Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Business Law
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In 2009, the president of the International Congress for Joint Reconstruction, Inc. (ICJR) retained Mark Sacaris, part owner of the Center for Healthcare Education and Research, Inc. (CHE), to assist ICJR in producing medical education conferences on the subject of joint-reconstruction surgery. Their agreement was unwritten, and there was no discussion of the rates ICJR would be charged. Sacaris was given full control over ICJR’s money accounts as part of the arrangement. Sacaris used ICJR’s money accounts to pay CHE’s invoices without notifying ICJR’s board members of the amounts ICJR was being charged. Over time, and also without informing the board of ICJR, he increased the scope of CHE’s services, thereby creating additional sources of profit for CHE, and indirectly for himself, but he did not disclose his interest in these arrangements to ICJR. Eventually the ICJR board was informed by Sacaris that ICJR had amassed a $2 million to CHE. ICJR terminated its relationship with Sacaris and CHE. CHE filed suit to recover amounts it claimed it was owed by ICJR under the agreement. ICJR cross-sued Sacaris and CHE, asserting Sacaris secretly profited from his relationship with ICJR. After a bench trial, the court found ICJR liable to CHE for breach of contract. Although the court also found that CHE and Sacaris breached their fiduciary duties to ICJR in earning all four categories of the profits ICJR sought to disgorge, the court awarded ICJR recovery only as to categories two and four. On appeal, ICJR contended the trial court erred in determining that ICJR could not recover disgorgement of CHE and Sacaris’s profits from their undisclosed charges for management services without proof their breach of fiduciary duties caused ICJR to suffer monetary damages. The Court of Appeal agreed ICJR was not required to show it suffered monetary harm to establish a right to disgorgement of CHE and Sacaris' profits from undisclosed charges for event management services. The Court of Appeal reversed that portion of the judgment affected by the error and remanded for the trial court to determine the appropriate amount of the award of disgorgement. However, the Court rejected ICJR’s claim that the court erred in determining that running symposia for pharmaceutical companies was not a corporate opportunity of ICJR. View "Center Healthcare Ed. & Res. v. Internat. Cong. Joint Reconst." on Justia Law

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For tax reasons ISN Software Corporation wanted to convert from a C corporation to an S corporation. But four of its eight stockholders, representing about 25 percent of the outstanding stock, could not qualify as S Corporation stockholders. ISN sought advice from Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A. (RLF) about its options. RLF advised ISN that before a conversion ISN could use a merger to cash out some or all of the four stockholders. The cashed-out stockholders could then accept ISN’s cash-out offer or exercise appraisal rights under Delaware law. ISN did not proceed with the conversion, but decided to use a merger to cash out three of the four non-qualifying stockholders. After ISN completed the merger, RLF notified ISN that its advice might not have been correct. All four stockholders, including the remaining stockholder whom ISN wanted to exclude, were entitled to appraisal rights. ISN decided not to try and unwind the merger, instead proceeding with the merger and notified all four stockholders they were entitled to appraisal. ISN and RLF agreed that RLF would continue to represent ISN in any appraisal action. Three of the four stockholders, including the stockholder ISN wanted to exclude, eventually demanded appraisal. Years later, when things did not turn out as ISN had hoped (the appraised value of ISN stock ended up substantially higher than ISN had reserved for), ISN filed a legal malpractice claim against RLF. The Superior Court dismissed ISN’s August 1, 2018 complaint on statute of limitations grounds. The court found that the statute of limitations expired three years after RLF informed ISN of the erroneous advice, or, at the latest, three years after the stockholder ISN sought to exclude demanded appraisal. On appeal, ISN argued its legal malpractice claim did not accrue until after the appraisal action valued ISN’s stock because only then could ISN claim damages. Although it applied a different analysis, the Delaware Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court that the statute of limitations began to run in January 2013. By the time ISN filed its malpractice claim on August 1, 2018, the statute of limitations had expired. Thus, the Superior Court’s judgment was affirmed. View "ISN Software Corporation v. Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Warner Wiggins appeals a circuit court's order compelling him to arbitrate his claims against Warren Averett, LLC. Warren Averett was an accounting firm. Eastern Shore Children's Clinic, P.C. ("Eastern Shore"), a pediatric medical practice, was a client of Warren Averett. In September 2010, while Wiggins, who was a medical doctor, was a shareholder and employee of Eastern Shore, Warren Averett and Eastern Shore entered an agreement pursuant to which Warren Averett was to provide accounting services to Eastern Shore ("the contract"). The contract contained an arbitration clause. Thereafter, Wiggins and Warren Averett became involved in a billing dispute related to the preparation of Wiggins's personal income-tax returns. In 2017, Wiggins filed a single-count complaint alleging "accounting malpractice" against Warren Averett. Warren Averett filed an answer to Wiggins's complaint, asserting, among other things, that Wiggins's claims were based on the contract and were thus subject to the arbitration clause. A majority of the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the determination of whether Wiggins' claims were covered under the terms of the arbitration clause was delegated to an arbitrator to decide. Therefore, it affirmed the trial court's order. View "Warner W. Wiggins v. Warren Averett, LLC" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court entering summary judgment against Plaintiff Jay Furtado and in favor of Defendants, attorney Amy Page Oberg and the law firm DarrowEverett LLP, and dismissing Plaintiff's claims of legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and misrepresentation, holding that summary judgment was properly granted.Plaintiff was one of three members of a limited liability company (LLC) for a gym. In 2008, Plaintiff engaged Oberg to help to establish the LLC. After the LLC stopped operations, Plaintiff brought this action. The district court entered summary judgment for Defendants. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that, even if there were any doubt that Plaintiff had waived on appeal an argument that a reasonable jury could find that a breach by Defendants proximately caused his harm, this Court would still conclude that summary judgment was proper in this case. View "Furtado v. Oberg" on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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