Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Marcellus Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death following a jury trial. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri, and his postconviction relief was denied. Williams sought additional DNA testing through a habeas corpus petition, which led to a temporary stay of execution and the appointment of a special master to oversee the testing. The results did not demonstrate his innocence, and his habeas petition was denied. Subsequent petitions for writs of habeas corpus and declaratory judgment were also denied.The St. Louis County prosecutor filed a motion to vacate Williams' conviction and death sentence, citing potential actual innocence based on DNA evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and racial discrimination in jury selection. This motion remains pending in the circuit court. Despite this, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued a warrant of execution for Williams, setting a new execution date.The Supreme Court of Missouri reviewed Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution, arguing that the prosecutor's motion constituted a state postconviction motion, which should bar setting an execution date. The court found that Rule 30.30(c) only refers to postconviction motions filed by the defendant, not the prosecutor. Since Williams had already exhausted his state postconviction remedies, the court held that the execution date was properly set. The court also noted that the pending prosecutor's motion did not automatically warrant a stay of execution and that Williams had not demonstrated the necessary factors for equitable relief. Consequently, the court overruled Williams' motion to withdraw the warrant of execution. View "State v. Williams" on Justia Law

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A defamation lawsuit was filed by Dana Cheng, a New York resident and political commentator, against Dan Neumann and Beacon, a Maine news outlet, for characterizing Cheng as "far-right" and a "conspiracy theorist" in an article. Neumann and Beacon sought dismissal of the case under both federal law and a New York anti-SLAPP law, which applies to meritless defamation lawsuits. The district court conducted a choice-of-law analysis, decided that New York law applied, and granted the motion to dismiss under New York's anti-SLAPP statute.The district court's decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The appellate court agreed with the district court's ruling but for a different reason: it decided that Cheng's lawsuit had to be dismissed under binding First Amendment principles protecting free speech by the press. Back at the district court, Neumann requested attorneys' fees under the fee-shifting provision of New York's anti-SLAPP law. The district court denied Neumann's request after determining that Maine, not New York, law applied to the specific issue of attorneys' fees.Neumann appealed again, arguing that the district court erred in its choice-of-law analysis. The appellate court, noting the lack of clear controlling precedent on the issue, certified to the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine the question of which state's law applies to the attorneys' fees issue. View "Cheng v. Neumann" on Justia Law

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The case involves Sharon Lewis, an African-American woman who worked as an assistant athletic director for Louisiana State University’s (LSU) football team. Lewis alleges that she experienced and witnessed numerous instances of racist and sexist misconduct from former head football coach Les Miles and that she received complaints of sexual harassment from student workers that she oversaw. In 2013, LSU retained Vicki Crochet and Robert Barton, partners of the law firm Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips LLP, to conduct a Title IX investigation of sexual harassment allegations made against Miles. The report and its contents were kept confidential, and allegations brought by the student complainants were privately settled.The district court dismissed Lewis's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) claims against Crochet and Barton because Lewis’s claims were time-barred and she failed to establish proximate causation. On appeal of the dismissal order, a panel of this court affirmed the district court on the grounds that Lewis knew of her injuries from alleged racketeering as early as 2013, and thus the four-year statute of limitations had expired before she filed suit in 2021.The district court ordered Lewis to file a motion to compel addressing the lingering “issues of discoverability and the application of [its Crime-Fraud Exception Order].” The district court denied Crochet and Barton’s motion for a protective order and compelled the depositions of Crochet and Barton and the disclosure of documents drafted during the 2013 investigation. Crochet and Barton timely appealed.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s Crime-Fraud Exception Order and remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion. The court concluded that the district court clearly erred in holding that Lewis established a prima facie case that the Board violated La. R.S. 14:132(B) and that the alleged privileged communications were made in furtherance of the crime and reasonably related to the alleged violation. View "Lewis v. Crochet" on Justia Law

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The case involves two attorneys, Jeffrey Peterzalek and Molly Weber, who sought to quash subpoenas for their depositions in a civil rights case brought by Charis Paulson against her employers, the State of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Public Safety (DPS). Paulson alleged gender-motivated discrimination and retaliation. Weber had represented DPS in its response to Paulson's civil rights complaint before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), while Peterzalek had represented DPS and its leaders in various other matters over the years. The district court declined to quash the subpoenas but ordered that the depositions be sealed. The attorneys then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of Iowa.The Supreme Court of Iowa granted the writ and retained the case. The attorneys argued that the court should adopt the Shelton test, which narrowly limits the circumstances in which opposing counsel may be deposed. They also argued that they should not be deposed or, alternatively, that substantial limitations should be imposed if their depositions were allowed.The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed with the attorneys' argument to adopt the Shelton test. Applying the test, the court concluded that Weber's deposition should be quashed as she was opposing counsel in the ongoing dispute and the information sought could be obtained by other means and was protected by the work-product doctrine. However, the court affirmed the district court's refusal to quash the subpoena for Peterzalek's deposition, as he was not opposing counsel in the ongoing dispute. The court remanded the case for further proceedings, including the entry of an order quashing the subpoena for Weber's deposition. View "Peterzalek v. Iowa District Court for Polk County" on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit examined the constitutionality of Cook County, Illinois's use of cameras to record holding cell toilets in courthouses throughout the county. The plaintiffs, pretrial detainees, claimed that the cameras infringed upon their Fourth Amendment privacy interests and also constituted an intrusion upon seclusion under Illinois law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Cook County and Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, and the plaintiffs appealed.The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the toilets in courthouse holding cells. While it acknowledged that there are questions around the extent to which detainees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their bodies while in a holding cell, it found that any privacy rights are substantially diminished. The court further held that Cook County's use of cameras in courthouse holding cells was reasonable due to the security risks inherent in the setting. The court also determined that one of the plaintiffs, Alicea, had standing to sue, but the other plaintiffs did not.Furthermore, the court affirmed the district court's decision to grant summary judgment on the plaintiffs' claim for intrusion upon seclusion. It held that the plaintiff had not met his burden on the fourth element of the claim, anguish and suffering.Lastly, the court affirmed the district court's decisions related to discovery and attorneys' fees. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in these decisions. Thus, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. View "Alicea v. County of Cook" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision, finding that the Middle Republican Natural Resources District (NRD) violated the due process rights of two landowners, Merlin Brown and Uhrich & Brown Limited Partnership, by having the same attorneys act as both prosecutors and participants in the adjudicatory process of the case. The court held that such a combination of prosecutorial and adjudicatory functions in the same individuals posed an intolerably high risk of actual bias, thus, infringing on the landowners' right to a fair trial by an impartial tribunal. In this case, the NRD had accused the landowners of violating certain ground water management rules. The case was initially heard by the Board of Directors of the NRD, whose decision to impose penalties on the landowners was informed by the same attorneys who had prosecuted the case on behalf of the NRD. The landowners appealed the Board's decision under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), leading to the district court's reversal. The NRD then appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court's ruling. View "Uhrich & Brown Ltd. Part. v. Middle Republican NRD" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the orders entered by the circuit court granting summary judgment to Defendants in the underlying action brought after investigators identified unsafe, non-sterile injection techniques, holding that the circuit court did not err.Plaintiffs, a pain management clinic and its physician, brought the underlying action alleging that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, and its former Commissioner and State Health Officer (collectively, the DHHR Defendants) breached their duty of confidentiality when they issued a press release announcing that Defendants used unsafe injection practices and encouraging Plaintiffs' patients to be tested for bloodborne illnesses. Plaintiffs also sued the West Virginia Board of Ostseopathic Medicine and its executive director (together, the BOM Defendants), asserting a due process claim for failing to timely provide a hearing after their summary suspension of the physician's medical license. The circuit court concluded that the DHHR defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and that the claim against the BOM defendants was barred by res judicata. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that there was no error in the circuit court's judgment. View "Chalifoux v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Resources" on Justia Law

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In 2003, Salem received a license to practice law in New York. He applied for but was denied a license to practice in Illinois, where he resides, but maintained an Illinois practice, from 2004-2019, by obtaining permission to appear pro hac vice. The Illinois Attorney Disciplinary and Registration Commission (IARDC) charged him with falsely representing that he was licensed in Illinois and successfully requested that the Illinois Supreme Court prohibit Illinois courts from allowing him to appear pro hac vice for 90 days. Salem filed suit, 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Salem’s suit and ordered him to show cause why he should not be sanctioned. The court first rejected Salem’s argument that every Illinois district judge should be disqualified and the case transferred to Michigan. The court then held that the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court cannot be collaterally attacked in civil litigation. The court noted that the defendant, the IARDC, did not deprive Salem of liberty or property and that there was a rational basis for the Supreme Court’s decision. The court described the litigation as frivolous and noted Salem’s history of “preposterous” behavior in federal court. View "Salem v. Illinois Attorney Registration and Discipinary Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff sued her employer, Defendant Montefiore Medical Center, and two of its employees, asserting claims of sexual harassment during and retaliatory discharge from her employment. Following the district court’s grant of partial summary judgment in their favor, Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s remaining claims and sought sanctions against Plaintiff and her counsel, Appellant Daniel Altaras and his firm, Appellant Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC (“DSLG”), contending that Plaintiff’s text message evidence was a forgery. The district court found by clear and convincing evidence that Plaintiff had fabricated the text messages, falsely testified about their production, and spoliated evidence in an attempt to conceal her wrongdoing. The district court also found that Altaras had facilitated Plaintiff’s misconduct. The district court dismissed Plaintiff’s remaining claims with prejudice and imposed a monetary sanction of attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses incurred by Defendants. On appeal, Appellants challenged various aspects of the district court’s conduct.   The court vacated the portion of the district court’s judgment imposing a sanction on Altaras and DSLG and remanded for further proceedings consistent. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court in all other respects. The court held that the district court erred by failing to expressly make the finding of bad faith required to support the sanction it imposed against Altaras and DSLG.  The court directed that on remand, the district court may assess in its discretion whether Altaras’s misconduct—including his insistence on defending a complaint founded on obviously fabricated evidence or other actions—amounted to bad faith. View "Rossbach et al. v. Montefiore Medical Center et al." on Justia Law

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Appellant Attorney Kezhaya represented The Satanic Temple, Inc., in its lawsuits against the City of Belle Plaine, Minnesota. The Temple sued the City, claiming that the City opened a limited public forum for a Christian monument, but closed the forum to exclude a Satanic monument. The City sought $33,886.80 in attorney’s fees incurred by responding to the complaint in the second lawsuit and preparing the motion for sanctions. The court determined that the rates charged by the City’s counsel were reasonable but observed that a portion of the work was duplicative of the first lawsuit and that the issues unique to the second lawsuit were not complex, novel, or difficult. The court thus reduced the requested amount by fifty percent and ordered the Temple’s counsel to pay the City $16,943.40 under Rule 11(c). Kezhaya appealed the sanctions order. He argues that the district court abused its discretion by (i) imposing sanctions, (ii) failing to consider non-monetary sanctions, and (iii) granting an arbitrary amount of sanctions.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that under the circumstances, it disagreed with Kezhaya’s contention about the righteousness of a second lawsuit. For the claims dismissed “without prejudice” in the first lawsuit, Kezhaya and the Temple made a strategic choice to seek leave to amend the complaint to correct the deficiencies identified in the dismissal order. Further, the court found that even if the City’s insurance carrier ultimately paid the fees, the fees were “incurred” for the motion and could be awarded under Rule 11(c)(2). View "Matthew Kezhaya v. City of Belle Plaine" on Justia Law