Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

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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

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The case revolves around Clark Chandler Anderson, who was convicted of malice murder for shooting and killing Kevin Murr. Anderson argued that the killing was voluntary manslaughter, not murder, as he shot Murr after being seriously provoked. However, the jury found Anderson guilty of malice murder. Anderson appealed, contending that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, that the trial court should have given his requested jury instruction about voluntary manslaughter, and that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to certain testimonies.Previously, Anderson was found guilty of malice murder, felony murder predicated on aggravated assault, aggravated assault of Murr, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for malice murder, with a consecutive term of five years in prison for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed Anderson's convictions. The court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support Anderson’s conviction for malice murder as it showed that he intentionally shot Murr 16 times. The court also concluded that no jury instruction about voluntary manslaughter was required because the provocation that Anderson claimed was not enough to excite the “sudden, violent, and irresistible passion” that could warrant a jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter. Furthermore, the court found that Anderson's counsel was not ineffective for failing to object to the coworkers’ testimony, as the counsel wanted the jury to hear some of the testimony because it would serve counsel’s strategy of trying to evoke the jury’s sympathy. View "Anderson v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans ("Archdiocese") which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief due to numerous lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. The United States Trustee appointed an Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors ("Committee"), which included the appellants. The appellants' attorney, Richard Trahant, violated a protective order by disclosing confidential information related to abuse allegations against a priest. The bankruptcy court found Trahant's breach to be a disruption to the bankruptcy process and ordered the removal of Trahant's clients, the appellants, from the Committee.The appellants appealed their removal from the Committee to the district court, arguing that the district judge who was originally assigned their appeal should have recused himself earlier. The district court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the appellants lacked standing to appeal their removal from the Committee. The appellants then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. It found that the district court did not err in declining to vacate the judgment, and the appellants lacked standing under Article III to prosecute this appeal. The court held that the appellants failed to demonstrate an injury to any legally protected interest. Their substantive rights as creditors in the bankruptcy case were not impaired by their removal from the Committee. The court also noted that the bankruptcy court's order did not amount to a personal sanction against the appellants, but was a consequence of the conduct of their attorney. View "Adams v. Roman Catholic Church" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around the appellant, Jeffery Woods, who filed a legal malpractice lawsuit in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. The defendant in the lawsuit filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Woods then attempted to remove the lawsuit to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. However, a United States magistrate judge recommended denying Woods's petition for removal and remanding the matter back to the state court. The federal court eventually adopted this recommendation. Meanwhile, before the federal court had ruled on Woods's objections, Judge Heekin of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas granted the motion to dismiss Woods's legal malpractice lawsuit.Woods then filed a complaint for a writ of mandamus against Judge Heekin in the First District Court of Appeals, arguing that the common pleas court lacked jurisdiction over his legal malpractice lawsuit once he filed his notice of removal to federal court. He sought an order for Judge Heekin to vacate the judgment of dismissal. Judge Heekin filed a motion to dismiss Woods's mandamus complaint, arguing that Woods did not perform the necessary steps for effecting removal to federal court, and thus the common pleas court still had jurisdiction. The court of appeals dismissed Woods's mandamus complaint, but not for the reasons set forth in Judge Heekin’s motion. Instead, the court of appeals dismissed the complaint on the basis that “mandamus cannot be used to compel a particular ruling from a judge.”The Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed the court of appeals' judgment, but disagreed with its reasoning. The Supreme Court held that if Woods was correct that Judge Heekin patently and unambiguously lacked jurisdiction to dismiss the legal-malpractice action, a writ of mandamus would be an appropriate remedy. However, the Supreme Court found that Woods did not complete all the necessary steps for removal to federal court, and thus the common pleas court did not patently and unambiguously lack jurisdiction to dismiss the legal-malpractice action. Therefore, the dismissal of Woods's mandamus complaint was correct. View "State ex rel. Woods v. Heekin" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Robert Pope was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He sought post-conviction relief, but his lawyer, Michael J. Backes, abandoned him and failed to take necessary steps to protect Pope's rights. After 14 months of inaction, Pope sought help from Wisconsin's public defender, who informed him that he first needed an extension from the court of appeals. However, the court of appeals denied his request, stating that he had waited too long. Pope then sought relief from the trial court, which also denied his request due to the appellate decision. Despite multiple attempts to reinstate his appeal rights, all were unsuccessful until 2016 when the state acknowledged his right to an appeal.The state court of appeals and the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed a 2017 decision granting Pope a new trial due to the absence of a trial transcript, which was not ordered by his lawyer and was later destroyed. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that a new trial based on the absence of a transcript is only appropriate if the defendant first makes a "facially valid claim of arguably prejudicial error" that requires a transcript to substantiate. Pope, not being a lawyer and barely remembering the events of 1996, was unable to do so.In the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Pope filed a petition for collateral review under 28 U.S.C. §2254. The district court issued a conditional writ and directed the state to release Pope unless it set a retrial in motion within six months. The state appealed, leading to a deferral of the deadline. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision, modifying it to include deadlines for Pope's release on bail and unconditional release if a trial does not start within the specified timeframes. The court noted that Pope had suffered at least two violations of his constitutional rights: the right to assistance of counsel and the right to an appeal equivalent to that available to well-heeled litigants. View "Pope v. Taylor" on Justia Law