Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al.
Carrie Thompson-Widmer appealed the dismissal of her claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship against Kimberly Larson, Wells County, Eddy County, and Foster County. In January 2017, Larson filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Social Work Examiners against Thompson-Widmer on the basis of Thompson-Widmer’s actions in two child protection services cases. Larson alleged Thompson-Widmer misrepresented information about a child’s home environment in one case, and altered a report about methamphetamine in an infant’s meconium in the other case. Larson also met with a state’s attorney about Thompson-Widmer’s actions. The attorney referred the matter to a special prosecutor for consideration of potential criminal charges. Because the complaint to the State Board was filed while Thompson-Widmer was a Tri-County employee, Larson placed the complaint and the supporting documents in Thompson-Widmer’s employee personnel file. After the criminal investigation into Thompson-Widmer’s action was suspended, she became employed with Catholic Charities in April 2017. Tri-County worked with Catholic Charities on adoption placement cases. Larson’s staff informed her they did not feel comfortable working with Thompson- Widmer. Larson notified Catholic Charities that Tri-County would rather work with someone other than Thompson-Widmer. Catholic Charities submitted an open records request for Thompson-Widmer’s personnel file, and Larson fulfilled the request on Tri-County’s behalf. In May 2017, after receiving the personnel file, which included Larson’s complaint against Thompson-Widmer, Thompson-Widmer was terminated because she was not forthcoming about her issues while employed by Tri-County. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding Larson’s communications were privileged and therefore not subject to liability for defamation. View "Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al." on Justia Law
Burr v. N.D. State Board of Dental Examiners
Rebecca Burr appealed a district court judgment dismissing her complaint against the North Dakota Board of Dental Examiners. In mid-2019, Burr filed a complaint with the North Dakota Board of Dental Examiners alleging a dentist previously licensed by the Board committed aggravated assault and permanently maimed her in 1989. Her original complaint to the Board stated she had reached out to the Board in 1996 by sending a letter outlining some of the same complaints that were in the 2019 formal complaint. The Board responded to Burr’s complaint with a formal letter stating that it had determined “there is not a reasonable basis to believe that a violation of NDCC 43-28-18 or the rules promulgated by the Board occurred” and that the matter was dismissed without any action having been taken. In January 2020, Burr served the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) a notice of claim in the amount of $250,000, alleging that the Board failed to satisfy its legal obligation to investigate her claim “and that the failure to do so caused Ms. Burr further harm, pain and suffering.” In February 2020, OMB notified Burr by letter that her claim had been denied. Burr did not pursue an administrative appeal of that decision. She then commenced this action by serving the Board and OMB with a summons and complaint in May 2020. The district court granted the Board’s motion to dismiss, finding it lacked jurisdiction, and concluding that the Board was entitled to both quasi-judicial immunity and discretionary immunity. On appeal, Burr argued the district court erred in concluding that the Board was entitled to discretionary immunity and in dismissing her complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Burr v. N.D. State Board of Dental Examiners" on Justia Law
Broten v. Carter, et al.
James Broten appealed the dismissal of his attorney malpractice claim. Broten was appointed to serve as the personal representative of his father’s estate. Broten was sued by his sisters who claimed Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative by transferring land held in the trust to himself. In 2011, Broten retained attorney Ralph Carter to defend him against his sisters’ claims. During Carter’s representation, Broten showed Carter approximately sixty boxes of records Broten believed documented payments to his parents and provided a defense to his sisters’ claims. Broten repeatedly inquired with Carter about his review of the records. The records were not disclosed to the opposing party during discovery but disclosed after Carter was replaced as Broten’s counsel in March of 2013. In August 2013, the district court entered an order finding Broten had breached his fiduciary duties as personal representative of his father’s estate, ultimately requiring Broten to pay damages to his sisters in an amount of $1,300,054. Broten alleged Carter’s failure to review and disclose the documents prevented all of the records from being introduced as evidence and resulted in the liability to his sisters. Carter moved for summary judgment, arguing the applicable two year statute of limitations barred Broten’s claim. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Carter and awarded to Carter the recovery of costs and fees, including the costs expended for expert witnesses who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Broten argued the district court erred in granting summary judgment after finding his claim was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. He also challenged the inclusion of expert witness fees within the expenses awarded by the district court for experts who were unnecessary for resolution of the statute of limitations issue. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Broten v. Carter, et al." on Justia Law
Ayling v. Sens, et al.
Robin Ayling appealed a judgment dismissing her claims against Mary Ann Sens, M.D., UND School of Medicine employees, and the Grand Forks County State’s Attorney and Board of Commissioners relating to her son’s death. Ayling’s son, Blake, was a student at UND. He was last seen alive at an on-campus party at approximately 1:30 a.m. on March 24, 2012. He was found dead in the rail yard south of UND’s campus at approximately 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. on March 24, 2012. Dr. Sens performed the autopsy on the same day. She determined Blake was intoxicated, he had a 0.278 blood-alcohol concentration at the time of death, he died from blood loss, and his death was accidental. After learning of the autopsy results, Ayling questioned the blood-alcohol concentration because Blake reportedly did not show signs of intoxication at the party or before the party. Ayling met with Dr. Sens in April 2013, and Sens explained the autopsy report and defended her conclusions. On December 27, 2013, Ayling spoke with a forensic toxicologist who questioned Dr. Sens’ methods in performing the autopsy. The toxicologist believed Blake's urine and vitreous humor should have been tested for alcohol to corroborate the blood test. Ayling sued Dr. Sens, UND School of Medicine employees, and Grand Forks County employees in February 2017, alleging Sens failed to competently perform a medical autopsy as a part of the investigation of Blake's death. Ayling alleged the other Defendants failed to properly supervise Dr. Sens. The district court concluded Ayling’s claims against the Defendants were untimely. After reviewing the record, the North Dakota Supreme Court agreed with the district court that Ayling’s voluminous discovery requests did not relate to the statute of limitations issue and would not have created an issue of material fact supporting denial of the summary judgment motion. The court’s discovery decisions were not an abuse of discretion. View "Ayling v. Sens, et al." on Justia Law
Berg, et al. v. North Dakota State Board of Registration
The North Dakota State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors ("Board") appealed district court judgments affirming in part, reversing in part, and remanding to the Board its disciplinary decisions against Michael Berg, Apex Engineering Group, Inc., Scott Olson, Dain Miller, Thomas Welle, and Timothy Paustian. Respondents Berg, Olson, Miller, Welle and Paustian were former employees of Ulteig Engineers, Inc. Olson was terminated from Ulteig in 2009. In 2010, Berg, Miller, Welle, and Paustian resigned from Ulteig and, along with Olson, started a competing business, Apex. Following the Respondents' departure, Ulteig sued Apex and filed an ethics complaint with the Board, alleging Berg, Olson, Miller, Welle and Paustian violated the Professional Engineers' Code of Ethics by disclosing Ulteig's confidential information and failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest by not informing Ulteig of their decision to form Apex. Ulteig also alleged the Respondents knowingly participated in a plan to seek employment for Apex on projects that Ulteig had been contracted to perform before the Respondents' departure from Ulteig. The Board found that each of the Respondents had violated one or more of the provisions of the code of ethics. Respondents appealed the Board's disciplinary decisions to the district court. The court affirmed the Board's decision that Welle, Berg, and Miller failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest. The court reversed the determination that Miller, Welle, and Paustian had improperly disclosed confidential information. The court also reversed the decision that Berg, Olson, and Welle knowingly participated in a plan to seek employment for Apex on projects Ulteig had been contracted to perform before their departure from Ulteig. The court remanded to the Board for reconsideration the discipline imposed on Berg, Olson, Miller, Welle, and Paustian in light of the court's reversal of the disciplinary decisions. The court also awarded attorney fees to Berg, Welle, Apex, Olson, Miller, and Paustian. On appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court, the Board argued the district court wrongfully reversed the Board's disciplinary decisions because the decisions were supported by a preponderance of the evidence. The Supreme Court concluded a preponderance of the evidence supported the Board's factual findings regarding the improper solicitation by Welle, Olson, Berg, and Apex. Those findings supported a conclusion that Welle, Olson, Berg, and Apex knowingly sought or accepted employment for professional services for an assignment for which Ulteig was previously employed or contracted to perform in violation of N.D. Admin. Code 28-03.1-01-12(6). The Supreme Court therefore reversed those parts of the district court's judgments relating to the violation of N.D. Admin. Code 28-03.1-01-12(6) by Welle, Olson, Berg, and Apex. View "Berg, et al. v. North Dakota State Board of Registration" on Justia Law
Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd. v. Johnson
Bradley and Karol Johnson appealed a judgment granting the law firm Barna, Guzy, & Steffen, Ltd. ("BGS") foreclosure of a real estate mortgage for payment of a $258,769.97 debt, and an order denying their N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) motion for relief from judgment. In 2013 the Johnsons retained BGS to represent them in a lawsuit in connection with the probate of the estate of Bradley Johnson's father in Minnesota. The Johnsons resided in, and BGS was located in, the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. BGS extended credit to the Johnsons for costs, fees, and expenses that would be incurred in representing them in the lawsuit through a revolving line of credit agreement and a revolving promissory note. To secure payment, the Johnsons executed a mortgage on land they owned in North Dakota. The mortgage required the Johnsons to pay all of the principal and interest on the indebtedness when due to BGS. The Johnsons failed to make the payments to BGS as required under the loan agreements. In 2015 BGS brought this action against the Johnsons and others in North Dakota to foreclose the mortgage. The Johnsons counterclaimed, alleging its attorneys committed legal malpractice and other torts during the Minnesota legal proceedings. The district court ultimately dismissed the Johnsons' counterclaim without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under N.D.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). The court granted summary judgment for foreclosure on the North Dakota property in favor of BGS, concluding the Johnsons were indebted to BGS in the amount of $258,769.97 under the loan agreements with interest continuing to accrue. Because the Johnsons did not establish the district court erred in any of its rulings, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, and the order denying the motion for relief from judgment. View "Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd. v. Johnson" on Justia Law
Judicial Conduct Commission v. Hagar
Judge Richard Hagar of the North Central Judicial District filed exceptions to the Judicial Conduct Commission's recommended findings that he violated provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to diligently and promptly decide judicial matters assigned to him and by failing to work with the presiding judge. He also objected to the Commission's recommended sanction. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded there was clear and convincing evidence Judge Hagar violated N.D. Code Jud. Conduct Rules 2.5 and 2.7. The Court ordered that Judge Hagar be suspended from his position as district court judge for three months without pay and that he be assessed $10,118.67 for the costs and expenses of the disciplinary proceedings. View "Judicial Conduct Commission v. Hagar" on Justia Law
Nusviken v. Johnston
DeWayne Johnston, individually, and as registered agent of Johnston Law Office, P.C., appealed the invalidation of a notice of attorney lien recorded against Johnston's former client and ordering Johnston Law Office and Johnston, individually, to pay $1,330 in costs and attorney fees. Wayne and Janel Nusviken acquired real property from Johnston's former client Barbara McDermott on October 2, 2013. On October 8, 2013, Johnston recorded a "notice of attorney lien" against McDermott. The notice of attorney lien included the legal description of Nusviken's property and stated McDermott owed Johnston nearly $66,000 in attorney's fees relating to Johnston's representation of McDermott in earlier matters unrelated to the sale of the property. The Nusvikens petitioned the district court to invalidate the notice of attorney lien, arguing McDermott no longer owned any interest in the property. The court issued an order to show cause directing Johnston to appear and show why the notice of attorney lien should not be declared void. At the hearing, Johnston argued the notice of attorney lien was not a nonconsensual common-law lien but a valid attorney's lien under N.D.C.C. § 35-20-08, and therefore, the court did not have jurisdiction to invalidate the lien. In response Nusviken's attorney stated the notice of attorney lien was invalid because McDermott no longer had an interest in the property and no attorney-client relationship existed between Johnston and the Nusvikens. The court concluded the purported lien was a nonconsensual common-law lien and not a valid attorney's lien because it failed to satisfy the statutory requirements for an attorney's lien. After review, the Supreme Court modified the judgment to relieve Johnston of personal liability and affirmed the judgment as modified. View "Nusviken v. Johnston" on Justia Law
Estate of Amundson
The last will and testament of Donald Amundson provided for his entire estate to be distributed to the Donald G. Amundson Trust. The Trust owned farmland jointly with the Kenneth Amundson Trust, which was set up by Donald Amundson's brother. Donald Amundson's Trust declaration directed the Trust assets were to be distributed upon his death to four charities, with the remainder distributed to ten nieces and nephews. Debra Magers and Gladys Gleason were initially appointed as co-personal representatives of the Estate. Magers, Gleason, and Todd Graveline were appointed as co-trustees of the Trust. John Widdel, Jr. represented all parties in relation to the administration of the estate. Magers eventually became sole personal representative and trustee of the Trust and Estate. In August 2013, the beneficiaries of the Estate petitioned for court determination of reasonableness of fees and for settlement and distribution of estate. The petition objected to the fees charged by Magers and Widdel for their services to the Estate and Trust. In September 2014, the district court found Magers had breached her fiduciary duty in several ways, which included paying Widdel large fees without question. The court also found administration of the Estate and Trust was not complicated and Widdel's fees were unreasonable in light of the nature of the work performed. The court ordered Widdel to return attorney's fees in the amount of $95,000. Widdel appealed the district court judgment ordering him to repay $95,000 of the attorney's fees he charged in the administration of the Estate. He argued the district court abused its discretion in finding the attorney's fees were unreasonable, and that the district court abused its discretion by not holding an evidentiary hearing on the issue of substituting his professional corporation as the named party on the judgment. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding the fees charged by Widdel were unreasonable and in finding Widdel could properly be held personally liable on the judgment. View "Estate of Amundson" on Justia Law
Judicial Conduct Commission v. Hagar
The Judicial Conduct Commission recommended that Northwest District Court judge Richard Hagar be censured for violating Canon 3(B)(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. In 2011, Judge Hagar was served formal charges for allegedly not promptly deciding "Ringuette v. Ringuette" when a trial was held in his court in 2010. Upon review, the Supreme Court accepted the Affidavit of Consent and Agreement agreed to by the parties, censured Judge Hagar for his conduct, and ordered him to pay $500 in costs for the disciplinary proceeding. View "Judicial Conduct Commission v. Hagar" on Justia Law