Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The case involves Andrew Bertrand, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree child molestation. Bertrand argued that his counsel was ineffective for failing to propose lesser included offense instructions on fourth-degree assault. The trial court denied Bertrand's motion, ruling that although counsel was deficient for purposes of Strickland’s first prong, Bertrand could not show prejudice as required by Strickland’s second prong. The trial court ruled that because the State had met its burden of proving each element of first-degree child molestation and the jury convicted Bertrand of those charges, he could not show prejudice.The Supreme Court of the State of Washington clarified that a defendant can show ineffective assistance based on counsel’s failure to propose a lesser included offense instruction, even if there is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. However, the court affirmed the trial court's decision, stating that Bertrand was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to propose the fourth-degree assault instructions. The court remanded the remaining issues to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings. View "State v. Bertrand" on Justia Law

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Ricky Ullman was convicted on three counts of distribution of a matter portraying a sexual performance by a minor and of being a second-degree persistent felony offender. He was sentenced to twelve years, probated for five years, with several conditions including completion of a community-based sex offender treatment program (SOTP). The court later revoked his probation due to his failure to complete the SOTP, among other violations. Nearly two years after his probation was revoked, Ullman filed a motion challenging the revocation order, arguing that he could not be legally required to complete the SOTP. The circuit court granted him relief and vacated its revocation order, a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals.The Supreme Court of Kentucky reversed the lower courts' decisions, holding that Ullman’s challenge to the condition that he complete the SOTP was untimely and reinstated the circuit court’s revocation order. The court also held that a sentencing court may impose SOTP as a condition of probation for defendants who have not been convicted of a “sex crime” as defined by KRS 17.500. The court declined to address Ullman’s argument that the circuit court’s revocation order failed to comply with KRS 439.3106, as it was not properly preserved for review. However, the court agreed to remand the case for consideration of Ullman’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. View "COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY V. ULLMAN" on Justia Law

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Danny Richard Rivers, an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, filed a second habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 while his first petition was still pending on appeal. The second petition challenged the same convictions as the first but added new claims. Rivers argued that these new claims arose after he was able to review his attorney-client file, which he had long requested and only received after a successful state bar grievance adjudication against his counsel. The district court deemed the second petition "successive" under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which requires an applicant to first get authorization from the appropriate court of appeals for such a petition. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the petition without such authorization and transferred the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.Rivers appealed the district court's transfer order, arguing that his second petition should have been construed as a motion to amend his first petition since it was still pending on appeal. He also contended that his claims should not have been considered successive because his counsel withheld his client file that would have allegedly exposed his ineffective assistance, and this information was not available to him when he filed his first petition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with Rivers' arguments. The court found that Rivers' second petition attacked the same conviction as his first petition and added several new claims that stemmed from the proceedings already at issue in his first petition. The court held that the fact that Rivers' later-obtained client file allegedly contained information that was not available to him when he filed his first petition did not excuse him from meeting the standards for seeking authorization under § 2244. The court also held that the timing of Rivers' second petition did not permit him to circumvent the requirements for filing successive petitions under § 2244. The court affirmed the district court's order transferring the matter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for lack of jurisdiction. View "Rivers v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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The case involves Jacob Lickers, who was convicted for transporting and possessing child pornography. The conviction was based on evidence found on Lickers' devices, which were seized during a traffic stop and subsequent arrest for drug possession. The initial search of the devices was authorized by a state court warrant, which later suppressed the evidence due to the unconstitutionality of the initial stop and arrest. However, the case was referred to federal authorities who conducted a second search of the devices under a federal warrant. The federal warrant application did not mention the state court's suppression ruling.In the lower courts, Lickers' attorney challenged the constitutionality of the initial stop and arrest, and the adequacy of the state search warrant. The state court agreed, suppressing all evidence seized during the stop and any statements made by Lickers. The state charges were subsequently dismissed. However, in the federal court, the same arguments were unsuccessful. Lickers pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The district court sentenced him to concurrent terms of 132 months' imprisonment on each count.In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit, Lickers argued that his trial and appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to argue that the federal agent acted in bad faith by omitting the state court's suppression ruling from the federal warrant application. The court disagreed, finding that the link between the state court's suppression ruling and the federal warrant application was too attenuated to obligate the attorneys to explore the possibility of bad faith. The court affirmed the district court's denial of relief. View "Lickers v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Delaware considered an appeal from a decision of the Superior Court regarding the adoption of a Medicare Advantage Plan for State retirees by the State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC). The Superior Court had found that the SEBC's decision was subject to the requirements of Delaware’s Administrative Procedures Act (APA), granted a motion to stay the implementation of the Medicare Advantage Plan, and required the State to maintain its retirees’ Medicare Supplement Plan. The Superior Court also denied the plaintiffs' application for attorneys’ fees.The Supreme Court of the State of Delaware disagreed with the lower court's ruling. It found that the SEBC's decision to adopt a Medicare Advantage Plan was not a "regulation" as defined by the APA. The court reasoned that the decision did not meet the APA's definition of a regulation because it was not a "rule or standard," nor was it a guide for the decision of future cases. Therefore, the Superior Court did not have jurisdiction to stay the implementation of the plan. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court.On cross-appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the Superior Court erred by refusing to grant their application for attorneys’ fees. However, the Supreme Court found this argument moot because fee shifting is available only against a losing party in favor of a prevailing party. Since the Supreme Court reversed the decision below, fee shifting was foreclosed. View "DeMatteis v. RISE Delaware, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves Mark Cardilli Jr., who was convicted of manslaughter after shooting and killing Isahak Muse, the boyfriend of Cardilli's sister. Cardilli claimed he acted in self-defense, fearing that Muse, who was unarmed but physically aggressive, would take his gun and use it against him and his family. The trial court found that Cardilli's belief that deadly force was necessary was objectively unreasonable, leading to his conviction.Cardilli appealed his conviction, arguing that his trial attorneys failed to adequately argue that he acted in self-defense. The post-conviction court agreed, granting Cardilli's petition for post-conviction relief, vacating his conviction, and ordering a new trial. The court found that Cardilli's attorneys did not have a cohesive trial strategy and did not communicate effectively, which could have affected the trial court's fact-finding.The State of Maine appealed the post-conviction court's decision, arguing that Cardilli did not show prejudice resulting from the ineffective assistance of counsel. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the State, finding that the trial court's factual findings left no room for any argument that Cardilli's use of deadly force against Muse was justified. The court concluded that the legal argument Cardilli claimed his counsel should have pursued was incompatible with the court's findings about what occurred. The court vacated the post-conviction court's judgment and remanded for the entry of a judgment denying Cardilli's petition for post-conviction relief. View "Cardilli v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves Terrence Tyler, who was convicted of felony-murder in the first degree with the predicate felony of attempted unarmed robbery and assault with intent to rob. The incident occurred during a planned robbery of a marijuana dealer, Wilner Parisse, who was shot and killed during a physical altercation. Tyler appealed his conviction and filed two motions for a new trial. The first motion argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for not requesting an involuntary manslaughter jury instruction. The second motion requested the retroactive application of a court decision (Commonwealth v. Brown) that abolished felony-murder as an independent theory of liability for murder. Both motions were denied.The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reviewed Tyler's case and his motions for a new trial. The court held that the rule in Brown was intended to apply prospectively, and there was no reason to depart from that limitation. The court also found that Tyler's trial counsel did not err by failing to request an involuntary manslaughter instruction, as the pre-Brown default rule applies here. The court further held that the trial judge's instruction did not allow the jury to find Tyler guilty of felony-murder for conduct only sufficient to convict him of manslaughter. The court declined to reduce the verdict of murder in the first degree to a lesser degree of guilt. Therefore, Tyler's conviction was affirmed, and the orders denying his motions for a new trial were also affirmed. View "Commonwealth v. Tyler" on Justia Law

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Ramel Ortiz was convicted of six counts of sexual assault and other felonies after breaking into M.P.'s house and forcing her to engage in multiple sexual acts. Four of these sexual assault counts arose from an incident during which Ortiz subjected M.P. to intercourse in different sexual positions. Ortiz appealed his conviction, arguing that his appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support multiple sexual assault convictions.Ortiz's case was first reviewed by the Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County, which denied his postconviction petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Ortiz then appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Nevada.The Supreme Court of the State of Nevada found that appellate counsel's omission of a sufficiency challenge to the multiple convictions fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. The court concluded that because the sufficiency challenge stood a reasonable probability of success had it been raised on appeal from the judgment of conviction, Ortiz was prejudiced by appellate counsel's omission of that challenge. The court therefore reversed in part and remanded for the district court to vacate three of Ortiz's sexual assault convictions. However, the court affirmed the district court's decision as to Ortiz's remaining claims, which it found to lack merit. View "Ortiz v. State" on Justia Law

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Jeffrey Roads was convicted of transporting and accessing child pornography, and received a 324-month prison sentence. He appealed, alleging conflicts of interest among his defense counsel and the presiding judge. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit previously vacated Roads's sentence and ordered a lower court to determine whether a conflict of interest among Roads's defense counsel may have affected his substantial rights. After re-assignment of the case to a different judge and changes in counsel, Roads's motions for disclosure of information and recusal were denied. His motion to withdraw his guilty plea was also denied, and he was re-sentenced to the same term of imprisonment.On appeal to the Eighth Circuit, Roads argued that the district court erred in denying his motions and in applying a two-level obstruction enhancement during sentencing. He claimed that a reasonable person may question the impartiality of the court due to perceived personal relationships with federal officials or court employees who had been threatened by another individual, Justin Fletcher.However, the Appeals Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Roads's motions. It found that Roads had failed to provide any information suggesting the court could not be impartial. The court also found that Roads's reasons for recusal were based on inaccurate "facts" and mere speculation. The court denied Roads's motion to withdraw his guilty plea as he failed to show a fair and just reason for withdrawal. It concluded that the district court was correct in applying the obstruction enhancement, as Roads had attempted to destroy evidence. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court, upholding Roads's sentence. View "United States v. Roads" on Justia Law

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The case involves a group of appellants who allegedly purchased luxury vehicles with funds provided by Dilmurod Akramov, the owner of CBC and D&O Group. The appellants would then transfer the vehicle titles back to Akramov's D&O Group without receiving cash or equivalent in exchange. They would then claim a "trade-in credit" against the sales tax due on the purchase of a vehicle. The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) argued that these were not valid sales as required by Arkansas law and denied the sales-tax-refund claims.The appellants challenged the DFA's decision through the administrative review process, which affirmed the DFA's decision. The appellants then appealed to the Pulaski County Circuit Court for further review. The circuit court found that the appellants' attorney, Jason Stuart, was a necessary witness and therefore disqualified him from further representing the appellants. The court also held the appellants in contempt for failing to provide discovery per the court's order.The Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the circuit court's decision. The court held that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in disqualifying Stuart. The court applied the three-prong test from Weigel v. Farmers Ins. Co., which requires that the attorney's testimony is material to the determination of the issues being litigated, the evidence is unobtainable elsewhere, and the testimony is or may be prejudicial to the testifying attorney’s client. The court found that all three prongs were satisfied in this case. The court also affirmed the circuit court's decision to strike the third amended and supplemental complaint filed by Stuart after his disqualification. View "STUART v. WALTHER" on Justia Law