Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Business Law
Gulfport OB-GYN, P.A. v. Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A.
Gulfport OB-GYN was a professional association of physicians specializing in obstetrical and gynecological care. In 2008, it hired the law firm Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A., to assist in negotiating the hiring of Dr. Donielle Daigle and to prepare an employment agreement for her. Five years later, Dr. Daigle and another physician left Gulfport OB-GYN to establish their own practice. They sued Gulfport OB-GYN for unpaid compensation and sought a declaratory judgment that the noncompetition covenant was unenforceable. The departing physicians ultimately prevailed, with the chancery court holding the noncompetition covenant not applicable to Dr. Daigle because she left voluntarily and was not “terminated by the Employer.” The chancery court decision was initially appealed, but the dispute was later settled through mediation when Gulfport OB-GYN agreed to pay Dr. Daigle $425,000. Gulfport OB-GYN then filed this legal-malpractice suit against the attorney who drafted the employment agreement and her firm. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the defendants after finding Gulfport OB-GYN had failed to produce sufficient evidence that it would have received a better deal but for the attorneys’ alleged negligence, i.e., Gulfport OB-GYN failed to prove that the alleged negligence caused it damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and affirmed. View "Gulfport OB-GYN, P.A. v. Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A." on Justia Law
Williams v. Baker
Johnny Williams worked for Violeta Baker and her home healthcare services company, Last Frontier Assisted Living, LLC (Last Frontier), from 2004 to 2009. Baker hired Johnny to provide payroll, tax-preparation, bookkeeping, and bill-paying services. She authorized him to make payments from her accounts, both for tax purposes and business expenses, such as payroll. She also gave him general authority to access her checking account and to execute automated clearing house (ACH) transactions from her accounts. In addition, Baker allowed Johnny to write checks bearing her electronic signature. Johnny did not invoice Baker for his labor; rather he and Baker had a tacit understanding that he would pay himself a salary from Baker’s payroll for his services. In 2009 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Baker that her third-quarter taxes had not been filed and she owed a penalty and interest. Baker contacted Johnny to find out why the taxes had not been filed. When he could not produce a confirmation that he had e-filed them, Baker contacted her son for help. Baker’s son discovered that several checks had been written from Baker’s accounts to Personalized Tax Solutions (a business he maintained) and Deverette. A CPA audited the books and found that Johnny’s services over the time period could be valued between $47,500 and $55,000. Subtracting this from the total in transfers to Johnny, Deverette, and Personalized Tax Solutions resulted in an overpayment to the Williamses of approximately $950,000. A superior court found Deverette and Johnny Williams liable for defrauding Baker, after concluding that both owed her fiduciary duties and therefore had the burden of persuasion to show the absence of fraud. The court totaled fraud damages at nearly five million dollars and trebled this amount under Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). After final judgment was entered against Deverette and Johnny, Johnny died. Deverette appealed her liability for the fraud. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed Deverette’s liability for the portion of the fraud damages that the superior court otherwise identified as her unjust enrichment. But the Court reversed the superior court’s conclusion that she owed Baker a fiduciary duty, and reversed the UTPA treble damages against Deverette. The Court vacated the superior court’s fraud conclusion as to Deverette and remanded for further proceedings. View "Williams v. Baker" on Justia Law
Greenwald v. Western Surety
At the summary judgment stage, the district court found that an employee of Greenwald Neurosurgical, P.C. caused over $100,000 in losses to the P.C., while he was acting in the ordinary course of the P.C.’s business. The district court then issued a judgment to the P.C. for the policy amount of $100,000 pursuant to a Dishonesty Bond issued by Western Surety Company. Western appealed the district court’s determinations that the employee caused the loss while acting in the ordinary course of business and that the P.C. actually suffered the loss. The P.C. cross-appealed the district court’s findings that it was the only entity insured under the bond and argued it was awarded too little by way of attorney’s fees. The Idaho Supreme Court determined: (1) the district court correctly concluded that only the P.C. was an insured and the only entity that could recover under the bond; (2) whether the employee was acting the “ordinary course of [the P.C.’s] business” was a jury question; (3) a genuine issue of fact existed regarding the amount of losses the P.C. sustained; and (4) the district court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to the P.C. The Supreme Court therefore vacated summary judgment, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Greenwald v. Western Surety" on Justia Law
Finance Holding Co., LLC v. The American Inst. of Certified etc.
Finance Holding Company, LLC (Finance) obtained a judgment against Dominque Molina for about $50,000 plus interest and attorney fees. In judgment enforcement proceedings, Finance sought documents from Molina's employer, The American Institute of Certified Tax Coaches, Inc. (Institute). Finance requested numerous categories of business, tax, and bank records, without limiting the request to information relevant to Molina. The court overruled the Institute's objections and ordered the Institute "to produce for inspection and copying all the demanded documents." On appeal, the Institute argued the document production order was overbroad under the statute governing third party discovery in judgment enforcement proceedings. The Court of Appeal determined the order was appealable, and statutorily overbroad: the court did not have the authority to order the expansive document production that went far beyond the statutory guidelines. The Court remanded for the trial court to narrow the order to require production only of those documents pertaining to Molina's compensation, property, or services, and/or the Institute's debts owed to Molina. View "Finance Holding Co., LLC v. The American Inst. of Certified etc." on Justia Law
SCF Consulting, LLC. v. Barrack Rodos & Bacine
Appellant SCF Consulting, LLC lodged a civil complaint against Appellee, the law firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, in the common pleas court. Appellant averred that it had maintained a longstanding oral consulting agreement with the law firm, which the firm purportedly breached in 2014. According to Appellant, the arrangement was for the solicitation of institutional investors to participate in securities class actions, and remuneration was to be in the form of a two-and-one-half to five-percent share of the firm’s annual profits on matters “originated” by Appellant’s principal or on which he provided substantial work. Appellant claimed the consulting agreement qualified as an express exception to the anti-fee-splitting rule for an employee “compensation or retirement plan, even though the plan is based in whole or in part on a profit-sharing arrangement.” Alternatively, Appellant argued Appellee’s attempt to invoke public policy as a shield was an “audacious defense” which, if credited, would perversely reward the law firm by allowing it to profit from its own unethical conduct. The county court agreed with Appellee’s position concerning both the nonapplicability of the exception to Rule 5.4(a)’s prohibition and the unenforceability of the alleged agreement. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the ultimate outcome of this case might turn on factual findings concerning Appellant’s culpability, or the degree thereof, relative to the alleged ethical violation. The Court held only that the contract cause of action was not per se barred by the purported infraction on Appellee’s part and, accordingly, the county court’s bright-line approach to the unenforceability of the alleged consulting agreement should not have been sustained. View "SCF Consulting, LLC. v. Barrack Rodos & Bacine" on Justia Law
T.L. Wallace Construction, Inc. v. McArthur, Thames, Slay, and Dews, PLLC
In this auditing malpractice case, Thomas L. Wallace and T.L. Wallace Construction, Inc. appealed the Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment to McArthur, Thames, Slay, and Dews, PLLC (“McArthur Thames”) for lack of causation. Wallace filed suit against McArthur Thames, alleging that the accounting firm had negligently audited the financial statements of Wallace Construction and ultimately had caused the destruction of the company by failing to discover hundreds of personal credit card purchases by certain company employees, failing to discover transactions involving hundred of thousands of dollars spent by Wallace Construction to pay for personal home improvements of nonshareholder employees, and by failing to discover inappropriate accounting practices that resulted in an overstatement of income. Wallace sought to recover damages of approximately $14,000,000 allegedly suffered by him as a result of accounting work done by McArthur Thames. The trial court excluded the testimony of Wallace Construction’s sole expert on causation, finding that his opinion was unreliable and insufficient to establish proximate cause. Because the trial court mistakenly believed that expert testimony establishing causation was required in all malpractice cases, and because Wallace Construction presented sufficient lay testimony to overcome summary judgment on the issue of causation, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case the trial court for further proceedings. In addition, the Supreme Court found the trial court abused its discretion in disallowing reasonable access to the financial information of Wallace Construction subsequent to June 30, 2012, and in its denial of discovery of the Wallaces’ personal accounts. View "T.L. Wallace Construction, Inc. v. McArthur, Thames, Slay, and Dews, PLLC" on Justia Law
Oakland Police & Fire Retirement System v. Mayer Brown, LLP
General Motors (GM), represented by the Mayer Brown law firm, entered into secured transactions in which JP Morgan acted as agent for two different groups of lenders. The first loan (structured as a secured lease) was made in 2001 and the second in 2006. In 2008, the 2001 secured lease was paid off, which required the lenders to release their security interests in the collateral securing the transaction. The closing papers for that payoff accidentally also terminated the lenders’ security interests in the collateral securing the 2006 loan. No one noticed—not Mayer Brown and not JP Morgan’s counsel. When GM filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, GM and JP Morgan noticed the error. Plaintiffs, members of the consortium of lenders on the 2006 loan, were not informed until years later. Plaintiffs sued GM’s law firm, Mayer Brown. The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal, holding that Mayer Brown did not owe plaintiffs a duty. The court rejected arguments that JP Morgan was a client of Mayer Brown in unrelated matters and thus not a third‐party non‐client; even if JP Morgan was a third‐party non‐client, Mayer Brown assumed a duty to JP Morgan by drafting the closing documents; and the primary purpose of the GM‐Mayer Brown relationship was to influence JP Morgan. View "Oakland Police & Fire Retirement System v. Mayer Brown, LLP" on Justia Law
Whitley v. BP, P.L.C.
After the BP Stock Fund lost significant value, the affected investors filed suit alleging that the plan fiduciaries breached their duties of prudence and loyalty by allowing the Plans to acquire and hold overvalued BP stock; breached their duty to provide adequate investment information to plan participants; and breached their duty to monitor those responsible for managing the BP Stock Fund. The district court held that the stockholders had failed to overcome the Moench v. Robertson presumption and dismissed their claims. The stockholders appealed, and while their appeal was pending in this court, the Supreme Court issued Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, holding that there was no such “presumption of prudence” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq. On remand, the district court held that the stockholders had plausibly alleged that defendants had inside information; and the stockholders had plausibly alleged two alternative actions that defendants could have taken that met the Fifth Third standard: freezing, limiting, or restricting company stock purchases; and disclosing unfavorable information to the public. The district court granted the motion to amend with respect to pleading these alternative actions. It then certified defendants’ motion for interlocutory appeal. The court concluded, however, that the district court here erred when it altered the language of Fifth Third to reach its holding. Under the Supreme Court’s formulation, the plaintiff bears the significant burden of proposing an alternative course of action so clearly beneficial that a prudent fiduciary could not conclude that it would be more likely to harm the fund than to help it. In this case, the stockholders have failed to do so. Because the stockholders' amended complaint is insufficient and the district court erred in granting their motion to amend, the court reversed and remanded. View "Whitley v. BP, P.L.C." on Justia Law
CommScope Credit Union v. Butler & Burke, LLP
CommScope Credit Union (Plaintiff), a state-chartered credit union, hired Butler & Burke, LLP (Defendant), a certified public accounting firm, to conduct annual independent audits of its financial statements. Plaintiff later filed a complaint alleging breach of contract, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and professional malpractice. Defendant pleaded seven affirmative defenses, including contributory negligence and in pari delicto. The trial court subsequently granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss and for judgment on the pleadings. The court of appeals reversed, concluding (1) the specific allegations in Plaintiff’s complaint were sufficient to state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, and (2) Defendant’s affirmative defenses would not entitle Defendant to dismissal at this stage. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part, holding (1) Plaintiff’s allegations did not establish that Defendant owed it a fiduciary duty in fact, and therefore, the trial court correctly dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim; and (2) the members of the Court are equally divided on whether the facts alleged in the complaint established the defenses of contributory negligence and in pari delicto, and therefore, the court of appeals’ decision on this issue is left undisturbed. View "CommScope Credit Union v. Butler & Burke, LLP" on Justia Law
Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, L.L.P.
In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review centered on whether a law firm practicing as a limited liability partnership (LLP) failed to maintain professional malpractice insurance to cover claims against it, and, if so, whether that failure should cause the revocation of the firm's LLP status, rendering innocent partners personally liable. In July 2009, Mortgage Grader hired Olivo of Ward & Olivo (W&O) to pursue claims of patent infringement against other entities. Mortgage Grader entered into settlement agreements in those matters. In exchange for one-time settlement payments, Mortgage Grader granted those defendant-entities licenses under the patents, including perpetual rights to any patents Mortgage Grader received or obtained through assignment, regardless of their relationship to the patents at issue in the litigation. It is those provisions of the settlement agreement that allegedly gave rise to legal malpractice. In 2011, W&O dissolved and entered into its windup period. W&O continued to exist as a partnership for the sole purpose of collecting outstanding legal fees and paying taxes. The next day, Ward formed a new LLP and began to practice with a new partner. Mortgage Grader filed a complaint against W&O, Olivo, and Ward in October 2012, alleging legal malpractice by Olivo, and claiming that the settlement agreements resulting from Olivo's representation harmed Mortgage Grader's patent rights. The motion court denied Ward's motion to dismiss, first determining that Mortgage Grader had failed to comply with the statutory requirement to serve an affidavit of merit (AOM) on each defendant named in the complaint, and rejected its substantial compliance argument. However, the court also determined that W&O failed to maintain the requisite insurance, which caused its liability shield to lapse and relegated W&O to a GP. Thus, the motion court concluded that Ward could be held vicariously liable for Olivo's alleged legal malpractice. The Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that law firms organized as LLPs that malpractice insurance did not extend to the firm's windup period, and tail insurance coverage was not required. View "Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, L.L.P." on Justia Law