Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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While representing a client at a mandatory settlement conference (MSC) before a temporary judge, petitioner Kevin Moore was rude and unprofessional. Among other things, Moore: (1) persistently yelled at and interrupted other participants; (2) accused opposing counsel of lying while providing no evidence to support his accusation; (3) refused to engage in settlement discussions; and (4) effectively prevented the settlement officer from invoking the aid and authority of the supervising judge by asserting this would unlawfully divulge settlement information. To make matters worse, Moore later acknowledged that his contemptuous behavior was the result of a tactical decision he had made to act in such a manner in advance of the MSC. After a hearing, respondent court convicted Moore of four counts of civil contempt, imposed a $900 fine for each count ($3,600 total), and ordered the payment of attorney fees and costs to the opposing party. Moore challenged all four contempt convictions and the associated sanctions. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the record and applicable law required that three of Moore’s convictions be overturned; the Court affirmed one conviction and the punishment required for that offense. The clerk of the appeallate court was ordered to make the required notification to the State Bar for whatever additional action the Bar may consider appropriate. The award of attorney fees and costs here was precluded by statute. View "Moore v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's denial of appellant's petition for writ of administrative mandate under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5. The trial court affirmed the Dental Board's decision to revoke appellant's dental license but stay the revocation and place him on probation for five years.The court held that Conservatorship of O.B. (2020) 9 Cal.5th 989, does not overturn the standard to be applied by the trial court in reviewing an administrative proceeding pursuant to a petition for writ of administrative mandate under section 1094.5. The court also held that substantial evidence supported the trial court's finding concerning the failure to use study models, appellant's failure to obtain informed written consent prior to treatment of four young patients, issues with professional fees, issues with patient record requests, issues with the treatment of a certain patient, and the discipline imposed. View "Yazdi v. Dental Board of California" on Justia Law

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David Murray purchased used computer equipment worth nearly $40,000, which was damaged by the United Postal Service (UPS) while it was being transported from California to Texas. Murray believed he purchased appropriate insurance to cover this loss, but the insurance company denied his claim. Murray sued his insurance broker, UPS Capital Insurance Agency (UPS Capital), for breach of contract and negligence, claiming UPS Capital owed him a special duty to make the insurance policy language understandable to an ordinary person and to explain the scope of coverage. The court granted UPS Capital’s motion for summary judgment after concluding there was no heightened duty of care and dismissed Murray’s lawsuit. On appeal, Murray asked the Court of Appeal to create a new rule that brokers/agents, specializing in a specific field of insurance, hold themselves out as experts, and are subject to a heightened duty of care towards clients seeking that particular kind of insurance. While the Court declined the invitation to create a per se rule, it concluded Murray raised triable issues of fact as to whether UPS Capital undertook a special duty by holding itself out as having expertise in inland marine insurance, and Murray reasonably relied on its expertise. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of dismissal and remanded the matter for further proceedings. View "Murray v. UPS Capital Ins. Agency, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 1995, 17 plaintiffs sued the Highsmiths on several promissory notes. The parties entered into a stipulation; a single judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiffs in various amounts. In 2005, an attorney representing the plaintiffs renewed the judgment using the standard Judicial Council form. The attorney subsequently died. When the judgment was again due to be renewed in 2015, one of the plaintiffs (Bisordi) did so, again using the standard form. Defendants moved to vacate the 2015 renewal, arguing that it was void because to the extent one plaintiff purported to file it on behalf of the others, doing so constituted the unauthorized practice of law. The trial court agreed. The court of appeal reversed. Bisordi was acting in a “clerical” capacity, or as a “scrivener.” The statutory renewal of judgment is an automatic, ministerial act accomplished by the clerk of the court; entry of the renewal of judgment does not constitute a new or separate judgment. Bisordi did not hold himself out as any kind of attorney, offer the other creditors any legal advice, or resolve for them any “difficult or doubtful legal questions” that might “reasonably demand the application of a trained legal mind.” View "Altizer v. Highsmith" on Justia Law

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The applicable standard of proof for the elements of causation and damages in a "settle and sue" legal malpractice action is the preponderance of the evidence standard. In this case, defendant, the attorney, contends that the element of causation and damages in a "settle and sue" legal malpractice case must be proven to a legal certainty, and that the legal certainty standard imposes a burden of proof higher than a mere preponderance of the evidence.The Court of Appeal explained that no published legal malpractice case using the term "legal certainty" expressly states the default burden of proof is replaced by a standard higher than preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, the court held that the term "legal certainty" is ambiguous and the court resolved the ambiguity by interpreting the statement that a plaintiff must present "evidence showing to a legal certainty that" the alleged breach of duty caused an injury as simply referring to the degree of certainty inherent in the applicable burden of proof. View "Masellis v. Law Office of Leslie F. Jensen" on Justia Law

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Wittenberg and Daniel are the co-owners of Hertzel Enterprises LLC. Attorney Peretz formerly represented Hertzel and now represents Daniel. Wittenberg filed suit asserting claims, individually and derivatively on behalf of Hertzel, against defendants including Daniel and Peretz. Wittenberg alleged that Peretz breached his fiduciary duties of loyalty, care, and confidentiality by representing clients with interests adverse to those of Hertzel; using Hertzel’s confidential business information in his representation of clients with adverse interests; and conspiring with Daniel and others to dismiss with prejudice a cross-complaint that Hertzel had previously filed against Daniel.Peretz filed a special motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP law (Code Civ. Proc. 425.16). The trial court declined to strike the causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty and conspiracy, finding they arose not out of Peretz’s litigation conduct but the alleged breaches of his professional obligations. The court of appeal reversed, finding that Peretz carried his burden to show the two causes of action arise, in part, from protected activity, so that the burden shifted to Wittenberg to show minimal merit on her claims based on the allegation of protected activity, which she failed to do. The act underlying Peretz’s liability for this particular allegation is protected litigation conduct. View "Wittenberg v. Bornstein" on Justia Law

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In November 2007, Marten performed surgery on Doe’s face and neck. In June 2008, Doe sent Marten a letter stating she was considering suing him and demanded that he preserve her documents, files, and photos. In November, Doe’s attorney served Marten with a written demand for arbitration pursuant to a Physician-Patient Arbitration Agreement. In January 2009 Marten’s counsel responded, identifying an arbitrator, without questioning the origin of the agreement or disputing that Marten had signed it. The applicable one-year statute of limitations ran in March 2009. (Code Civ. Proc.340.5) In May 2009, Merten subpoenaed and obtained the records of Dr. Daniel, whom Doe earlier consulted. Located within Daniel’s records was a signed arbitration agreement. Nearly three years later, Marten’s counsel first confronted Doe with the arbitration agreement and refused to continue with the arbitration.Doe sued for medical malpractice and medical battery. The court overruled dismissal motions, finding triable issues as to whether equitable tolling or equitable estoppel disallowed the statute of limitations defense. The court imposed sanctions after hearing evidence that Marten destroyed electronically stored information. After the close of evidence, the trial court dismissed the medical battery claim. On the malpractice claim, the jury awarded over $6.3 million in damages. The court then found the malpractice claim time-barred. The court of appeal reversed in part. The medical malpractice claim was not time-barred because Merten’s conduct actually and reasonably induced Doe to refrain from filing a timely action. View "Doe v. Marten" on Justia Law

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Nguyen worked as a dentist until she was terminated. Nguyen hired attorney Ford, who filed a discrimination lawsuit. The federal district court entered judgment against Nguyen. Ford’s retainer agreement with Nguyen specifically excluded appeals. Nguyen hired Ford to represent her in an appeal and signed a separate retainer agreement. Nguyen alleges that during the appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Ford charged exorbitant fees and costs, and caused unnecessary delays. In April 2015, Ford successfully moved to withdraw as counsel. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment against Nguyen. Nguyen sued Ford for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty, stating “Although [Ford] continued to represent [Nguyen] in the district court tribunal, [Nguyen] had to retain new appellate counsel” and that, but for Ford’s untimely filing of a brief in the district court case, summary judgment would not have been granted against her.The trial court dismissed the action as untimely (Code Civ. Proc., 340.6(a)). The court of appeal affirmed. No reasonable factfinder could conclude it was objectively reasonable for Nguyen to believe Ford continued to represent her in the district court action. Once Ford filed notices in that case describing herself as Nguyen’s former attorney and stating she was placing a lien for on any judgment in Nguyen’s favor, any objectively reasonable client would have understood that Ford was no longer representing Nguyen. View "Nguyen v. Ford" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of defendant's special motion to strike plaintiff's malicious prosecution suit as meritless. The court held that plaintiff lacked proof he probably would succeed in proving defendant maliciously added him as a defendant in the underlying wage-and-hour lawsuit where it was common for plaintiffs to search for people they suspect may be alter egos of corporate shells. In this case, plaintiff failed to establish that this reason was not the subjective purpose defendant had for adding plaintiff as a defendant. View "Zhang v. Chu" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Sundar Natarajan filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandate to overturn the November 2015 revocation of his staff membership and privileges at St. Joseph’s Medical Center of Stockton (St. Joseph’s), the fictitious name of an entity defendant Dignity Health owned and operated. In September 2017, the trial court denied the petition, entering judgment in favor of defendant. Before the Court of Appeal, plaintiff claimed he was denied due process, and sought to nullify any preclusive effects the internal decision might have on any subsequent action in court, though he did not explain how he would be entitled to this requested relief. Furthermore, he argued the circumstances of the hearing officer’s relationship with defendant gave rise to an unacceptable risk of bias from a pecuniary interest in future employment with defendant, and the internal decision revoking his staff membership and privileges did not apply objective standards. The Court of Appeal determined the hearing officer's employment did not violated principles of fair procedure, and the ultimate decision was based on objective standards. Therefore, the Court affirmed denial of relief. View "Natarajan v. Dignity Health" on Justia Law