Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Bankruptcy
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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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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was tasked with determining whether a judgment against a self-represented litigant, Jon Buchholdt, was void due to improper service of process. Jeremy Nelson, Buchholdt's former client, had sued him for legal malpractice and won a judgment of $200,000, but Buchholdt argued that he was not properly served and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The main issue in this case was whether Buchholdt was properly served with the summons and complaint by certified, restricted mail sent to his law office, which was rerouted to his home and signed by his alleged agent, "Suz Miller." Buchholdt contended that he was not properly served as he never personally signed for the service, and therefore the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him.The court held that Buchholdt failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that the judgment was void. Despite his claims, Buchholdt did not provide any evidence to contradict Nelson's evidence of service or to show that Suz Miller was not authorized to receive service on his behalf. Additionally, Buchholdt had listed Nelson's lawsuit as a contingent liability when he filed for bankruptcy, indicating he had knowledge of the suit.Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of Buchholdt's motions to set aside the judgment and for reconsideration. The court did not find that the judgment was void due to a lack of personal jurisdiction resulting from improper service of process. View "Buchholdt v. Nelson" on Justia Law

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Appellant, an attorney, represented debtor in proceedings before the United States Bankruptcy Court. After Appellant failed to comply with a series of discovery orders, the bankruptcy court imposed sanctions of $55,000 for 55 days of non-compliance and $36,600 in attorneys' fees. The orders were affirmed by the district court. Appellant appealed, arguing that, first, the bankruptcy court lacked inherent authority to issue civil contempt sanctions, and second, as a matter of due process, he was not provided with sufficient notice of the basis for the sanctions imposed against him.   The Second Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the civil contempt sanctions imposed against Appellant were within the scope of the bankruptcy court's discretion and that he had ample notice of the basis and reasons for the imposition of sanctions. The court explained that it appears that Appellant could not have been sanctioned under any express authority; the bankruptcy court was right to consider its inherent contempt authority. Nor was the bankruptcy court's exercise of its inherent contempt authority contrary to any provision of the Bankruptcy Code, including Section 105(a). Further, the court reasoned that the bankruptcy court found all the necessary elements -- that is, a finding of bad faith and satisfaction of the King factors -- to order contempt sanctions in the circumstances here, where Appellant was acting as an advocate. View "In re: Larisa Ivanovna Markus" on Justia Law

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Attorney and his law firm, Pesner Kawamato Conway, P.C. (collectively, Conway), appealed the district court’s order rejecting the bankruptcy court’s report and recommendation to enjoin Smith Development, Inc.’s legal malpractice suit against Conway and to impose sanctions for violating the Barton doctrine and the automatic stay.   The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal, finding that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because the district court’s decision rests on the abstention principles. The court explained that Conway suggests the district court had no authority to enter an abstention order because, under Barton, the district court itself lacked jurisdiction over Smith Development’s malpractice claims. However, the court wrote that this argument fares no better than the first. Barton concerns subject-matter jurisdiction over a separate action, not jurisdiction over the proceedings in which a party seeks Barton protection in the first place. And even if the court accepted the argument’s doubtful premise, it fails on its own logic because the bankruptcy court issued a report and recommendation to the district court, thereby authorizing the district court to rule on the matter. Further, the court found that even if it recognized a narrow exception to Section 1334(d)’s clear jurisdictional bar, the district court’s order would not fall within it. View "Martin Conway v. Smith Development, Inc." on Justia Law

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Peraica represented Dordevic in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding and submitted a Statement of Financial Affairs (Rule 2016 disclosure) in which he reported that Dordevic had paid him $5,000. As the Trustee learned during discovery, Dordevic had actually paid Peraica $21,500. The Trustee informed Peraica that he needed to file an updated Rule 2016 fee disclosure. Peraica instead sent the Trustee an informal accounting document listing $21,500 in fees. The Trustee responded: “The Rule 2016 disclosures actually need to be filed with the Court” by submitting “an official form.” Peraica repeatedly ignored the Trustee’s reminders. The Trustee filed a motion, 11 U.S.C. 329, to examine the fees. Peraica failed to respond; the Trustee then requested that all fees be forfeited. The bankruptcy court granted the motion.The district court and Seventh Circuit affirmed. Beyond Peraica’s brazen disregard of the Trustee’s advice, Peraica’s proffered explanation for not updating his fee disclosure lacking, if not false. Peraica had been involved in more than 350 bankruptcy cases in the Northern District of Illinois alone. The bankruptcy court ordered Peraica to disgorge all past fees as a penalty for his blatant lack of compliance with his obligations. There is no leeway for partial or incomplete disclosure. View "Peraica v. Layng" on Justia Law

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The Debtors filed their bankruptcy petition in 2008. Grusin provided them legal advice before the filing and at the beginning of the bankruptcy case. Fullen filed the petition and represented them in the chapter 7 case. In 2011, the bankruptcy court granted the Trustee summary judgment in an adversary proceeding seeking to deny the Debtors’ discharge and disqualified both lawyers from further representation of the Debtors in that case. The Debtors hired new counsel, who obtained relief from the summary judgment order. Following a trial, in 2015, the bankruptcy court again denied the Debtors’ discharge. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed. In 2012, the bankruptcy court granted CJV derivative standing to pursue a malpractice action on behalf of the estate against Grusin and Fullen. Malpractice complaints were filed in the bankruptcy court and in Tennessee state court. In 2014, CJV filed another adversary proceeding, seeking declaratory relief that the malpractice claims constituted property of Debtors’ estate. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed the bankruptcy court in holding that the malpractice action for denial of debtors’ discharges based on errors and omissions contained in a bankruptcy petition, as well as pre and post-petition legal advice, was not property of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate. There was no pre-petition injury; the Debtors were injured by that negligence when their discharges in bankruptcy were denied. View "In re Blasingame" on Justia Law

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HSBC obtained a foreclosure judgment against the Lisses. To extend the time for appeal of that judgment, attorney Nora filed two bankruptcy petitions and multiple appeals, accusing HSBC and its attorney of federal crimes and seeking sanctions. The district court ultimately ordered Nora and her client to pay damages and costs related to the bankruptcy litigation and suspended her from the practice of law in the Western District of Wisconsin. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that this was not Nora’s first encounter with attorney discipline. Nora’s attempt to relitigate HSBC’s foreclosure judgment in bankruptcy court was frivolous; her stall tactics were “blatant.” Such litigation behavior—even assuming pure motives—constitutes objective bad faith warranting sanctions under 28 U.S.C. 1927. The court noted “her serial dilatory, vexatious, and unprofessional litigation practices” and frivolous motion practice and legal arguments in her appeals. Flippant, unfounded accusations of misconduct and fraud by opposing counsel and court officials demean the profession and impair the orderly operation of the judicial system. View "Nora v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A." on Justia Law

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The U.S. Trustee alleged that Husain’s bankruptcy filings regularly failed to include debtors’ genuine signatures. Bankruptcy Judge Cox of the Northern District of Illinois made extensive findings, disbarred Husain, and ordered him to refund fees to 18 clients. When he did not do so, Judge Cox held him in contempt of court. The court’s Executive Committee affirmed the disbarment and dismissed the appeal from the order holding Husain in contempt but did not transfer the contempt appeal to a single judge, although 28 U.S.C. 158(a) entitles Husain to review by at least one district judge. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the disbarment and remanded the contempt appeal for decision by a single judge. The court noted extensive evidence that Husain submitted false signatures, documents that could not have been honest, and petitions on behalf of ineligible debtors; he omitted assets and lied on the stand during the hearing. The court noted that Husain’s appeal was handled under seal and stated that: There is no secrecy to maintain, no reason to depart from the strong norm that judicial proceedings are open to public view. View "In re: Husain" on Justia Law

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Tower Homes, LLC retained William Heaton and his law firm (collectively, Heaton) for legal guidance in developing a residential common ownership project. The project eventually failed, and Tower Homes entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The plan of reorganization and confirmation order stated that the trustee and bankruptcy estate retained all legal claims. The trustee subsequently entered into a stipulation with a group of creditors (collectively, the Creditors) permitting the Creditors to pursue any legal malpractice claims in the Tower Homes’ name. The bankruptcy court then entered an order authorizing the trustee to permit the Creditors to pursue Tower Homes’ legal malpractice claim in Tower Homes’ name. The Creditors subsequently filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Heaton, naming Tower Homes as plaintiff. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Heaton, concluding that the stipulation and order constituted an impermissible assignment of a legal malpractice claim to the Creditors. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the stipulation and order constituted an assignment, which is prohibited under Nevada law; and (2) the Creditors may bring a debtor’s legal malpractice claim pursuant to 11 U.S.C. 1123(b)(3)(B) when certain conditions are met, but those conditions were not met in this case. View "Tower Homes, LLC v. Heaton" on Justia Law

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Illinois attorney Jahrling was contacted and paid by attorney Rywak to prepare documents for the sale of 90-year-old Cora’s home. Rywak’s clients paid $35,000 for Cora’s property, which was worth at least $106,000 and was later resold by the purchasers for $145,000. Cora later alleged he understood that he would keep a life estate to live in the upstairs apartment of the home rent-free. Jahrling’s sale documents did not include that life estate. Jahrling and Cora could not communicate directly and privately because Cora spoke only Polish and Jahrling spoke no Polish. Jahrling relied on counsel for the adverse parties for all communication with Cora. After the buyers tried to evict Cora, Cora sued Jahrling in state court for legal malpractice. After a partial settlement with a third party and offsets, the court awarded Cora’s estate $26,000, plus costs. Jahrling filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. Cora’s estate filed an adversary proceeding alleging that the judgment was not dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(4) because the debt was the result of defalcation by the debtor acting as a fiduciary. The bankruptcy court found in favor of the estate. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.Jahrling’s egregious breaches of his fiduciary duty were reckless and the resulting malpractice judgment is not dischargeable. View "Jahrling v. Estate of Cora" on Justia Law