Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

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Appellee Northside Leadership Conference (NLC), was a non-profit community development corporation that owned contiguous real property in Pittsburgh situated in a local neighborhood commercial zoning district designated for mixed use. In 2018, NLC applied for variances and special exceptions necessary to, inter alia, maintain the retail space, remodel and reopen the restaurant and permit the construction of six additional dwelling units. In 2018, a three-member panel of the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) conducted a hearing on NLC’s applications. Appellants Stephen Pascal and Chris Gates attended the hearing and objected to NLC’s applications. The ZBA ultimately granted the variance and special exception applications. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in approving a decision granting zoning relief despite: (1) the timing of the decision and (2) the alleged conflict of interest of one member of a three-member panel of the ZBA. We affirm in part and reverse in part, and remand for a new hearing before a different three-member panel of the ZBA.The Supreme Court found that the ZBA member ruling on the propriety of zoning applications brought by an organization on whose board she sat at all relevant times "so clearly and obviously endangered the appearance of neutrality that her recusal was required under well-settled due process principles that disallow a person to be the judge of his or her own case or to try a matter in which he or she has an interest in the outcome." The Supreme Court held the Commonwealth Court erred in rejecting appellants’ arguments on this issue and upholding the resulting tainted ZBA decision. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s order in part and reversed in part. The matter was remanded for a new hearing on the appellee NLC’s zoning applications before a newly constituted panel of the ZBA. View "Pascal, et al. v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al." on Justia Law

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The Colorado Supreme Court enjoined Robert Francis, whether acting individually or on behalf of a trust or some other entity, from ever again proceeding pro se as a proponent of a claim (i.e., as a plaintiff, third-party claimant, cross-claimant, or counter-claimant) in any present or future litigation in the state courts of Colorado. "While the Colorado Constitution confers upon every person an undisputed right of access to our state courts, that right isn’t absolute. A party’s constitutional right of access to the courts must sometimes yield to the constitutional right of other litigants and the public to have justice administered without denial or delay. Such is the case when courts are called upon to curb the deleterious impact that duplicative and baseless pro se litigation has on finite judicial resources." Francis abused the judicial process for the purpose of harassing his adversaries "for the better part of a decade." State courts warned, reprimanded, and sanctioned Francis. Even the suspension of his law license failed to deter his "appalling conduct." Under the circumstances, the Supreme Court concluded "the extraordinary injunction requested is amply justified. Of course, Francis may still obtain access to judicial relief—he just may not do so without legal representation." View "In re Francis v. Wegener" on Justia Law

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Judge Mark Watts of Jackson County, Mississippi acknowledged he made appearances or filed motions in nine cases in Jackson County Chancery Court more than six months after assuming office. He joined in the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance’s motion recommending a public reprimand and a fine of $2,500. To this, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and granted the Commission’s recommendation. View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Watts" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Sayedeh Sahba Amjadi appealed the dismissal entered after a settlement was entered by her attorney on her behalf and over her objection with defendant Jerrod West Brown, and appealed an order denying her subsequent motion to vacate the judgment. The settlement was entered by plaintiff’s attorney pursuant to a provision in the attorney’s contingent fee agreement, which purported to grant the attorney the right to accept settlement offers on the client’s behalf in the attorney’s “sole discretion,” so long as the attorney believed in good faith that the settlement offer was reasonable and in the client’s best interest. The Court of Appeal determined such a provision violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and was void to the extent it purported to grant an attorney the right to accept a settlement over the client’s objection. Accordingly, the Court held the settlement to be void and reversed the resulting judgment. The Court also referred plaintiff’s former attorneys to the State Bar for potential discipline, as required by law and by Canon 3D(2) of the Code of Judicial Ethics. View "Amjadi v. Brown" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court dismissing this lawsuit on the grounds that Defendants were not timely served, holding that a defendant's filing of an "Appearance of Counsel" does not constitute a voluntary appearance that relieves a plaintiff of the ordinary obligation to serve the defendant with the lawsuit.Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants alleging that Defendants provided Plaintiff with incorrect information regarding the income tax consequences of a sale of land. Attorneys for Defendants filed a document entitled "Appearance of Counsel," after which there was no activity in the case for nearly a year. The district court dismissed the case on the grounds that Plaintiff had not timely served Defendants. Plaintiff filed a motion to reinstate the case, asserting that the Appearance of Counsel was equivalent to service under Neb. Rev. Stat. 25-516.01(1). The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Appearance of Counsel was not a voluntary appearance and that Defendants were not timely served. View "Stone Land & Livestock Co. v. HBE, LLP" on Justia Law

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Defendant Bennie Anderson was employed by Jersey City in the Tax Assessor’s office. His position gave him the opportunity to alter property tax descriptions without the property owner filing a formal application with the Zoning Board. In December 2012, defendant accepted a $300 bribe in exchange for altering the tax description of a property from a two-unit dwelling to a three-unit dwelling. Defendant retired from his position in March 2017 and was granted an early service retirement pension. In November 2017, defendant pled guilty in federal court to violating 18 U.S.C. 1951(a), interference with commerce by extortion under color of official right. Defendant was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a fine. Based on defendant’s conviction, the Employees’ Retirement System of Jersey City reduced his pension. The State filed an action in state court to compel the total forfeiture of defendant’s pension pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:1-3.1. The trial court entered summary judgment for the State, finding that the forfeiture of defendant’s pension did not implicate the constitutional prohibitions against excessive fines because the forfeiture of pension benefits did not constitute a fine. The Appellate Division affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the State, but on different grounds, concluding the forfeiture of defendant’s pension was a fine, but that requiring defendant to forfeit his pension was not excessive. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded forfeiture of defendant’s pension under N.J.S.A. 43:1-3.1 did not constitute a fine for purposes of an excessive-fine analysis under the Federal or New Jersey State Constitutions. Because the forfeiture was not a fine, the Court did not reach the constitutional analysis for excessiveness. View "New Jersey v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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Appellant William Lewis, the former Sheriff of Greenville County, asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to hold the 1829 statute under which he was convicted for misconduct in office relating to a sexual affair with an employee, void for vagueness. Specifically, he argued Section 8-1-80 of the South Carolina Code (2019), was unconstitutional because it proscribed "official misconduct, corruption, fraud, or oppression" without defining those terms, and he claimed he was entitled to a directed verdict. Lewis was elected sheriff of Greenville County in the 2016 general election. Lewis hired Savannah Nabors, aged twenty-two, with whom he had previously worked at a local law firm, to be his administrative coordinator. Nabors had no law enforcement experience. She was paid a salary and given numerous benefits, including a new 2017 Ford Explorer equipped with a special "police package," an assigned parking place close to Lewis, a cell phone, an iPad, and a computer. Lewis first had sex with Nabors in 2017 when she accompanied him on a business trip out of state. Nabors testified that Lewis acted appropriately at times but on other occasions, he continued to pursue a relationship with her. Nabors indicated she preferred her relationship with Lewis to be nonsexual; Lewis responded that was "fine" but there would have to be changes, including her not accompanying him to meetings and other places for work. Nabors tendered her resignation in April 2017. By August 2017, Nabors detailed the out-of-state trip in a personal blog and accused Lewis (not specifically by name), of improprieties. Thereafter, she filed a civil lawsuit. Lewis held a press conference in October 2017 and admitted to the affair, but denied allegations of assault, rape, or stalking, maintaining the encounter was consensual. Following a SLED investigation, Lewis was indicted in April 2018 for common law misconduct in office and obstruction of justice. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the applicable statute constitutional, and that the trial court did not err in refusing to quash the indictment against Lewis. View "South Carolina v. Lewis" on Justia Law

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The version of the apportionment statute at issue in this appeal, OCGA 51-12-33, was enacted as part of the Tort Reform Act of 2005. Subsection (b) required damages to be apportioned “among the persons who are liable according to the percentages of fault of each person.” Subsection (b) had a critical textual difference from subsection (a): although subsection (a) applied “[w]here an action is brought against one or more persons,” subsection (b) applied only “[w]here an action is brought against more than one person . . . .” Although the Georgia Supreme Court previously decided at least one case in which the provisions of subsection (b) were applied in single-defendant cases, the Court expressly left open the question of whether such an application was proper. In this case, the Court of Appeals answered that open question by determining that the apportionment by percentage of fault directed by subsection (b) did not apply in single-defendant cases. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether subsection (b) applied in single-defendant cases and also on the question of whether an expenses-of-litigation award under OCGA 13-6-11 was subject to apportionment. Although the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on the latter question and held that such expenses were not categorically excluded from apportionment, the Court concluded the Court of Appeals was correct on the scope of application of the apportionment directed by subsection (b): it applied only in cases “brought against more than one person,” not in single-defendant lawsuits like this one. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings regarding the trial court’s apportionment of the expenses-of-litigation award. View "Alston & Bird, LLP v. Hatcher Management Holdings, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Brian Exline appealed an order granting defendant Lisa Gillmor’s special motion to strike under California's anti-SLAPP law. Exline filed a complaint against Gillmor alleging that, during her terms serving as a councilmember and then as the mayor of the City of Santa Clara (the City), Gillmor violated the Political Reform Act of 1974 (the Act) by failing to disclose on Form 700 filings her interest in, and income she received from, an entity known as Public Property Advisors. Exline argued his lawsuit was not subject to challenge under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 because it fell within the public interest exemption codified at section 425.17 (b). He contended the trial court erred by concluding that an exception to that exemption, set forth in section 425.17(d)(2) applied and rendered the exemption inapplicable. The Court of Appeal held the exception applied to completion of the Form 700, and the complaint in this case was therefore subject to the anti-SLAPP law. View "Exline v. Gillmor" on Justia Law

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David Roberson appealed a circuit court's dismissal of his claims against Balch & Bingham, LLP ("Balch"), on the basis that those claims were barred by the limitations periods contained in the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("the ALSLA"). After review of the trial court record, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed, but on grounds that differed from the trial court's. "[T]he gravamen of Roberson's claims against Balch involved the provision of legal services. However, both Roberson and Balch assert that Roberson was not Balch's client, and those assertions are borne out in the third amended complaint, which indicates that Balch was engaged by Drummond, not personally by Roberson. ... Roberson's claims against the law firm Drummond engaged, Balch, are barred by the ALSLA because Roberson cannot meet an essential element of an ALSLA claim -- namely, he was not Balch's client -- and thus Balch owed no duty to Roberson. ... the circuit court's rationale was based on the applicability of the ALSLA's limitations periods." View "Roberson v. Balch & Bingham, LLP" on Justia Law