Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The defendant, Otho Harris, visited a Boost Mobile store for assistance with his broken cellphone. When told it could not be repaired, he became enraged and later set fire to the store, causing extensive damage. Harris was charged with arson and, after difficult relationships with three different appointed attorneys, he chose to represent himself and eventually pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay $195,701 in restitution.The case moved slowly due to Harris's disagreements with his appointed counsel. After the third appointed lawyer moved to withdraw, Harris decided to represent himself. He filed numerous pretrial motions and requests with the court. A few weeks before the scheduled trial date, he agreed to plead guilty and signed a written plea agreement with the government. The judge accepted his guilty plea and set the case for sentencing.On appeal, Harris challenged only the restitution order, arguing that it was not supported by a proper investigation and determination of the loss amount. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that Harris had waived his right to challenge the restitution order by expressly affirming the accuracy of the factual material in the presentence report at the sentencing hearing. The court noted that Harris had ample notice of the restitution amount, the factual basis for it, and an opportunity to object. He did not object; on the contrary, he affirmed that he was satisfied with the accuracy of the factual material in the presentence report. Therefore, the court affirmed the judgment. View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

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In 2022, Walter D. Giese was charged with cyberstalking and making harassing phone calls to Sharon Griffin, the county manager for Onslow County, North Carolina. Giese moved to disqualify District Attorney Ernie Lee and his staff from prosecuting him, arguing that Griffin's role as county manager, which included overseeing the county's facilities and public services and proposing the county budget, created a conflict of interest. Giese contended that the prosecutors had a "self-interest" in appeasing Griffin, which could influence their decision-making in his case. The district court agreed and barred the Fifth Prosecutorial District from handling the case. The State challenged this decision, but the superior court upheld the disqualification order, finding a conflict of interest.The Supreme Court of North Carolina reviewed the superior court's order and vacated it, finding that the lower courts had erred in disqualifying the entire Fifth Prosecutorial District without finding an actual conflict of interest. The court clarified that an actual conflict of interest exists when the prosecution, by virtue of a prior attorney-client relationship, obtains confidential information that has been or is likely to be used to the detriment of the defendant. The court found that this was not the case here, as there was no evidence to suggest that anyone in the Fifth Prosecutorial District had ever represented Giese or obtained confidential information that could be used against him. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "State v. Giese" on Justia Law

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In October 2016, 65-year-old David Pena was assaulted by a stranger on the street. Pena, who did not see his attacker's face during the assault, later identified Mark Watkins as the assailant. Watkins was subsequently convicted of assault in the first degree, assault in the second degree, and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. The only identification evidence presented at trial was Pena's testimony, who identified Watkins as his attacker and the person depicted in surveillance footage of the attack. The surveillance video, however, was too blurry to clearly depict the assailant's face.Watkins appealed his conviction, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a cross-racial identification instruction. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, holding that Watkins' ineffective assistance of counsel claim was unreviewable on direct appeal because it involved matters not fully explained by the record. The panel also concluded that Watkins received effective assistance under the state and federal standards because he had not shown that it was objectively unreasonable for counsel to refrain from requesting a jury charge on cross-racial identification.The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the lower court's decision. The court held that at the time of Watkins' trial in July 2017, there was no clear entitlement to a cross-racial identification charge. The court noted that while a cross-racial identification charge had been recommended by both the American Bar Association and the New York State Justice Task Force, the court's precedent had long vested the trial court with discretion over the content of an eyewitness identification charge. Therefore, the court concluded that the decision to forgo a request for the cross-racial identification charge was not the kind of "egregious" single error that rises to the level of ineffective assistance. View "People v Watkins" on Justia Law

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Jamie Pacheco filed a divorce case against her then-husband, Kevin Pacheco, in 2015. She was represented by Jeffrey Bennett, Esq., and his firm, Legal-Ease, LLC, P.A. During the divorce proceedings, Bennett voluntarily produced to Kevin's counsel, Libby, O’Brien, Kingsley, and Champion, LLC, the complete counseling session notes of Jamie’s therapist, Sandra Falsey, with one redacted line. Libby later subpoenaed Falsey without notifying Bennett and obtained her complete counseling records related to Jamie, including the unredacted therapy notes. After the divorce proceedings concluded, Jamie, still represented by Bennett, filed an action against Libby asserting claims of abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) based on Libby obtaining Falsey’s unredacted therapy notes and disclosing them to Kevin.The Superior Court (Androscoggin County, Stewart, J.) had previously granted a motion to dismiss Jamie’s tort complaint. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court partially vacated the dismissal, leaving Jamie’s claims of abuse of process and IIED in dispute. Later, Libby filed a motion to disqualify Bennett, asserting that Bennett’s continued representation of Jamie would violate Maine Rule of Professional Conduct 3.7 and prejudice Libby. The Superior Court granted Libby’s motion, finding that Bennett is likely to be a necessary witness on several topics related to the case.On appeal, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that Bennett's actions or inactions in the treatment and disclosure of Jamie’s psychotherapy records were central to Jamie’s case, and Bennett alone had this knowledge, making his testimony relevant, material, and unobtainable from other sources. The court also found that there were sound bases in the record for the lower court’s conclusion that there would be actual prejudice in allowing Bennett to continue representing Jamie. View "Pacheco v. Libby, O'Brien, Kingsley and Champion, LLC" on Justia Law

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This case involves a dispute between a lawyer, George Fleming, and his former clients, referred to as the "Wilson plaintiffs". Fleming had represented over 8,000 plaintiffs in a mass-tort action against the manufacturer of a diet pill known as "fen-phen". The Wilson plaintiffs are about 4,000 of Fleming’s former clients. Fleming had spent roughly $20 million to medically screen over 40,000 potential claimants, about 20% of whom became his clients. In 2006, Fleming settled the case for $339 million and reimbursed himself for the costs of the screenings by deducting that amount from the settlement funds. He charged his clients not just for their own medical-screening costs but also for those of approximately 32,000 people who never became his clients and who did not participate in the underlying case. This financial choice led to further litigation, with Fleming as the defendant in various actions brought by his former clients.In the lower courts, Fleming successfully opposed a motion for class certification in a federal court case brought by two of his former clients, arguing that the claims of his former clients were not sufficiently common for aggregate treatment. After the denial of class certification, another group of about 650 former clients sued Fleming for breaches of contract and fiduciary duty. Following a verdict against Fleming in this case, the Wilson plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the ground that the verdict collaterally estopped Fleming from contesting the merits of their claims against him. Fleming successfully opposed that motion, arguing that the issues presented by the other plaintiffs were not identical to those of the Wilson plaintiffs. The trial court denied the Wilson plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment without explanation. Later, Fleming moved for summary judgment, asserting defensive collateral estoppel against the Wilson plaintiffs.The Supreme Court of Texas affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals, but for a different reason. The court concluded that Fleming was judicially estopped from establishing an essential component of his summary-judgment motion. The court found that Fleming's assertions in prior litigation clearly and unequivocally contradicted his summary-judgment motion’s assertions regarding whether the Wilson plaintiffs’ legal and factual positions were materially identical to those of the other plaintiffs. The court held that Fleming was estopped from asserting that the thousands of remaining plaintiffs’ claims were materially indistinguishable. View "FLEMING v. WILSON" on Justia Law

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The case involves two attorneys, Jeffrey Peterzalek and Molly Weber, who sought to quash subpoenas for their depositions in a civil rights case brought by Charis Paulson against her employers, the State of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Public Safety (DPS). Paulson alleged gender-motivated discrimination and retaliation. Weber had represented DPS in its response to Paulson's civil rights complaint before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), while Peterzalek had represented DPS and its leaders in various other matters over the years. The district court declined to quash the subpoenas but ordered that the depositions be sealed. The attorneys then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of Iowa.The Supreme Court of Iowa granted the writ and retained the case. The attorneys argued that the court should adopt the Shelton test, which narrowly limits the circumstances in which opposing counsel may be deposed. They also argued that they should not be deposed or, alternatively, that substantial limitations should be imposed if their depositions were allowed.The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed with the attorneys' argument to adopt the Shelton test. Applying the test, the court concluded that Weber's deposition should be quashed as she was opposing counsel in the ongoing dispute and the information sought could be obtained by other means and was protected by the work-product doctrine. However, the court affirmed the district court's refusal to quash the subpoena for Peterzalek's deposition, as he was not opposing counsel in the ongoing dispute. The court remanded the case for further proceedings, including the entry of an order quashing the subpoena for Weber's deposition. View "Peterzalek v. Iowa District Court for Polk County" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around Alvin Brown, who pleaded guilty to two counts of endangerment of a child. After serving his sentence, he was put on probation. However, the State filed a petition to revoke his probation after he violated its terms. The court ordered Brown to wear an alcohol SCRAM bracelet and remain in custody at the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center until a spot was available at a halfway house. Brown was warned that leaving the halfway house would be considered an escape, which would result in additional charges. Despite these warnings, Brown absconded from the Center and was subsequently charged with escape, to which he pleaded guilty.Brown later filed a petition for postconviction relief, arguing that his conviction was invalid and his trial attorney was ineffective. He claimed that he was not in official detention when he left the Center, and therefore, the State could not charge him with escape. The district court denied his petition, finding that Brown was indeed in official detention and that he failed to establish the second prong of the Strickland test, which requires showing a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's decision. The court found no error in the lower court's determination that Brown was in official detention when he left the Center. It also agreed with the lower court's finding that Brown did not meet the second prong of the Strickland test. The court concluded that Brown's arguments were either unnecessary for the decision or without merit. View "Brown v. State" on Justia Law

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Glenn Solberg, representing himself, appealed against orders denying his motions for relief from judgment and for reconsideration. He also moved for a jury trial and disqualification of the Court, alleging bias and conflict of interest. Solberg's claims of bias were based on prior decisions that were adverse to him. Greg Hennessy, the defendant, argued that the appeal was frivolous and requested attorney’s fees and double costs.The District Court of Williams County had denied Solberg's motions for relief from judgment and for reconsideration. Solberg then appealed these decisions to the Supreme Court of North Dakota.The Supreme Court of North Dakota denied Solberg's motion for a jury trial and disqualification, stating that the law presumes a judge is unbiased and not prejudiced. The court also noted that adverse or erroneous rulings do not, by themselves, demonstrate bias. For recusal to be warranted, a judge must be partial or there must be some external influence that creates an appearance of impropriety. The court found that Solberg failed to allege facts showing bias or the existence of an external influence creating an appearance of impropriety. The court also concluded that Solberg's request for a jury trial was frivolous as the Supreme Court reviews the rulings of the district court and does not engage in fact finding. The court affirmed the orders of the district court under N.D.R.App.P. 35.1(a)(1) and (4), finding the appeal to be frivolous and completely without merit. The court also awarded Hennessy double costs and attorney’s fees in the amount of $15,697.50 for defending this frivolous appeal. View "Solberg v. Hennessy" on Justia Law

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The defendant, Dwayne Barrett, was convicted on multiple counts of conspiratorial and substantive Hobbs Act robbery, the use of firearms during such robberies, and in one robbery, the murder of a robbery victim. On appeal, Barrett argued that his initial appellate counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to challenge the sufficiency of his convictions. He also argued that his 50-year prison sentence was procedurally unreasonable based on the district court’s application of U.S.S.G. § 2A1.1 in calculating his Sentencing Guidelines range. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected all of Barrett’s arguments except for his consecutive sentence challenge, where it identified error by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lora v. United States. The court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded the case for resentencing consistent with Lora and its opinion. View "United States v. Barrett" 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