Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

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Pro se plaintiff Gary Wisner, M.D. filed a complaint alleging that defendants Dignity Health and the Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center (collectively, SJMC) falsely reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) that Wisner surrendered his clinical privileges while under criminal investigation for insurance fraud. The trial court granted a special motion to strike the complaint after concluding that Wisner’s claims arose from a protected activity and that Wisner failed to establish a probability of prevailing on the merits. Wisner contested both aspects of the trial court’s order, and he also argued the court erred by denying his motion to conduct limited discovery prior to the hearing on the anti-SLAPP motion. Finding no error, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "Wisner v. Dignity Health" on Justia Law

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Burkhart, the CEO of ASC, a private company that operates Indiana nursing homes and long-term care facilities, orchestrated an extensive conspiracy exploiting the company’s operations and business relationships for personal gain. Most of the funds involved in the scheme came from Medicare and Medicaid. After other defendants pled guilty and Burkhart’s brother agreed to testify against him, Burkhart pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and healthcare fraud (18 U.S.C. 1349); conspiracy to violate the AntiKickback Statute (18 U.S.C. 371); and money laundering (18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)). With a Guidelines range of 121-151 months, Burkhart was sentenced to 114 months’ imprisonment.Burkhart later filed a habeas action, contending that his defense counsel, Barnes & Thornburg provided constitutionally deficient representation because the firm also represented Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, a victim of the fraudulent scheme. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. While the firm labored under an actual conflict of interest, that conflict did not adversely affect Burkhart’s representation. Nothing in the record shows that the firm improperly shaded its advice to induce Burkhart to plead guilty; the advice reflected a reasonable response to the “dire circumstances” facing Burkhart. The evidence of Burkhart’s guilt was overwhelming. View "Burkhart v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of the superior court affirming the Department of Public Safety's denial of Appellant's application for a professional investigator license, holding that Appellant's First Amendment rights were not violated by the application of statutory competency standards to his conduct on social media.The Department denied Appellant's application based on comments and posts that he had made on social media using an account bearing the name of his out-of-state private investigation business concerning a police lieutenant. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the circuit court's affirmation of the Department's decision, holding (1) intermediate scrutiny applies to the Department's application of the licensing statutes to Appellant's application; (2) the Department did not err in its findings; and (3) the Department's application of the licensing standards to Appellant did not violate the First Amendment. View "Gray v. Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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Dat was born in a Kenyan refugee camp in 1993. Admitted to the U.S. around 1994, he became a lawful permanent resident. Dat pled guilty to robbery, 18 U.S.C. 1951, and was sentenced to 78 months' imprisonment. Dat’s robbery conviction is a deportable offense, 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). Dat moved to vacate his guilty plea, claiming that his attorney, Allen, assured him that his immigration status would not be affected by his plea. Allen testified that she repeatedly told Dat the charges were “deportable offenses,” that she never told him, his mother, or his fiancée that he would not be deported. that she encouraged Dat to hire an immigration attorney, and that they reviewed the Plea Petition, which says that non-citizens would be permanently removed from the U.S. if found guilty of most felony offenses. The Plea Agreement refers to immigration consequences. Dat and Allen also reviewed the PSR, which stated that immigration proceedings would commence after his release from custody.The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief, finding that Dat was not denied effective assistance of counsel. It was objectively reasonable for Allen to tell Dat that he “could” face immigration ramifications that “could” result in deportation. An alien with a deportable conviction may still seek “relief from removal. These “immigration law complexities” should caution any defense attorney not to advise a defendant considering a guilty plea that the result of a post-conviction, contested removal proceeding is certain. View "Dat v. United States" on Justia Law

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Ramsey, a medical student. unsuccessfully sought testing accommodations for dyslexia and ADHD from the National Board of Medical Examiners. Ramsey sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Third Circuit affirmed the award of a preliminary injunction, requiring the Board to provide her accommodations. Ramsay established irreparable harm because she would likely be forced to withdraw from medical school if she could not take the initial test with accommodations and pass. The balance of equities tipped in her favor because granting her accommodations would not undermine the Board’s interests in fair and accurate testing and it was in the public interest for the ADA to be followed, to increase the number of physicians. Evidence that Ramsay’s reading, processing, and writing skills were abnormally low by multiple measures provided a sufficient comparison of her abilities to those of the general population to support the finding of disability. While the district court viewed Ramsay’s experts more favorably and found the Board’s experts unpersuasive, there is no indication that the court believed that it was compelled to defer to Ramsay’s experts; the court discounted the Board’s experts because they never met with Ramsay, engaged in too demanding an analysis of whether Ramsay had a disability, and overly focused on Ramsay’s academic achievements. View "Ramsay v. National Board of Medical Examiners" on Justia Law

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Green, was convicted of two counts of the first-degree murder for the gang-related shooting death of Lewis and was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment on one of those convictions. The conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. The trial court rejected a post-conviction petition alleging that Green’s trial counsel, Ritacca, labored under a per se conflict of interest because his trial counsel had previously represented Williams, the intended victim of the murder, who was in the vehicle with Lewis at the time of the shooting. Green neither knew about the conflict nor waived the conflict was rejected.The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, finding no per se conflict of interest. Only three situations establish a per se conflict of interest: where defense counsel has a prior or contemporaneous association with the victim, the prosecution, or an entity assisting the prosecution; where defense counsel contemporaneously represents a prosecution witness; and where defense counsel was a former prosecutor who had been personally involved with the prosecution of the defendant. Ritacca’s representation of both defendant and Williams did not fit within any of those three per se conflict situations. View "People v. Green" on Justia Law

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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a).The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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Sepling, represented by SC, pled guilty to importing GBL, a controlled substance analogue, 21 U.S.C. 952; Sepling’s sentence would be calculated without consideration of the Guidelines career offender section. Sepling was released on bond pending sentencing and became involved in a conspiracy to import methylone, another Schedule I controlled substance. He was charged under 21 U.S.C. 963. A search uncovered three kilograms of methylone. Subsequent investigation revealed that the conspiracy involved approximately 10 kilograms. A Public Defender (APD) represented Sepling on the new charges. The prosecution agreed to withdraw the new charge; in exchange, Sepling’s involvement in the conspiracy would be factored into his GBL sentence as relevant conduct. The APD ceased representing Sepling. Sepling’s unmodified Guideline range for the GBL was 27-33 months. The methylone relevant conduct dramatically increased his base offense level. The PSR analogized methylone to MDMA, commonly called “ecstasy,” and held him responsible for 10 kilograms, resulting in responsibility equivalent to that for conspiring to distribute five and a half tons of marijuana, for a sentencing range of 188-235 months. SC did not object to that calculation, nor did he file a sentencing memorandum. Rather than researching the pharmacological effect of methylone, SC relied upon Sepling to explain the effects of methylone. SC, the government, and the court all confessed that they did not possess any substantive knowledge of methylone The Third Circuit vacated the 102-month sentence. Sepling was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness. View "United States v. Sepling" on Justia Law

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Gaston, an Illinois prisoner, first complained about pain in his left knee in May 2009. Drugs did not help. After some delay, Gaston saw an orthopedic surgeon in September 2010. An MRI exam was approved but not conducted until February 2011. In August 2011, Gaston had arthroscopic surgery. While Gaston’s left knee was healing, Wexford (the corporation that provides prison medical care) delayed approving an MRI of his right knee; one knee had to be sound before treatment of the other. In May 2012 Gaston had an MRI exam on the right knee. It showed serious problems. Another arthroscopic surgery occurred in October 2012. This did not bring relief. Arthroplasty (knee replacement) was delayed while specialists determined whether Gaston’s pulmonary and cardiology systems would handle the strain but took place in February 2015 and was successful. Gaston claimed that the delays while waiting for surgeries reflect deliberate indifference to his pain so that the pain became a form of unauthorized punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Defendants offered evidence that the delays could be chalked up to a preference for conservative treatment before surgery and never to any desire to injure Gaston or indifference to his pain. The district court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants, ruling that none acted (or delayed acting) with the state of mind required for culpability. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and affirmed judgment in favor of Wexford. Private corporations, when deemed to be state actors in suits under 42 U.S.C. 1983, are not subject to vicarious liability. Wexford could be liable for its own unconstitutional policies, but the policies to which Gaston pointed, reflected medical judgment rather than a constitutional problem. View "Gaston v. Ghosh" on Justia Law