Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
by
Plaintiff Carol Rademacher challenged a district court’s ruling that she impliedly waived her attorney-client privilege by filing a legal malpractice complaint close to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations and by then contesting defendant Ira Greschler’s statute of limitations defense. Greschler served as Rademacher’s attorney on various matters for more than two decades. One of the matters in which Greschler represented Rademacher involved the settlement of potential civil claims that Rademacher had brought against a man named John Becker and his wife. Pertinent here, for approximately ten years, Rademacher and Becker were involved in an extramarital relationship. Becker’s wife ultimately confronted and assaulted Rademacher, after which Rademacher contacted the police. The Beckers and Rademacher entered into a settlement agreement, under which Rademacher agreed not to pursue any claims against the Beckers and to ask the Boulder District Attorney’s office to offer Ms. Becker a deferred sentence. In exchange for these promises, Becker executed a $300,000 promissory note payable to Rademacher. Becker stopped making payments, and Rademacher, still represented by Greschler, sued to enforce the agreement. A jury ultimately found for Rademacher, and Becker appealed. After Greschler had orally argued the case in the court of appeals but before an opinion was issued, Rademacher’s divorce attorney, Shawn Ettingoff, sent Greschler a letter “to convey [Rademacher’s] dissatisfaction with [Greschler’s] inadequate representation” in the dispute with Becker. The letter also noted that Greschler’s conduct in representing Rademacher “helped create and perpetuate a situation that may very well lead to the reversal of the judgment in [Rademacher’s] favor.” The court of appeals eventually ruled the agreement between Rademacher and Becker was void as against public policy. Rademacher thereafter sued Greschler, asserting, among other things, a claim for professional negligence (legal malpractice). Several months later, Greschler moved for summary judgment on this claim, arguing that it was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that on the facts presented, Rademacher did not assert a claim or defense that either focused or depended on advice given by her counsel or that placed any privileged communications at issue. Accordingly, the Court further concluded Rademacher did not impliedly waive her attorney-client privilege in this case. View "In re Rademacher v. Greschler" on Justia Law

by
The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline (“the Commission”) recommended approval of a Stipulation for Public Censure and Suspension against Judge Lance P. Timbreza. In June 2019, Judge Timbreza was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence and Careless Driving. As he drove home from a party, Judge Timbreza crashed his vehicle into roadside trees and bushes while avoiding a collision with another vehicle. Judge Timbreza contacted the Commission by phone to report his arrest and the charges against him. Judge Timbreza pled guilty to Driving While Ability Impaired and was sentenced to one year of probation, alcohol monitoring, a $200 fine, useful public service, and two days of suspended jail time. By driving while his ability was impaired by alcohol, the Commission determined Judge Timbreza failed to maintain the high standards of judicial conduct required of a judge. The Commission found Judge Timbreza’s conduct violated Canon Rules 1.1 and 1.2 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct. Consistent with the Stipulation, the Commission recommends the Colorado Supreme Court issue a public censure and a twenty-eight-day suspension of Judge Timbreza's judicial duties without pay. The Supreme Court adopted the Commission’s recommendation. View "In the Matter of: Judge Lance P. Timbreza" on Justia Law

by
This case was companion to Colorado Medical Board v. McLaughlin, 2019 CO 93, __ P.3d __, wherein the Colorado Supreme Court was asked to determine whether an investigative subpoena issued by the Colorado Medical Board (the “Board”) could have a lawfully authorized purpose if the investigation was prompted by a complaint made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (the “CDPHE”) pursuant to a policy that violated the Open Meetings Law (the “OML”) or the State Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”). Petitioner James Boland, M.D. was a physician licensed to practice medicine in Colorado. He primarily examined patients to determine if they would benefit from the use of medical marijuana. Information related to medical marijuana in Colorado is maintained by the CDPHE in a confidential registry that includes the names of all patients who have applied for and are entitled to receive a marijuana registry identification card, as well as the names and contact information for the patients’ physicians and, if applicable, their primary caregivers. In June 2014, the CDPHE referred Boland to the Board for investigation based on his “[h]igh plant count recommendations and high percent of patients under age of 30 [sic] for medical marijuana referrals.” Boland refused to comply with the subpoena, and he and several other physicians whom the CDPHE had referred to the Board and who had received subpoenas from the Board filed suit in the Denver District Court, seeking, among other things, to enjoin the Board from enforcing its subpoenas. The Supreme Court concluded that because neither the CDPHE’s adoption of the Referral Policy nor its referral of Boland to the Board violated the OML or the APA, Boland’s contention that the subpoena to him was void because the Policy and referral were void was based on a flawed premise and was therefore unpersuasive. Even if the adoption of the Referral Policy and the referral itself violated the OML or the APA, however, we still conclude that the Board’s subpoena to Boland had a lawfully authorized purpose because it was issued pursuant to the Board’s statutory authority to investigate allegations of unprofessional conduct and was properly tailored to that purpose. View "Boland v. Colorado Medical Board" on Justia Law

by
The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether an investigative subpoena issued by the Colorado Medical Board (the “Board”) can have a lawfully authorized purpose if the investigation was prompted by a complaint made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (the “CDPHE”) pursuant to a policy that violated the Open Meetings Law (the “OML”) or the State Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”). Scott McLaughlin, M.D. was a physician licensed to practice medicine in Colorado. As part of his practice, he evaluated patients to see if they had a qualifying condition that would benefit from the use of medical marijuana. Information related to medical marijuana in Colorado is maintained by the CDPHE in a confidential registry that includes the names of all patients who have applied for and are entitled to receive a marijuana registry identification card, as well as the names and contact information for the patients’ physicians and, if applicable, their primary caregivers. In May 2014, the CDPHE referred McLaughlin to the Board for investigation based on a high caseload of patients for whom marijuana was recommended. McLaughlin refused to comply with the subpoena, and he and several other physicians whom the CDPHE had referred to the Board and who had received subpoenas from the Board filed suit in the Denver District Court, seeking, among other things, to enjoin the Board from enforcing its subpoenas. The Supreme Court concluded that because neither the CDPHE’s adoption of the Referral Policy nor its referral of Boland to the Board violated the OML or the APA, Boland’s contention that the subpoena to him was void because the Policy and referral were void was based on a flawed premise and was therefore unpersuasive. Even if the adoption of the Referral Policy and the referral itself violated the OML or the APA, however, we still conclude that the Board’s subpoena to Boland had a lawfully authorized purpose because it was issued pursuant to the Board’s statutory authority to investigate allegations of unprofessional conduct and was properly tailored to that purpose. View "Colorado Medical Board v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

by
Francis Ruybalid committed numerous ethical violations arising out of cases that he either prosecuted or supervised while he was the District Attorney for the Colorado Third Judicial District. He argued he was entitled to the attorney’s fees and costs he incurred while defending these allegations. The counties of the Third Judicial District refused to reimburse Ruybalid for these expenses. The Colorado Supreme Court determined that because Ruybalid’s ethical violations were at times committed recklessly or knowingly, his attorney’s fees and costs were not necessarily incurred in the discharge of his official duties, therefore, he was not entitled to reimbursement for fees. View "Ruybalid v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs" on Justia Law

by
David Calvert was disbarred for various ethical violations, including entering into an oral agreement with a client without complying with the requisite safeguards of Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(a). After being disbarred, Calvert sued his former client, Diane Mayberry, for breach of that same oral agreement, claiming that there was a contract between them. The trial court granted Mayberry’s motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed. On appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, Calvert challenged: (1) whether an attorney who was found to have violated Rule 1.8(a) in a disciplinary proceeding was estopped from relitigating the same factual issues in a civil proceeding; (2) whether a contract between an attorney and a client entered into in violation of Rule 1.8(a) was enforceable; and (3) whether the trial court abused its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees against Calvert after finding his lawsuit groundless and frivolous. The Colorado Supreme Court declined the issue preclusion issue raised because Calvert conceded he could not relitigate whether he entered into an agreement with a client without meeting Rule 1.8(a)’s requirements. The Court held that when an attorney enters into a contract without complying with Rule 1.8(a), the contract was presumptively void as against public policy; however, a lawyer may rebut that presumption by showing that, under the circumstances, the contract does not contravene the public policy underlying Rule 1.8(a). Further, the Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees at the trial level because the record supported the finding that the case was groundless, frivolous, and brought in bad faith. But as to attorney’s fees at the appellate level, because the questions of whether issue preclusion applied in this proceeding and whether a contract made in violation of Rule 1.8(a) is void as against public policy were legitimately appealable issues, thereby making a grant of appellate attorney’s fees inappropriate. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals as to the merits on other grounds, affirmed the award of attorney’s fees at the trial level, and reversed the court of appeals’ order remanding for a determination of appellate attorney’s fees. View "Calvert v. Mayberry" on Justia Law

by
In a judicial disciplinary proceeding, the Colorado Supreme Court considered the exceptions of now-former Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Laurie Booras to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline’s (the “Commission’s”) recommendation that Judge Booras be removed from office and that she be ordered to pay the costs incurred by the Commission in this matter. The Commission’s recommendation was based on the factual findings and conclusions of law set forth in the December 12, 2018 Report of the Special Masters in this case. That report concluded that Judge Booras had violated Canon 1, Rule 1.2, Canon 3, Rule 3.1, and Canon 3, Rule 3.5 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct by (1) disclosing confidential information belonging to the court of appeals (namely, the vote of a court of appeals division on a case prior to the issuance of the decision in that case) to an intimate, non-spousal partner and (2) using inappropriate racial epithets in communications with that intimate partner, including a racially derogatory reference to a court of appeals colleague. Judge Booras filed exceptions to the Commission’s recommendation, contending that her communications with her then-intimate partner were protected by the First Amendment and that the recommendation that she be removed from office was too severe under the circumstances of this case. In addition, by letter dated January 2, 2019, Judge Booras advised the Chief Justice that she was resigning her position as a Colorado Court of Appeals Judge, effective as of the close of business on January 31, 2019, although no party contended Judge Booras’s resignation rendered this matter moot. Having now considered the record and the briefs of the parties, the Supreme Court concluded the Commission properly found Judge Booras’s communications with her then-intimate partner were not protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, given Judge Booras’ resignation, which she tendered and which became effective after the Commission made its recommendation, the Court did not decide whether Judge Booras’s removal from office was an appropriate sanction. Rather, the Court concluded the appropriate sanction in this case was acceptance of Judge Booras’s resignation, the imposition of a public censure, and an order requiring Judge Booras to pay the Commission’s costs in this matter. View "In the Matter of Laurie A. Booras" on Justia Law

by
In 2009, Della Gallegos had to undergo three cranial surgeries after her radiologist, Dr. Steven Hughes, failed to detect an obvious brain tumor on an MRI scan three years earlier. Had Dr. Hughes discovered the tumor in 2006, Gallegos could have treated it with cheaper, and less invasive, radiosurgery. The highly invasive cranial surgeries damaged Gallegos’s vision, hearing, and memory. Gallegos retained attorney Patric LeHouillier to sue Dr. Hughes for medical malpractice. But LeHouillier later decided not to proceed with the suit, concluding it did not make economic sense. He and Gallegos disagreed over whether he actually informed her of this decision, and the statute of limitations lapsed on the claims Gallegos could have brought against Dr. Hughes. Gallegos thereafter brought this attorney malpractice case against LeHouillier and his firm, claiming that LeHouillier’s negligence prevented her from successfully suing Dr. Hughes for medical malpractice. The question before the Colorado Supreme Court involved who bore the burden to prove that any judgment that could have been obtained against Dr. Hughes would have been collectible. The Supreme Court concluded that because the collectibility of the underlying judgment was essential to the causation and damages elements of a client’s negligence claim against an attorney, it held the client-plaintiff bore the burden of proving that the lost judgment in the underlying case was collectible. Here, the record reflected Gallegos failed to present sufficient evidence of collectibility. However, given the absence of a clear statement from the Supreme Court regarding plaintiff's burden to prove collectibility at the time of trial, and because the issue was not raised in this case until after Gallegos had presented her case-in-chief, the Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded for a new trial. View "LeHouillier v. Gallegos" on Justia Law

by
In a construction-defect matter filed by a homeowners’ association (HOA) against several developers, an attorney for the HOA previously represented one of the developers. The developers moved to disqualify that attorney under Rules 1.9 and 1.10 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. The trial court denied the motion, without what the Colorado Supreme Court described as “meaningfully analyzing for purposes” of Rule 1.9 whether this case was “substantially related” to the prior matters in which the attorney represented the developer. Instead, the Court found the trial court relied on issue preclusion, and found that in this situation, the attorney was not disqualified to represent the developer. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred by not analyzing the facts of this case under Rule 1.9, and therefore vacated the denial of the developers’ motion, and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Villas at Highland Park Homeowners Assoc. v. Villas at Highland Park, LLC" on Justia Law

by
After losing on her Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim at the county court, Elizabeth Flood's trial counsel, Gary Merenstein, paid the fees of several appellate attorneys who represented Flood in an appeal to the district court and later to the Supreme Court because they were not willing to work on a contingency basis. Flood ultimately prevailed in her appeal, and the Supreme Court awarded attorneys' fees. On remand to the county court to determine Flood's entitlement to and the amount of the attorneys' fees, the opposing party, debt collector Mercantile Adjustment Bureau(MAB), argued that Flood was not entitled to receive attorneys' fees for her appellate counsel's work. MAB argued that the arrangement between Merenstein and Flood, wherein he agreed to pay her appellate attorneys' fees and expected to be reimbursed for these fees from any court award of attorneys' fees received by Flood, constituted unethical financial assistance of a client in violation of Rule 1.8(e) of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. The county court rejected MAB's argument and awarded Flood the requested attorneys' fees. MAB appealed to the district court, which affirmed the county court. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that Merenstein did not violate Rule 1.8(e) by paying the fees of Flood's appellate counsel and therefore affirmed the district court's decision in part. However, the Court concluded that the district court erred in applying the Colorado Appellate Rules, which require an appellee to make her request for attorneys' fees in her answer brief, to an appeal to the district court from the county court. The Court reversed that part of the district court's ruling applying the Colorado Appellate Rules to deny Flood's request for attorneys' fees incurred in the current appeal. The case was remanded to the district court to return it to the county court for proceedings to determine whether Flood was entitled to appellate fees as the prevailing party in this appeal and, if so, the amount of Flood's reasonable attorneys' fees and costs incurred in connection with this appeal—including the proceedings before the Supreme Court. View "Mercantile Adjustment Bureau v. Flood" on Justia Law