Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court reversing the decision of the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices (the Commissioner) that the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) was responsible for ethics violations. Trap Free Montana Public Lands (Trap Free) filed an ethics complaint alleging that FWP allowed the Montana Trappers Association (MTA) to use an FWP-owned trailer and equipment in MTA’s efforts to oppose a ballot initiative, in violation of Mont. Code Ann. 2-2-101 and -121. A hearing examiner found that FWP staff were responsible for three statutory violations for the occasions when MTA members used the trailer and equipment in conjunction with its political advocacy efforts. The Commissioner adopted the hearing examiner’s recommendation that the Commissioner impose an administrative penalty on FWP. The district court reversed, concluding that FWP employees did not violate state ethics laws. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that where section 2-2-121(3)(a) prohibits public employees from using public resources for political purposes, and where MTA members are not public employees, there was no violation of the ethics code. View "Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks v. Trap Free Montana Public Lands" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Plaintiffs’ motion to substitute Judge Edward P. McLean in this legal malpractice case. Plaintiffs sued Defendants for legal malpractice. After the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for an order of summary judgment, Judge McLean assumed jurisdiction in this case. After the trial, Judge McLean retired, and Chief Justice McGrath issued an order calling Judge McLean back into active service to preside over the case. Judge McLean then entered a final judgment in the case. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial to determine the amount of Plaintiffs’ damages. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a motion for substitution of Judge McLean. Judge McLean denied the motion as untimely. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court correctly denied Plaintiffs’ motion where Plaintiffs had actual notice of Judge McLean’s assumption of jurisdiction, and Judge McLean retained jurisdiction after the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in Labair II and the Labairs filed their motion for substitution after the twenty-day deadline under Mont. Code Ann. 3-1-804(12). View "Labair v. Carey" on Justia Law

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Holly and Robert Labair filed a legal malpractice claim for Steve Carey and Carey Law Firm (collectively, Carey) related to Carey’s representation of them in a medical malpractice action. The district court granted summary judgment to Carey. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded to the district court for a trial to establish two required components of the damages element of the Labairs’ claim: (1) that it was more probable than not that they would have recovered a settlement or judgment but for Carey’s negligence, and (2) the value of the lost settlement and/or judgment. After a trial, the jury indicated that the Labairs would not have settled the underlying medical malpractice claim. The district court formally entered judgment in favor of Carey. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment, holding that the district court erred in instructing the jury to decide whether Plaintiffs would have settled the underlying medical malpractice suit. Remanded for a new trial on the question of the value of the lost opportunity to settle. View "Labair v. Carey" on Justia Law

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Tina McColl filed a complaint against Michael Lang, N.D., a licensed naturopathic physician, after Lang used black salve to remove a blemish on Lang’s nose, which resulted in an infected third degree burn on McColl’s nose. The jury found Lang departed from the standard of care in his treatment of McColl, which resulted in damages. The jury, however, unanimously denied punitive damages. McColl appealed, seeking a new trial on the issue of punitive damages. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it (1) granted Lang’s motion to exclude evidence of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibition against selling, marketing, or manufacturing drugs not FDA approved and the FDA warning letters regarding the use of black salve as a cure for cancer; and (2) denied McColl’s motion to exclude the testimony of Lang’s expert on the standard of care for a naturopathic physician. View "McColl v. Lang" on Justia Law

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Roger and Carrie Peters and Daggin’ Y Cattle Company (collectively, Peters) filed a complaint against Junkermier, Clark, Campanella, Stevens, P.C. and Larry Addink (collectively, Junkermeir) alleging multiple counts stemming from tax services Junkermier performed for Peters. New York Marine, which insured Junkermier under a professional liability policy, defended Junkermeir subject to a reservation of rights. Peters and Junkermeir eventually entered into a settlement agreement and stipulation for entry of judgment without New York Marine’s participation, and the district court scheduled a hearing on the stipulated settlement’s reasonableness. The district court allowed New York Marine to intervene. After a hearing, the district court found that the stipulated settlement amount was reasonable, entered judgment in Peters’s favor, and ordered that Junkermier was not liable for the stipulated settlement. New York Marine appealed, asserting for the first time that the district court judge erred by not disclosing an apparent conflict of interest. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice pending referral to a district judge for hearing on New York Martine’s request for disqualification for cause, holding (1) New York Marine did not waive its disqualification claim; and (2) the presiding judge should have disclosed circumstances that could potentially cause the judge’s impartiality reasonably to be questioned. View "Draggin’ Y Cattle Co. v. Addink" on Justia Law

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Petitioner served two terms as a Public Service Commissioner (PSC). While serving his first term at the PSC, Respondent, campaign manager for Petitioner's opponent in the upcoming election, filed four complaints against Petitioner with the Commissioner of Political Practices (Commissioner), alleging that Petitioner had violated the statutory Code of Ethics by accepting gifts of substantial value from two corporations with which the PSC regularly dealt and by using state resources to aid his reelection campaign and for personal business. Following a three-day hearing on Respondent's complaints, a hearing examiner determined that Petitioner violated Mont. Code Ann. 2-2-104 two times by receiving "gifts of substantial value" and violated Mont. Code Ann. 2-2-121 five times by using state facilities and equipment for election purposes. The Commissioner affirmed, ordering Petitioner to pay $5,750 in fines and $14,945 for the costs of the hearing. The district court affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not err by concluding (1) Respondent had legal standing to file ethics complaints against Petitioner; (2) Petitioner received unlawful gifts; (3) Petitioner improperly used State facilities for political purposes; and (4) the penalty statute for ethics violations was not unconstitutionally vague. View "Molnar v. Fox" on Justia Law

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Tamara Lucas and her husband James brought a legal malpractice claim against attorney Mat Stevenson after they hired Stevenson to defend James against criminal charges and to represent them in a civil suit against the city police department, the city, and individual police officers that arrested James for disturbing the peace and felony assault on a peace officer. However, Stevenson later learned that the Lucases had previously filed for bankruptcy. The civil suit was determined to an asset of the bankruptcy estate, and Stevenson was reassigned to pursue the case on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. After a settlement agreement was reached, the Lucases brought this action against Stevenson. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Stevenson. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court correctly determined (1) the Lucases' civil claims were properly determined to be an asset of the bankruptcy estate; and (2) Stevenson did not represent the Lucases at the time the claims were settled, and therefore, the Lucases had no standing to bring a legal malpractice claim against him. View "Lucas v. Stevenson" on Justia Law

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Terance Perry filed for dissolution of his marriage to Karen Perry. Terance named Gail Goheen as his counsel of record. Karen filed a motion to disqualify Goheen after speaking with Goheen over the telephone. Before the disqualification hearing, Karen filed a motion to strike office memorandums and affidavits filed by Terance regarding Goheen's conversation with Karen as privileged communications between attorney and client. The district court denied Karen's motion to disqualify, finding no attorney-client relationship existed between Karen and Goheen. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not err by (1) denying Karen's motion to disqualify; (2) permitting Goheen to testify at the disqualification hearing; (3) relying on communications between Goheen and Karen in making its decision; and (4) determining that Karen abused the rules of disqualification. The court also found that Goheen did not violate her duty to Karen under Rule 19 of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct. View "In re Marriage of Perry" on Justia Law

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The Labairs lost their newborn baby after an early delivery by C-section. The Labairs retained Steve Carey and Carey Law Firm (Carey) to pursue their medical malpractice claim against their obstetrician. More than two and a half years later, Carey filed a complaint against the obstetrician. However, Carey failed to file an application with the Montana Medical Legal Panel (MMLP) before filing a complaint with the district court as required by statute and further failed to file an MMLP application within the three-year statute of limitations applicable to medical malpractice claims. The district court later dismissed the Labairs' medical malpractice case with prejudice as time-barred by the statute of limitations. The Labairs subsequently filed a complaint for legal malpractice against Casey. The district court entered summary judgment for Carey, concluding that Carey's conduct of failing to file the application with the MMLP did not cause the Labairs injury or damages because the Labairs failed to show that the underlying medical malpractice claims would have succeeded but for the error. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding (1) the Labairs' loss of their medical malpractice case was an injury; and (2) the damages associated with that injury remained unproven. View "Labair v. Carey " on Justia Law

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H&H Development, LLC hired Jim Ramlow for legal services. In 2007, H&H filed a pro se complaint in Lake County against Ramlow and his law firm for professional negligence. Eleven days later, H&H, through counsel, filed a complaint in Flathead County against Eagle Bend, seeking damages based on allegations similar to those in the Lake County complaint. H&H settled with Eagle Bend. In 2010, H&H filed an amended Flathead County complaint that named Ramlow and his firm as defendants and included a lawyer's signature. The district court subsequently declared the Lake County complaint null and void after determining that a non-lawyer could not file a complaint on behalf of a limited liability company. Thereafter, the court granted summary judgment to Defendants on the amended complaint based upon the running of the applicable statute of limitations. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that a district court has discretion to determine whether a corporation should be able to relate back to an amended complaint signed by a lawyer, to its original, pro se complaint. Remanded to assess whether Mont. R. Civ. P. 15(c) permitted H&H's amended complaint in Flathead County to relate back to H&H's pro se Lake County complaint. View "H & H Dev., LLC v. Ramlow" on Justia Law