Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Bankruptcy
Lucas v. Stevenson
Tamara Lucas and her husband James brought a legal malpractice claim against attorney Mat Stevenson after they hired Stevenson to defend James against criminal charges and to represent them in a civil suit against the city police department, the city, and individual police officers that arrested James for disturbing the peace and felony assault on a peace officer. However, Stevenson later learned that the Lucases had previously filed for bankruptcy. The civil suit was determined to an asset of the bankruptcy estate, and Stevenson was reassigned to pursue the case on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. After a settlement agreement was reached, the Lucases brought this action against Stevenson. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Stevenson. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court correctly determined (1) the Lucases' civil claims were properly determined to be an asset of the bankruptcy estate; and (2) Stevenson did not represent the Lucases at the time the claims were settled, and therefore, the Lucases had no standing to bring a legal malpractice claim against him. View "Lucas v. Stevenson" on Justia Law
Waldman v. Stone
Stone owned STM, which owed Fifth Third about $1 million, secured by liens on business assets and on Stone’s house. Stone’s attorney, Atherton, introduced Stone to Waldman, a potential investor. Stone did not know that Atherton was indebted to Waldman and had given Waldman STM’s proprietary business data. Atherton filed STM’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition to preserve assets so that Waldman could acquire them. Atherton allowed the automatic stay to expire. Fifth Third foreclosed, obtaining judgments and a lien on Stone’s house. Waldman paid Fifth Third $900,000 for the bank’s rights. Waldman and Atherton offered to pay off Stone’s debts and employ him in exchange for STM’s assets and told Stone to sign documents without reading them, to meet a filing deadline. The documents actually transferred all STM assets exchange for a job. Ultimately, Waldman owned all STM assets and Stone’s indebtedness, with no obligation to forgive it. Waldman filed garnishment actions; Stone filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, alleging that Waldman had fraudulently acquired debts and assets. Atherton was disbarred. The bankruptcy court found that Waldman and Atherton had perpetrated “egregious frauds,” invalidated Stone’s obligations, and awarded Stone $1,191,374 in compensatory and $2,000,000 in punitive damages. The district court affirmed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the discharge, but vacated the award of damages as unauthorized. View "Waldman v. Stone" on Justia Law
Nuveen Mun. Trust v. Withumsmith Brown PC, et al
In connection with a loan, Bayonne provided Nuveen with an audit report authored by accounting firm, Withum and an opinion letter from Bayonne’s counsel, Lindabury. Soon after the transaction, Bayonne filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, 11 U.S.C. 101. Nuveen claimed that the audit report and opinion letter concealed problems with Bayonne’s financial condition and that, had it known about these financial issues, it would not have entered into the transaction. The district court dismissed claims of fraud (Withum), negligent misrepresentation, and malpractice (Lindabury) based on Nuveen’s noncompliance with New Jersey’s Affidavit of Merit statute, N.J. Stat. 2A:53A-26, which requires an affidavit of merit for certain actions against professionals. The Third Circuit remanded for reconsideration of diversity jurisdiction. On remand, the court accepted an argument that the action was “related to” Bayonne’s bankruptcy proceeding, establishing jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1334(b), and again dismissed. The Third Circuit affirmed as to jurisdiction and held that the AOM Statute can be applied by a federal court without conflicting with FRCP 8. If the AOM Statute applies, noncompliance requires dismissal. The court certified to the New Jersey Supreme Court questions relating to the “nature of the injury” and “cause of action” elements of the statute. View "Nuveen Mun. Trust v. Withumsmith Brown PC, et al" on Justia Law
McDaniel, Jr. v. Blust
Plaintiffs appealed a district court order dismissing several of their claims in a suit regarding conduct that occurred during bankruptcy proceedings. Plaintiffs were former officers of EBW Laser, a company that entered bankruptcy in 2005. After the case was converted to Chapter 7, the court appointed attorney Charles Ivey as trustee and Ivey subsequently retained his firm (IMGT) to serve as his counsel and to prosecute an adversary proceeding he had filed against plaintiffs. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in dismissing their claims against the IMGT defendants under the Barton doctrine. The Supreme Court established in Barton that before another court could obtain subject-matter jurisdiction over a suit filed against a receiver for acts committed in his official capacity, plaintiff must obtain leave of the court that appointed the receiver. The court held that the district court properly dismissed plaintiffs' claims and properly applied the Barton doctrine. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court's order. View "McDaniel, Jr. v. Blust" on Justia Law
Encite, LLC v. Soni, et al.
This case involved a claim for breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty that stemmed from a dispute regarding assets of IFCT, a now defunct tech startup company founded by Stephen Marsh to develop potentially revolutionary micro fuel cell technology. The crux of plaintiff's argument was that the Director Defendants conducted an unfair and disloyal bidding process, whereby they favored the Echelon-backed bid and refused to follow up on or negotiate with other superior bids. As a result, IFCT missed its chance to sell its assets at the peak of their value and was forced to sell its assets at a discount in bankruptcy. Given that the Director Defendants have conceded the applicability of entire fairness review and given the fact-intensive nature of that review, the court found that the Director Defendants have not met their burden at this stage to achieve summary judgment against Encite. The court also found that material facts remained as to the liability of Echelon for aiding and abetting the alleged breach of fiduciary duty by the Director Defendants and therefore, the court denied Echelon's motion for summary judgment on that claim. The court finally found that material facts also remained regarding Echelon's third party claims, and so denied Marsh's motion for summary judgment. View "Encite, LLC v. Soni, et al." on Justia Law
In re: Taylor, et al
The United States Trustee, Region 3, appealed a district court’s reversal of sanctions originally imposed by the bankruptcy court on attorneys Mark Udren and Lorraine Doyle and HSBC for violating the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. "This case [was] an unfortunate example of the ways in which overreliance on computerized processes in a high-volume practice, as well as a failure on the part of client and lawyers alike to take responsibility for accurate knowledge of a case, can lead to attorney misconduct before a court." At issue were two pleadings that HSBC’s attorneys filed in bankruptcy court. Both documents contained imperfect information and were filed with the court. The attorneys appealed the sanctions order arguing that the facts contained in the filed documents were "actually literally true." Upon review, the Third Circuit found that the statements therein were not wholly true, and faulted counsel for "rubber-stamping" the information taken from its computerized database without additional investigation as to their veracity: "[w]here a lawyer systematically fails to take any responsibility for seeking adequate information from her client, makes representations without any factual basis because they are included in a "form pleading" she has been trained to fill out, and ignores obvious indications that her information may be incorrect, she cannot be said to have made reasonable inquiry." The Court concluded the bankruptcy court did not abuse its discretion in imposing sanctions on Doyle or the Udren Firm itself. However, it found the lower court abused its discretion in imposing sanctions on Udren individually. View "In re: Taylor, et al" on Justia Law
Reed v. City of Arlington
This case arose when debtor, a former firefighter, and his wife, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, but failed to disclose on their bankruptcy schedules either his judgment against the City of Arlington (an asset of the estate) or his associated legal fees (a liability of the estate). At issue was whether judicial estoppel barred a blameless bankruptcy trustee from pursuing a judgment that the debtor, having concealed the judgment during bankruptcy, was himself estopped from pursuing. The court held that it did not. The court concluded that this result upheld the purpose of judicial estoppel, which in this context was to protect the integrity of the bankruptcy process, by adhering to basic tenets of bankruptcy law and by preserving the assets of the bankruptcy estate for equitable distribution to the estate's innocent creditors. View "Reed v. City of Arlington" on Justia Law
Securities and Exchange Commission v. Gabelli, et al.
Plaintiff, the SEC, appealed from a judgment dismissing its complaint against Marc J. Gabelli, the portfolio manager of the mutual fund Gabelli Global Growth Fund (GGGF or the Fund), and Bruce Alpert, the chief operating officer for the Fund's adviser, Gabelli Funds, LLC (Adviser). The SEC's complaint charged defendants with failing to disclose favorable treatment accorded one GGGF investor in preference to other investors. As a preliminary matter, the court limited its jurisdiction to the SEC's appeal. The court held that the complaint adequately stated claims against Alpert for violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, 15 U.S.C. 77q(a), and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. 78j(b). The court also held that the SEC's prayer for civil penalties survived defendants' motions to dismiss and must be reinstated where the court found that at this stage in the litigation, defendants have not met their burden of demonstrating that a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered this fraud prior to September 2003. The court further held that the complaint sufficiently plead a reasonable likelihood of future violations and thus reversed the district court's dismissal of the SEC's prayer for injunctive relief. Accordingly, the court granted the SEC's appeal in all respects, dismissed the cross-appeals for want of appellate jurisdiction, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Securities and Exchange Commission v. Gabelli, et al." on Justia Law
International Strategies Group v. Ness
Plaintiff appealed from a judgment granting defendant's motion to dismiss as untimely plaintiff's complaint, which alleged breach of fiduciary duty, intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, and conspiracy to commit those three offenses. At issue was whether the district court properly ruled that tolling of the untimely claims, on the basis of defendant's continuing concealment, was unwarranted. The court affirmed and held that the lawsuit, commenced on April 2004, arose from an injury suffered no later than June 2000 and therefore, was barred by the applicable statute of repose, Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-577. The court also held that plaintiff could not seek the safe harbor of equitable estoppel due to its failure to recognize that it was required to pursue its action. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the district. View "International Strategies Group v. Ness" on Justia Law
Hancock v. Clippard
Plaintiff, an attorney who handled Chapter 11 proceedings for a client, submitted a petition for fees after the case was converted to a Chapter 7 proceeding. The bankruptcy court denied the petition because of the attorney's failure to comply with disclosure rules, abusive conduct toward others involved in the case, excessive or incomplete billing, and disruptive behavior. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, noting the attorney's "flagrant" disregard of deadlines and the rules for appeal.