order under Rule 60(b), but the district court summarily denied the motion. The First Circuit reversed, holding that the district court made two errors in imposing Rule 11 sanctions against McArdle and that McArdle's Rule 60(b) motion should have been granted. View "Guaetta & Benson, LLC v. McArdle" on Justia Law

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Kimberlyn Seals and her counsels of record, Felecia Perkins, Jessica Ayers, and Derek D. Hopson, Sr., appealed a chancery court's: (1) Contempt Order entered on April 8, 2020; (2) the Temporary Order entered on April 28, 2020; (3) the Jurisdictional Final Judgment entered on June 16, 2020; (4) the Final Judgment on Motion for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law entered on June 18, 2020; and (5) the Amended Final Judgment entered on June 18, 2020. Seals argued the chancellor lacked jurisdiction and erroneously found them to be in contempt of court. These orders arose out of a paternity suit filed by the father of Seals' child, born 2017. A hearing was set for April 7, 2020, but Seals sought a continuance. The motion was deemed untimely, and that the court expected Seals and her counsel to appear at the April 7 hearing. When Seals and her counsel failed to appear, the court entered the contempt orders at issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court: (1) affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Perkins and Ayers were in direct criminal contempt for their failure to appear at a scheduled April 7 hearing; (2) vacated the $3,000 sanction because it exceeded the penalties prescribed by statute; (3) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees to opposing counsel; (4) found the chancellor erred in finding Hopson to be in direct criminal contempt for failing to appear - "Constructive criminal contempt charges require procedural safeguards of notice and a hearing;" and (5) found the chancellor erroneously found the attorneys to be in direct criminal contempt for violation of the September 2019 Temporary Order. "If proved, such acts are civil contempt." The matter was remanded for a determination of whether an indirect civil contempt proceeding should be commenced. View "Seals, et al. v. Stanton" on Justia Law

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In September 2022, the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission sent letters to Fischer, who is running for the Kentucky Supreme Court, and Winter, who is running for the Court of Appeals, stating that unidentified individuals had filed complaints, alleging they had “engaged in political or campaign activity inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary," including references to the Republican Party and “pledges, promises or commitments in connection with cases, controversies, or issues likely to come before the Court—specifically the issue of abortion.” The candidates requested additional information, identifying statements that might have prompted the complaints and explaining why the First Amendment protected the statements. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, raising facial and as-applied challenges to Kentucky's Judicial Conduct Rules. They sought an emergency injunction pending appeal, justifying their request based on “the passage of 12 days without a ruling in the middle of an election cycle,” and the “specter of … self-censorship.”That day, the district court denied the request for a preliminary injunction on standing grounds. The Sixth Circuit granted a preliminary injunction, protecting specific campaign statements. The candidates have standing and have demonstrated a likely constitutional violation. There is a credible threat of enforcement of the Rules. The candidates have guessed which of their statements might have violated the rules; the First Amendment protects each. “When a judicial commission sends vague and threatening letters to candidates on the eve of election, it puts the candidates to a choice between self-censorship and uncertain sanctions.” View "Fischer v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission ("the JIC") filed a complaint against Judge John Randall "Randy" Jinks, the Probate Judge for Talladega County, Alabama, alleging that he had violated the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics by frequently exhibiting an inappropriate demeanor, by inappropriately using a work-assigned computer and a work-assigned cellular telephone, and by abusing the prestige of the Office of Probate Judge. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary, ("the COJ") found that the evidence supported some of the charges alleged and removed Judge Jinks from office. Judge Jinks appealed. After reviewing the record in this case, the Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that the judgment of the COJ was supported by clear and convincing evidence. Accordingly, the judgment of the COJ was affirmed. View "Jinks v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the determination of the Judicial Conduct Commission that Family Court Judge Julia Gordon committed judicial misconduct and ordered that she be removed from office, holding that there was no error warranting reversal of the Commission's final order.The Commission served Judge Gordon with notice of formal proceedings outlining six charges against her alleging violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Commission ultimately found that the claims against Judge Gordon indicated violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and removed her from office. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that, given Judge Gordon's numerous violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, the sanction of removal was appropriate. View "Gordon v. Judicial Conduct Commission" on Justia Law

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Janelle Henderson, a Black woman, and Alicia Thompson, a white woman, were involved in a motor vehicle collision. Thompson admitted fault for the collision but made no offer to compensate Henderson for her injuries. Henderson claimed that her preexisting condition was seriously exacerbated by the collision and sued for damages. During the trial, Thompson’s defense team attacked the credibility of Henderson and her counsel—also a Black woman—in language that called on racist tropes and suggested impropriety between Henderson and her Black witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of only $9,200 for Henderson. Henderson moved for a new trial or additur on the ground that the repeated appeals to racial bias affected the verdict, yet the trial court did not even grant an evidentiary hearing on that motion. The court instead stated it could not “require attorneys to refrain from using language that is tied to the evidence in the case, even if in some contexts the language has racial overtones.” The Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing and also by failing to impose any sanctions for Thompson’s discovery violations. Judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Henderson v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Memphis attorney Skouteris practiced plaintiff-side, personal injury law. He routinely settled cases without permission, forged client signatures on settlement checks, and deposited those checks into his own account. Skouteris was arrested on state charges, was disbarred, and was indicted in federal court for bank fraud. At Skouteris’s federal trial, lay testimony suggested that Skouteris was not acting under any sort of diminished cognitive capacity. Two psychologists examined Skouteris. The defense expert maintained that Skouteris suffered from a “major depressive disorder,” “alcohol use disorder,” and “seizure disorder,” which began during Skouteris’s college football career, which, taken together, would have “significantly limited” Skouteris’s “ability to organize his mental efforts.” The government’s expert agreed that Skouteris suffered from depression and alcohol use disorder but concluded that Skouteris was “capable of having the mental ability to form and carry out complex thoughts, schemes, and plans.” Skouteris’s attorney unsuccessfully sought a jury instruction that evidence of “diminished mental capacity” could provide “reasonable doubt that” Skouteris had the “requisite culpable state of mind.”Convicted, Skouteris had a sentencing range of 46-57 months, with enhancements for “losses,” abusing a position of trust or using a special skill, and committing an offense that resulted in “substantial financial hardship” to at least one victim. The district court varied downward for a sentence of 30 months plus restitution of $147,406. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the jury instructions, and the sentence. View "United States v. Skouteris" on Justia Law

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Two drivers sued Bailey Trucking for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. 216(b), and Indiana wage laws by failing to pay drivers for time spent working before and after hauling jobs. The employees’ first attempt at class/collective certification was unsuccessful; the court concluded that class counsel Weldy’s disciplinary record precluded him from representing the class. On reconsideration, the court conditionally certified an FLSA collective and certified a Rule 23 class. Almost four years later, the court decertified the class and collective; finding the number of plaintiffs too small for collective resolution to provide any efficiency above simple joinder. The employees amended their complaint to add nine plaintiffs. The court granted the employees partial summary judgment. The parties negotiated settlements.The court approved a settlement that reflected a full recovery of claimed damages for the two-year period preceding the suit, plus a partial recovery for the third year of damages that would have been available if the employees proved a willful FLSA violation, concluding that an immediate partial recovery outweighed the time and risk of trial. The employees sought an award of more than $200,000 in attorney’s fees under FLSA. The court awarded $70,000. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it lowered the fee award after concluding that Weldy overbilled his hours and the employees obtained only partial success. View "Koch v. Jerry W. Bailey Trucking, Inc." on Justia Law

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In this unlawful detainer action, counsel for plaintiff Shapell Socal Rental Properties, LLC (Shapell) requested and obtained a default and default judgment against defendant Chico’s FAS, Inc. (CFI) in direct violation of the ethical and statutory obligations confirmed in LaSalle v. Vogel, 36 Cal.App.5th 127 (2019). In the course of the underlying lease dispute, CFI had asked Shapell to direct communications regarding the subject lease to CFI’s counsel. Despite that request, Shapell’s counsel never communicated with CFI’s counsel about an intent to seek a default and default judgment before requesting one from the trial court. Shapell’s counsel not only failed to notify CFI’s counsel of the complaint, counsel also effected service of the complaint and the request for entry of default and default judgment in a way intentionally and precisely calculated to create a strong possibility of a default. CFI brought a motion under California Code of Civil Procedure sections 473(b) and 473.5 to set aside the default and default judgment. In that motion, CFI called out Shapell on its counsel’s ethical and statutory violation. Shapell’s response was to call CFI’s argument “specious.” The trial court denied CFI’s motion and failed to address the breach of ethical and statutory duties by Shapell’s counsel. The Court of Appeal could not "abide that result. Several factors applicable to motions for relief from default, along with counsel’s breach of ethics and of section 583.130, support our decision to reverse the order denying CFI’s motion to set aside the default and default judgment." View "Shapell Socal Rental Properties v. Chico's FAS" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law