Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

by
A former patients of Pediatric Partners for Attention and Learning, Inc. and its founder, Dr. Joni Johnson, sued them in state court after discovering that the clinic’s in-house psychologist, Sharonda Avery, was not a licensed psychologist. The clinic and Dr. Johnson asked their professional liability insurance carrier, Medical Mutual Insurance Company of North Carolina, to defend and indemnify them in those lawsuits. Medical Mutual responded by filing a declaratory judgment action in federal court, arguing that it could rescind the policy covering Pediatric Partners and Dr. Johnson due to Dr. Johnson’s material misstatements in her insurance applications. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Medical Mutual has no duty to indemnify or defend Dr. Johnson or Pediatric Partners under Virginia law due to material misstatements made by Dr. Johnson in her policy applications. The court affirmed the district court's decision that Dr. Johnson's misrepresentation that none of her employees had been subject to disciplinary investigative proceedings was a material misstatement, and therefore, Medical Mutual could rescind its professional liability policy covering Pediatric Partners and Dr. Johnson. View "Medical Mutual Insurance Co. of North Carolina v. Gnik" on Justia Law

by
The Supreme Court of New Hampshire ruled in a case where the defendant, Jean M. Maxi Jr., was convicted and sentenced for two crimes: attempted felonious sexual assault (FSA) and certain uses of computer services prohibited. Maxi appealed, arguing that the two charges constituted the same offense for double jeopardy purposes, thereby violating his constitutional rights. The defendant also argued pro se that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because the appellate defender failed to consider his research or argue a double jeopardy violation under the U.S. Constitution.The court found that, as charged, the two offenses required different evidence to prove different elements and did not constitute the same offense for double jeopardy purposes. The court also dismissed the defendant's pro se arguments as insufficiently developed for review. Therefore, the court upheld the lower court's decision and affirmed the defendant's conviction and sentence for both charges. View "State v. Maxi" on Justia Law

by
In Minnesota, a district court removed Brian Lipschultz as a trustee from the Otto Bremer Trust. This decision was based on his violation of Minnesota Statutes section 501C.0706(b)(1), which allows for the removal of a trustee for a “serious breach of trust.” The breaches included Lipschultz's misuse of trust resources for personal purposes, offensive behavior during a stock dispute, manipulation of a grantee, and failure to disclose his successor. Lipschultz appealed this decision, arguing that the district court and court of appeals applied an incorrect legal standard for removal and that they abused their discretion in removing him under section 501C.0706(b)(1). However, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals, stating that the district court did not abuse its broad discretion when it determined that Lipschultz committed “a serious breach of trust” under section 501C.0706(b)(1). The court concluded that Lipschultz breached the duty of loyalty and the duty of information, demonstrating a pattern of placing his personal priorities over the duties he owed to the Trust. View "In the Matter of the Otto Bremer Trust" on Justia Law

by
In a legal malpractice case in North Dakota, a couple, Kenneth and Carol Pinks, sued attorney Alexander Kelsch and his professional corporation, along with associated partners, alleging negligence in representing them in a quiet title action against the State of North Dakota. The District Court, South Central Judicial District, bifurcated the malpractice action to first determine the element of causation, specifically whether the Pinks would have achieved a more favorable outcome in the quiet title action but for the alleged negligence of the defendants. The court denied cross-motions for summary judgment, finding there were genuine issues of material fact.Following a bench trial on the causation element, the district court concluded that had the evidence of the Pinks’ ownership of the disputed land been presented in the quiet title action, they would have established their ownership claim was prior and superior to the State’s claim of title. The court concluded the Pinks proved the element of causation and ordered a jury trial be set on the remaining issues of the legal malpractice claim. The defendants appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of North Dakota, however, dismissed the appeal, ruling that the defendants were attempting to appeal from an interlocutory order, and the defendants did not seek certification under Rule 54(b) of the North Dakota Rules of Civil Procedure. The rule requires that, in cases with more than one claim or multiple parties, a final judgment on one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties can only be directed if the court expressly determines there is no just reason for delay. The court found that the district court only ruled on the causation element of the legal malpractice claim, and other elements, such as the existence of an attorney-client relationship, a duty by the attorney to the client, a breach of that duty by the attorney, and damages were still left to be adjudicated. The defendants' failure to comply with Rule 54(b) led to the dismissal of the appeal. The court also denied the Pinks' request for costs and attorney’s fees, determining that the defendants' appeal was not frivolously made. View "Pinks v. Kelsch" on Justia Law

by
Duane Burchill was convicted of two counts of robbery, one count of conspiracy to commit deceptive practices, and one count of possession of dangerous drugs in 2017. Following his conviction, Burchill filed a petition for postconviction relief, asserting that his counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor’s misconduct during his trial. The Supreme Court of the State of Montana affirmed the denial of Burchill's petition for postconviction relief.Burchill's claim of ineffective assistance centered on two main arguments. First, he argued that the prosecutor repeatedly asked him to comment on the credibility of other witnesses by asking "were they lying" questions. Second, he alleged that the prosecutor posed questions suggesting his personal opinion that Burchill's testimony was not truthful.The court, however, found that the "were they lying" questions were not improper because they had probative value in evaluating the credibility of a defendant who is claiming that everyone else is lying. The court also disagreed that the prosecutor had expressed personal opinions on Burchill's credibility. The court concluded that the prosecutor's questions were within the scope of permissible questions allowed on cross-examination. Therefore, the court found that Burchill's counsel's failure to object did not constitute ineffective assistance.The court did not find it necessary to address Burchill's claim of prejudice due to the failure of his counsel to object, as it had already determined that his counsel's performance was not deficient. Thus, Burchill's petition for postconviction relief was denied. View "Burchill v. State" on Justia Law

by
A man, David Wayne Eady, who was charged with multiple robberies in Nashville over a month, appealed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals which denied his motion to disqualify the District Attorney General’s Office from prosecuting his case. Eady argued that the District Attorney General's office should be disqualified because the District Attorney had represented him in a previous case approximately thirty years earlier. The Supreme Court of Tennessee disagreed, finding that the District Attorney did not have an actual conflict of interest under the Rules of Professional Conduct because the current case and the previous case were not "substantially related." The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the appearance of impropriety should disqualify the District Attorney General’s Office, noting that the Rules of Professional Conduct did not retain the concept of appearance of impropriety.Eady also argued that his trial was improperly conducted as a single trial for multiple offenses under the theory that the separate crimes were all parts of a larger, continuing plan. The Supreme Court of Tennessee agreed with Eady on this point, finding that the trial court erred in denying his motion to sever the offenses. The court held that the evidence did not support a finding that the offenses were parts of a larger, continuing plan, and remanded the case for a new trial on one of the counts. View "State v. Eady" on Justia Law

by
In the case under review, the appellant, David Wallace Lee, was convicted of two counts of malice murder related to the shooting deaths of Meghan Bowen and James Harden. The appellant argued on several grounds, including insufficiency of evidence, trial court errors, and ineffective assistance of counsel.The Supreme Court of Georgia concluded that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support the appellant's convictions. The evidence demonstrated a history of abuse, jealousy, and threats by the appellant towards Bowen, which escalated in the months leading up to the murders. The appellant's claims of trial court errors were also rejected, as the court found no abuse of discretion in the admission of testimony regarding the appellant's possession of a gun similar to the murder weapon and found no actual conflict of interest necessitating the disqualification of an assistant district attorney.Further, the appellant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were also rejected. The court held that the appellant failed to demonstrate that his counsel’s performance was professionally deficient and that he suffered prejudice as a result.Therefore, the court affirmed the appellant's convictions and sentence. View "LEE v. STATE" on Justia Law

by
The defendant, Luis Vendrel, was convicted for malice murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony in connection with the shooting death of Nova Jill Saffles. Vendrel appealed his convictions, arguing that he suffered a constructive denial of his right to counsel or otherwise received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. He claimed that his counsel failed to interview defense witnesses before trial, failed to prepare him to testify, and failed to conduct factual research or consult with experts to prepare to challenge the prosecution’s forensic evidence. The Supreme Court of Georgia found that Vendrel failed to establish that any of these alleged deficiencies in counsel's performance prejudiced his defense. Therefore, the court affirmed Vendrel's convictions. The court held that the defendant did not meet the stringent standard to raise a presumption of prejudice under United States v. Cronic, as he did not demonstrate that his counsel entirely failed to subject the State’s case to adversarial testing. Instead, the court applied the two-part Strickland test and found that Vendrel failed to show that his counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient or that this deficient performance prejudiced him. View "VENDREL v. STATE" on Justia Law

by
In 2018, Hassan Shareef Rashad was indicted for numerous charges including the malice murder of two-year-old Adrian Mitchell. The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld Rashad's conviction. The evidence presented at trial showed that Rashad, who was in a romantic relationship with Adrian's mother, Sydney Dean, was the only adult present when Adrian suffered fatal injuries. Witnesses reported observing concerning behavior between Rashad and Adrian, including verbal abuse and physical punishment. In October 2017, Adrian was taken to the hospital with a fractured leg, which doctors concluded was likely caused by non-accidental trauma. In April 2018, Adrian was found unresponsive and later died from what doctors concluded were non-accidental, significant force injuries. The Supreme Court of Georgia held that the evidence was sufficient to authorize a jury to find Rashad guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the malice murder of Adrian. Rashad's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were also rejected. View "RASHAD v. STATE" on Justia Law

by
In the Supreme Court of Georgia, Dedric Jackson and Dimitrius Castle were found guilty of felony murder and other related crimes after the fatal shooting of Norman Ray Moore, Jr. at a party. Jackson appealed, arguing that he received ineffective legal assistance in several ways. He alleged that his trial lawyer withdrew a request for a jury charge on justification, failed to request a charge on defense of habitation, did not object to evidence of a prior crime and bad character, and did not object to specific witness testimonies and jury instructions. Jackson also argued that the trial court should have given a jury charge on justification, even though he withdrew the request. Castle argued that the evidence at trial was insufficient to sustain his conviction for battery, his trial counsel was ineffective by failing to request certain jury instructions and by calling a defense witness, and that the trial court erred by not merging the aggravated assault verdict into the felony murder conviction. The court rejected all these arguments and affirmed the convictions in both cases. View "JACKSON v. STATE" on Justia Law