Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

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An attorney began representing two injured workers after both encountered difficulties representing themselves in their workers’ compensation claims against the same employer. Both claimants then successfully resolved their claims through mediation, with both receiving substantial settlements. The parties were unable to resolve the question of their attorney’s fees, so the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board held hearings on that issue. The Board limited the witnesses at the hearings and ultimately awarded significantly reduced attorney’s fees in both claims. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decisions. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission incorrectly interpreted Alaska case law about attorney’s fees, because the Board denied the claimants the opportunity to present witnesses, and because the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to both claimants was manifestly unreasonable, the Supreme Court reversed in part the Commission’s decisions and remanded for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court denying Defendants' motion to dismiss for improper venue, holding that venue was not proper in Sheridan County. Plaintiffs brought this action in Sheridan County for legal malpractice against two attorneys and their firm. Defendants resided and had their personal place of business in Albany County. Defendants were served with the complaint at their place of business in Albany County. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that venue was improper in Sheridan County. The district court denied the motion, finding that Defendants could reasonably have expected to be summoned in Sheridan County. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court abused its discretion when it denied Defendants' motion to dismiss based on an erroneous interpretation of the venue provision in Wyo. Stat. Ann. 1-5-108. View "Aron v. Willey" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline (“the Commission”) recommended approval of a Stipulation for Public Censure and Suspension against Judge Lance P. Timbreza. In June 2019, Judge Timbreza was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence and Careless Driving. As he drove home from a party, Judge Timbreza crashed his vehicle into roadside trees and bushes while avoiding a collision with another vehicle. Judge Timbreza contacted the Commission by phone to report his arrest and the charges against him. Judge Timbreza pled guilty to Driving While Ability Impaired and was sentenced to one year of probation, alcohol monitoring, a $200 fine, useful public service, and two days of suspended jail time. By driving while his ability was impaired by alcohol, the Commission determined Judge Timbreza failed to maintain the high standards of judicial conduct required of a judge. The Commission found Judge Timbreza’s conduct violated Canon Rules 1.1 and 1.2 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct. Consistent with the Stipulation, the Commission recommends the Colorado Supreme Court issue a public censure and a twenty-eight-day suspension of Judge Timbreza's judicial duties without pay. The Supreme Court adopted the Commission’s recommendation. View "In the Matter of: Judge Lance P. Timbreza" on Justia Law

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Sepling, represented by SC, pled guilty to importing GBL, a controlled substance analogue, 21 U.S.C. 952; Sepling’s sentence would be calculated without consideration of the Guidelines career offender section. Sepling was released on bond pending sentencing and became involved in a conspiracy to import methylone, another Schedule I controlled substance. He was charged under 21 U.S.C. 963. A search uncovered three kilograms of methylone. Subsequent investigation revealed that the conspiracy involved approximately 10 kilograms. A Public Defender (APD) represented Sepling on the new charges. The prosecution agreed to withdraw the new charge; in exchange, Sepling’s involvement in the conspiracy would be factored into his GBL sentence as relevant conduct. The APD ceased representing Sepling. Sepling’s unmodified Guideline range for the GBL was 27-33 months. The methylone relevant conduct dramatically increased his base offense level. The PSR analogized methylone to MDMA, commonly called “ecstasy,” and held him responsible for 10 kilograms, resulting in responsibility equivalent to that for conspiring to distribute five and a half tons of marijuana, for a sentencing range of 188-235 months. SC did not object to that calculation, nor did he file a sentencing memorandum. Rather than researching the pharmacological effect of methylone, SC relied upon Sepling to explain the effects of methylone. SC, the government, and the court all confessed that they did not possess any substantive knowledge of methylone The Third Circuit vacated the 102-month sentence. Sepling was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness. View "United States v. Sepling" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court denied the writ of prohibition sought by the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority (WVRJA) seeking to have the Court prohibit the circuit court from enforcing its order denying the WVRJA's motion to dismiss Bobbi Bryant's complaint against it as time barred, holding that WVRJA failed to demonstrate that the circuit court's order was clearly erroneous. The WVRJA moved to dismiss Bryant's complaint on the sole basis that the claims asserted against it were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The circuit court found that because the statute of limitations was appropriately tolled as to the co-defendant and because Bryant alleged a civil conspiracy cause of action the statute of limitation as to the co-defendant was imputed to the WVRJA. The WVRJA then filed a petition for writ of prohibition with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied the petition, holding that the circuit court did not commit clear legal error in denying WVRJA's motion to dismiss the complaint as time barred, based on the applicable statute of limitations, such that a writ of prohibition is warranted. View "State ex rel. Regional Jail Authority v. Honorable Carrie Webster" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court answered a question certified by the federal district court by concluding that the term "person" as used in the wrongful death statute, W. Va. Code 55-7-5 and 55-7-6, does not include an ectopic embryo or an ectopic fetus. Three years after Defendant performed a bilateral tubal litigation on Plaintiff for permanent sterilization purposes doctors discovered a live ectopic pregnancy located in Plaintiff's left fallopian tube. Because the ectopic pregnancy had no chance of resulting in a live birth and would result in Plaintiff's death if allowed to continue, the ectopic embryo was removed. Plaintiff, on behalf of herself and as the administratrix of the estate of her ectopic embryo, and her husband filed suit against Defendant, asserting wrongful death. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The federal district court then certified two questions to the Supreme Court for resolution. The Supreme Court answered the second question, rendering the first question moot, holding that the term "person" as used in the wrongful death statute does not include an ectopic embryo or an ectopic fetus. View "Saleh v. Damron" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeals answered in the negative a question certified to it by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit asking whether N.Y. Pub. Health Law 230(11)(b) creates a private right of action for bad faith and malicious reporting to the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, holding that there is not indication that the legislature intended to create a private right of action in section 230(11)(b). Plaintiff, a surgeon, treated four injured patients insured by Defendant and submitted claims to Defendant in connection with each patient. Defendant later filed complaints with the Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) alleging insurance fraud. After OPMC declined to impose discipline against Plaintiff, Plaintiff commenced this action asserting that Defendant's complaints lacked a good-faith basis in violation of section 230(11)(b) and interposed a separate caused of action for defamation. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that section 230(11)(b) does not imply a private right of action. The federal district court granted the motion. On appeal, the Second Circuit certified the above question to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that the statutory text and legislative history of the statute do not imply a legislative intent to create a right of action under section 230(11)(b). View "Haar v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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In 2010, the Foundations and their insurance broker, Gallagher, discussed the renewal of the Foundations’ $25 million directors and officers (D&O) insurance coverage. The Foundations wanted to obtain the same coverage with a reduced premium. Gallagher offered renewal of the existing Chubb policy or the purchase of a $25 million Chartis policy, stating that the Chartis policy provided the same coverage with a premium that was $3400 lower. Unbeknownst to the Foundations, the Chartis policy contained a broad exclusion of claims related to securities transactions; the Chubb policy contained a narrower exclusion. In 2007, the Foundations sold their Tribune stock for $2 billion during a leveraged buyout. A year later, the Tribune filed for bankruptcy. The Foundations were named in suits filed by aggrieved shareholders, alleging fraud. The Foundations tendered the litigation to Chartis, which denied coverage. The Foundations, asserting that Chubb would have defended and indemnified them, sued Gallagher for breach of contract and professional negligence. Gallagher’s defenses asserted that the Foundations’ conduct was fraudulent and uninsurable and that the Foundations knew of “an ongoing, progressive loss” before changing insurers. Gallagher subpoenaed the Foundations and their attorneys, seeking communications related to the Tribune bankruptcy and the litigation. The Foundations asserted attorney-client privilege. The circuit court applied an exception, finding that Gallagher had a “common interest” with the Foundations because it was “standing in the insurer’s shoes for the purposes of this malpractice issue and may bear the ultimate burden of payment of the underlying claims and defense costs.” The Illinois Supreme Court reversed. The common-interest exception to the attorney-client privilege does not extend to these circumstances, where there is no insured-insurer relationship between the parties and the party claiming the privilege is bringing suit based on the defendant’s negligence in failing to procure appropriate insurance as a broker. View "Robert R. McCormick Foundation v. Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Sundar Natarajan filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandate to overturn the November 2015 revocation of his staff membership and privileges at St. Joseph’s Medical Center of Stockton (St. Joseph’s), the fictitious name of an entity defendant Dignity Health owned and operated. In September 2017, the trial court denied the petition, entering judgment in favor of defendant. Before the Court of Appeal, plaintiff claimed he was denied due process, and sought to nullify any preclusive effects the internal decision might have on any subsequent action in court, though he did not explain how he would be entitled to this requested relief. Furthermore, he argued the circumstances of the hearing officer’s relationship with defendant gave rise to an unacceptable risk of bias from a pecuniary interest in future employment with defendant, and the internal decision revoking his staff membership and privileges did not apply objective standards. The Court of Appeal determined the hearing officer's employment did not violated principles of fair procedure, and the ultimate decision was based on objective standards. Therefore, the Court affirmed denial of relief. View "Natarajan v. Dignity Health" on Justia Law

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James Broten appealed the dismissal of his attorney malpractice claim. Broten was appointed to serve as the personal representative of his father’s estate. Broten was sued by his sisters who claimed Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative by transferring land held in the trust to himself. In 2011, Broten retained attorney Ralph Carter to defend him against his sisters’ claims. During Carter’s representation, Broten showed Carter approximately sixty boxes of records Broten believed documented payments to his parents and provided a defense to his sisters’ claims. Broten repeatedly inquired with Carter about his review of the records. The records were not disclosed to the opposing party during discovery but disclosed after Carter was replaced as Broten’s counsel in March of 2013. In August 2013, the district court entered an order finding Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative of his father’s estate, ultimately requiring Broten to pay damages to his sisters in an amount of $1,300,054. Broten alleged Carter’s failure to review and disclose the documents prevented all of the records from being introduced as evidence and resulted in the liability to his sisters. Carter moved for summary judgment, arguing the applicable two year statute of limitations barred Broten’s claim. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Carter and awarded to Carter the recovery of costs and fees, including the costs expended for expert witnesses who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Broten argued the district court erred in granting summary judgment after finding his claim was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. He also challenged the inclusion of expert witness fees within the expenses awarded by the district court for experts who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Broten v. Carter, et al." on Justia Law