Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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Lippa and Manmohan Grewal sold a gas station to Theodore Hansen, who later sold it to Junction Market Fairview, L.C. (JMF). The sale contract required Hansen to make regular installment payments, with the final balance due after three years. Hansen missed many payments and failed to pay the full balance when due. The Grewals initiated foreclosure proceedings over six years after Hansen's first missed payment. The applicable statute of limitations for a breach of contract action is six years, raising the question of when the statute begins to run for installment contracts.The Sixth District Court in Sanpete County granted partial summary judgment in favor of JMF, concluding that the statute of limitations began when Hansen missed the first payment, making the Grewals' foreclosure action too late. The court awarded sole control of the gas station to JMF and ordered the Grewals to release the title. When the Grewals failed to comply, JMF seized the station and sold it to a third party. The district court also awarded JMF attorney fees under the Public Waters Access Act and the reciprocal attorney fees statute.The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the case and found that the sale of the gas station to a third-party bona fide purchaser rendered the Grewals' appeal on the title issue moot, as no court action could affect the litigants' rights to the property. However, the issue of attorney fees was not moot. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees to JMF under the reciprocal attorney fees statute. The court affirmed the award of attorney fees and remanded to the district court to determine the amount of reasonable attorney fees JMF incurred in defending against the appeal. View "Grewal v. Junction Market Fairview" on Justia Law

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Fred and Sandra Monaco took legal action against the Faulkner County Assessor and the Faulkner County Tax Collector concerning the 2021 assessment of their property. Sandra Monaco had purchased a parcel of timberland in 2005 and later built a home on it. The property was assessed as agricultural without a building until 2020 when the Assessor's office discovered the improvement and reassessed the property's value. In July 2021, Sandra deeded the property to herself and her husband, Fred, and subsequently filed a form asserting a homestead right on the property and her right to an assessment freeze under amendment 79 of the Arkansas Constitution. Following the Board's upholding of the Assessor's valuation and assessment, Fred filed a petition for writ of mandamus in circuit court, which was denied.The Supreme Court of Arkansas upheld the circuit court's decision on several grounds. Firstly, Fred's attempt to represent Sandra's interests was deemed unauthorized practice of law, rendering the petition null with respect to Sandra's claims. Secondly, Fred could not claim a writ of mandamus as there were other remedies available to him such as appealing the Board's decision. The court found that a writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy only issued to enforce an established right or the performance of a duty, and it requires the petitioner to show a clear and certain right to the relief sought and the absence of any other remedy. In this case, Fred failed to meet these requirements. View "MONACO v. LEWIS" on Justia Law

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In a legal malpractice case in North Dakota, a couple, Kenneth and Carol Pinks, sued attorney Alexander Kelsch and his professional corporation, along with associated partners, alleging negligence in representing them in a quiet title action against the State of North Dakota. The District Court, South Central Judicial District, bifurcated the malpractice action to first determine the element of causation, specifically whether the Pinks would have achieved a more favorable outcome in the quiet title action but for the alleged negligence of the defendants. The court denied cross-motions for summary judgment, finding there were genuine issues of material fact.Following a bench trial on the causation element, the district court concluded that had the evidence of the Pinks’ ownership of the disputed land been presented in the quiet title action, they would have established their ownership claim was prior and superior to the State’s claim of title. The court concluded the Pinks proved the element of causation and ordered a jury trial be set on the remaining issues of the legal malpractice claim. The defendants appealed this decision.The Supreme Court of North Dakota, however, dismissed the appeal, ruling that the defendants were attempting to appeal from an interlocutory order, and the defendants did not seek certification under Rule 54(b) of the North Dakota Rules of Civil Procedure. The rule requires that, in cases with more than one claim or multiple parties, a final judgment on one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties can only be directed if the court expressly determines there is no just reason for delay. The court found that the district court only ruled on the causation element of the legal malpractice claim, and other elements, such as the existence of an attorney-client relationship, a duty by the attorney to the client, a breach of that duty by the attorney, and damages were still left to be adjudicated. The defendants' failure to comply with Rule 54(b) led to the dismissal of the appeal. The court also denied the Pinks' request for costs and attorney’s fees, determining that the defendants' appeal was not frivolously made. View "Pinks v. Kelsch" on Justia Law

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The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals, ruling that the district court did not abuse its discretion in certifying an order as a final partial judgment under Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 54.02. The case arose from a dispute between the City of Elk River and Bolton & Menk, Inc. over a large construction contract for a wastewater treatment plant improvement project. The City sued Bolton for alleged breach of contract and professional negligence. Bolton responded by filing a third-party complaint against three other parties involved in the contract. The district court dismissed Bolton's third-party complaint and Bolton sought to have the dismissal order certified as a final judgment for immediate appeal. The district court granted this certification, but the Court of Appeals dismissed Bolton's appeal, determining that the district court had abused its discretion in certifying the order as a final judgment. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the district court had offered valid reasons for its certification, including that the third-party claims presented distinct issues from the principal claims and that the case was in its early stages at the time of certification. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "City of Elk River vs. Bolton & Menk, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant on their legal-malpractice and Vermont Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) claims. Mongeon Bay Properties, LLC (MBP) owned property abutting Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont, and leased the property to Malletts Bay Homeowner’s Association, Inc. Under the lease, the Association had the obligation to keep the property in good condition. In 2011, following major erosion damage on a portion of the embankment on the lakefront, MBP’s manager notified the Association it was in default for failing to maintain the property and gave the Association forty-five days to make specified, substantial repairs. After the Association failed to make the repairs, MBP filed a complaint against the Association seeking damages and to void the lease for the Association’s violation of its terms. The Association retained defendant Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc. In the following months, the Association took steps to address MBP’s complaints. However, following a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the Association breached the lease and was in default but declined to grant MBP’s request for lease forfeiture. Instead, it awarded MBP damages for remediation and attorney’s fees and costs. Both parties appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the Association breached the lease and that MBP was entitled to termination of the lease. Ultimately, the lease was terminated, and the Association’s members were evicted. Members then sued the Association, alleging that it was negligent in its administration of the provisions of the lease requiring it to keep the property in good condition. Members and the Association settled in 2018. As part of the settlement, the Association assigned members its right to sue defendant for legal malpractice. The Association and members filed a complaint against defendant in the instant case in December 2019, alleging legal malpractice and a violation of the VCPA. The crux of their legal-malpractice claim is a lost opportunity to settle. They proposed that, had defendant tried to settle, the Association and MBP would have likely agreed to terms involving repairs and payment of MBP’s attorney’s fees thus avoiding lease termination and eviction of the Association’s members. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was appropriate on the legal-malpractice claim but not on the VCPA claim, and thus reversed and remanded. View "Mansfield, et al. v. Heilmann, Ekman, Cooley & Gagnon, Inc." on Justia Law

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BrunoBuilt, Inc., was constructing a custom home on a vacant lot in 2016 when a landslide occurred beneath the Terra Nativa subdivision in the Boise foothills. Following damage to the lot, BrunoBuilt filed a professional negligence suit against numerous engineers and engineering firms involved in the construction of the subdivision, arguing that they failed to identify preexisting landslide conditions and other geological circumstances that made residential development unsafe at this site. In the fall of 2018, BrunoBuilt discovered additional damage to the finished custom home itself. It then brought suit against additional defendants, including Briggs Engineering, Inc., and Erstad Architects. Briggs Engineering moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The court concluded that BrunoBuilt’s action was time barred by the two-year statute of limitations under Idaho Code section 5-219(4). BrunoBuilt appealed this decision, arguing that the malpractice claim did not begin to accrue until there was damage to the custom home, rather than just the land. To this the Idaho Supreme Court disagreed with BrunoBuilt’s analysis and affirmed the district court that BrunoBuilt’s claim was time barred. View "Brunobuilt, Inc. v. Briggs Engineering, Inc." on Justia Law

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Field Asset Services, Inc. (“FAS”) is in the business of pre-foreclosure property preservation for the residential mortgage industry. Plaintiff was the sole proprietor of BB Home Services, which contracted with FAS as a vendor. Plaintiff alleged that FAS willfully misclassified him and members of the putative class as independent contractors rather than employees, resulting in FAS’s failure to pay overtime compensation and to indemnify them for their business expenses. FAS first argued that the district court abused its discretion by certifying the class, despite the predominance of individualized questions over common ones.   The Ninth Circuit filed (1) an order denying a petition for panel rehearing, denying on behalf of the court a petition for rehearing en banc, and amending the opinion filed on July 5, 2022; and (2) an amended opinion reversing the district court’s order certifying a class of 156 individuals who personally performed work for FAS, reversing the partial summary judgment in favor of the class, vacating the interim award of more than five million dollars in attorneys’ fees, and remanding for further proceedings.   The panel held that here, the class failed the requirement because complex, individualized inquiries would be needed to establish that class members worked overtime or that claimed expenses were reimbursable. The panel concluded that class certification was improper. The panel noted that FAS’s joint employment argument would likely succeed was an actual employee of a vendor suing FAS, claiming that FAS was an employer. The panel further held that the interim award of attorneys' fees must be vacated because the class certification and summary judgment orders were issued in error. View "FRED BOWERMAN, ET AL V. FIELD ASSET SERVICES, INC., ET AL" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the appellate court affirming the trial court's dismissal of the statutory theft claim Plaintiff brought against Defendant for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground of absolute immunity, holding that there was no error.Defendant, an attorney, represented Benchmark Municipal Tax Services, Ltd., in the foreclosure proceeding underlying this appeal. The appellate court determined that Defendant was entitled to absolute immunity from Plaintiff's claim of statutory theft by concluding that public policy considerations were served by granting Defendant this immunity and that the entirety of Defendant's alleged misconduct occurred within the scope of the foreclosure proceeding. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Plaintiff's arguments on appeal failed. View "Scholz v. Epstein" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court dismissing this lawsuit on the grounds that Defendants were not timely served, holding that a defendant's filing of an "Appearance of Counsel" does not constitute a voluntary appearance that relieves a plaintiff of the ordinary obligation to serve the defendant with the lawsuit.Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants alleging that Defendants provided Plaintiff with incorrect information regarding the income tax consequences of a sale of land. Attorneys for Defendants filed a document entitled "Appearance of Counsel," after which there was no activity in the case for nearly a year. The district court dismissed the case on the grounds that Plaintiff had not timely served Defendants. Plaintiff filed a motion to reinstate the case, asserting that the Appearance of Counsel was equivalent to service under Neb. Rev. Stat. 25-516.01(1). The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Appearance of Counsel was not a voluntary appearance and that Defendants were not timely served. View "Stone Land & Livestock Co. v. HBE, LLP" on Justia Law

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Jonathon Frantz appealed a district court’s award of attorney fees entered against him and his clients, jointly and severally, as a sanction for frivolous conduct. This appeal arose from an easement dispute among family members. The land at issue was split into multiple parcels: the Tracy Parcel, the Mathis/Roll Parcel, and the Osborn Parcel. Plaintiffs Brook Tracy and Travis Mathis owned the Tracy Parcel; Plaintiffs Gailord “Cowboy” Mathis, Brook Tracy, Laura Roll, and Rebecca Stafford owned the Mathis/Roll Parcel; and David and Naomi Osborn owned the Osborn Parcel. In 2018, Plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Osborns. Frantz was Plaintiffs’ attorney. Plaintiffs claimed that more than thirty years ago they “constructed/placed a home” on the Tracy Parcel, “constructed/placed a cabin” on the Mathis/Roll Parcel, and “created a driveway” through the Osborn Parcel to access their respective properties. Plaintiffs also claimed that for more than thirty years they had openly and continuously used the driveway over the Osborn Parcel for access to the nearest public right-of-way, Highland Drive, which was the only reasonable way to reach their respective properties. Based on this use, Plaintiffs claimed that they had an easement by necessity, an easement by implication, or a prescriptive easement across the Osborn Parcel along the existing driveway. Accordingly, Plaintiffs sought a judgment from the district court declaring their rights in the driveway. The trial court denied a preliminary injunction for two reasons: (1) “the allegations in the complaint and the motion contain[ed] gross exaggerations, if not falsehoods” and “the credibility of all of the plaintiffs” was questionable; and (2) Plaintiffs could not establish entitlement to the relief demanded because they came to the hearing unprepared to support the easement theories they advanced with any competent evidence. The Osborns moved for attorney fees, leaving it to the trial court's discretion to award Rule 11 sanctions "if the [c]ourt determines that this motion was pursued frivolously." On appeal, Frantz contended the district court abused its discretion in awarding attorney fees against him personally because it: (1) failed to follow the procedural requirements set out in Idaho Code section 12-123; and (2) erroneously found that he engaged in frivolous conduct. After review, the Idaho Supreme Court concluded this matter did not present a justiciable controversy because the judgment was satisfied and Frantz did not preserve his right to appeal pursuant to Idaho Code section 10-1115. Accordingly, the Court dismissed Frantz’s appeal because the issues before the Court were moot. View "Frantz v. Osborn" on Justia Law