Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals
United States v. Britton
Brindley and Thompson entered appearances as counsel for one of two defendants charged with drug offenses. A joint trial was scheduled. Both moved for continuance; the court set a hearing and ordered defendants counsel to be present. Thompson was present; Brindley was not. At a subsequent status conference, the court scheduled a jury trial and set a deadline for pretrial motions. Britton did not file any motions. On November 6, the court set a status conference for November 26 to discuss pretrial motions and ordered Brindley “to be present in person … not through other counsel.” Defendant appeared, but Brindley and Thompson did not and did not contact the court. The court set a show cause hearing; Brindley moved for continuance, claiming that he had not seen the order and had obligations in another trial. He apologized. The district court denied the motion and ordered Brindley to appear on November 30. Brindley appeared, but the court rejected his explanations as lies, held Brindley in contempt under Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(b), and remanded him to custody for two days. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The court erred in using Fed. R. Crim. P. 42(b)ʹs summary contempt procedures, which apply only when there is a compelling reason for an immediate remedy, contempt occurred in the judge’s presence, and the judge saw or heard the contemptuous conduct. The court noted that if the district court chooses, on remand, to proceed under 18 U.S.C. 401, a different judge will preside. View "United States v. Britton" on Justia Law
Peterson v. Winston & Strawn, LLP
After the mutual funds, known as the Lancelot or Colossus group, folded in 2008, the trustee in bankruptcy filed independent suits or adversary actions seeking to recover from solvent third parties, including the Funds’ auditor, law firm, and some of the Funds’ investors, which the Trustee believes received preferential transfers or fraudulent conveyances. The Funds had invested in notes issued by Thousand Lakes, which was actually a Ponzi scheme, paying old investors with newly raised money. In these proceedings the trustee contends that investors who redeemed shares before the bankruptcy received preferential transfers, 11 U.S.C. 547, or fraudulent conveyances, 11 U.S.C. 548(a)(1)(B) and raised a claim under the Illinois fraudulent-conveyance statute, using the avoiding power of 11 U.S.C. 544. The bankruptcy court dismissed the claims against the law firm that prepared circulars for the Firms. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. No Illinois court has held that failure to report a corporate manager’s acts to the board of directors exposes a law firm to malpractice liability. The complaint does not plausibly allege that alerting the directors would have made a difference. View "Peterson v. Winston & Strawn, LLP" on Justia Law
Bank of America, N.A. v. Knight
Bank of America lost approximately $34 million when the Knight companies went bankrupt. BOA sued, claiming that Knight’s directors and managers looted the firm and that its accountants failed to detect the embezzlement. The district court dismissed. The accountants invoked the protection of Illinois law, 225 ILCS 450/30.1, which provides that an accountant is liable only to its clients unless the accountant itself committed fraud (not alleged in this case) or “was aware that a primary intent of the client was for the professional services to benefit or influence the particular person bringing the action” The court found that BOA did not plausibly allege that the accountants knew that Knight’s “primary intent” was to benefit the Bank in alleging that the accountants knew that Knight would furnish copies of the financial statements to lenders. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting BOA’s choice not to pursue its claims in the bankruptcy process. View "Bank of America, N.A. v. Knight" on Justia Law
Scott v. Chuhak & Tecson, PC
The Kivers retained C&T, an Illinois law firm, to prepare trusts to benefit their daughters, Diane and Maureen, among others. Maureen and Diane each served as trustee of various trusts. Maureen died in 2007. Her husband, Minor, represents Maureen’s estate, which filed suit against C&T, alleging that C&T failed to disclose the existence and terms of certain trusts to Maureen, to her detriment, and failed to make distributions to her. The estate filed a separate state court suit against Diane, alleging that Diane breached her duties as trustee by failing to disclose the existence of certain trusts to Maureen or make distributions to her. Diane was a client of C&T during the relevant period. The district court entered an agreed protective order governing discovery disclosure to deal with privilege issues and denied the estate’s motion to compel production. The estate violated the protective order. The district court imposed sanctions and dismissed several of the estate’s claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that “The complexity of the multiple trusts … the untimely death of Maureen, the pursuit of concurrent state and federal suits … the length of this litigation, and the disorderly nature of the estate’s presentation… evoke a middle installment of Bleak House." View "Scott v. Chuhak & Tecson, PC" on Justia Law
United States v. Stern
Stern represented Allen in a discrimination suit, after which they became romantically involved. Allen and her husband had separated and had executed a settlement agreement awarding Allen $95,000, to be paid in installments. A month later, Allen visited a bankruptcy attorney, Losey, giving Stern’s name as “friend/referral” on an intake form. In filing for bankruptcy, Allen did not disclose the marital settlement. While her bankruptcy was pending, Allen received the money. A month after her bankruptcy discharge, Allen transferred the settlement proceeds to Stern, who opened a CD in his name. The attorney for Allen’s ex-husband informed the bankruptcy trustee that Allen failed to disclose the settlementand the discharge was revoked. Allen pleaded guilty to making a false declaration in a bankruptcy proceeding, 18 U.S.C. 152(3). She told a grand jury that Stern had not referred her to Losey and was convicted of making a material false statement in a grand jury proceeding, 18 U.S.C. 1623. The court admitted Losey’s client-intake form as evidence of perjury. Stern was convicted of conspiring to commit money laundering, 18 U.S.C. 1956(h). The Seventh Circuit affirmed Allen’s conviction, holding that the intake form was not a communication in furtherance of legal representation and was not subject to attorney-client privilege. Reversing Stern’s conviction, the court held that the judge erred in excluding Stern’s testimony about why he purchased the CDs. View "United States v. Stern" on Justia Law
Ball v. Kotter
In 1998, Hedstrom married Kotter, a real estate agent. The marriage lasted two years, but the two were on good terms when Hedstrom died. There is no evidence that Hedstrom lacked mental capacity. In 2006 Hedstrom purchased two Chicago condominiums. Kotter acted as his real estate agent and Geldes acted as his real estate attorney. Kotter told Geldes that Hedstrom would take title in another name and that Hedstrom could not hear over a phone so she would answer questions for him. Hedstrom died in 2007. Hedstrom’s children from a prior marriage were appointed administrators. Title to one condominium vested fully in Kotter, the other was titled to the Kotter Family Trust. The administrators sued, alleging breach of fiduciary duty by a real estate agent and legal malpractice. Because the administrators failed to timely identify experts, the magistrate barred them from presenting expert testimony encompassing Kotter’s position as a real estate agent and Geldes’ position as an attorney. The district judge affirmed and the administrators did not appeal. The district court granted summary judgment because expert testimony was needed on the standard of care and because undisputed evidence demonstrated the units were titled in accordance with Hedstrom’s intent. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. View "Ball v. Kotter" on Justia Law
French v. Wachovia Bank, N.A.
In 1968 French founded a successful manufacturing firm that he sold, in 1996, for about $200 million. French executed interlocking irrevocable trusts to benefit his four children upon his death. In 2004 he moved the trust accounts to Wachovia Bank. The trusts held two whole life insurance policies. Wachovia replaced the policies with new ones, providing the same benefit for a significantly lower premium, after months of evaluation and consultation with French and his lawyers. Wachovia received a hefty but industry-standard commission for its insurance-brokerage affiliate. French’s adult children sued Wachovia for breach of fiduciary duty by self-dealing. The district court rejected the claim, based on the trust document’s express conflict-of-interest waiver, and held that the transaction was neither imprudent nor undertaken in bad faith. The court ordered the Frenches to pay the bank’s costs and attorney’s fees. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The trust documents gave Wachovia broad discretion to invest trust property without regard to risk, conflicts of interest, lack of diversification, or unproductivity. The trust instrument overrides the common-law prohibition against self-dealing and displaces the prudent-investor rule. While there is always a duty to administer the trust in good faith, there was no evidence that the bank acted in bad faith. View "French v. Wachovia Bank, N.A." on Justia Law
Grochocinski v. Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, LLP
Spehar, hired by CMGT to assist in finding financing for its business, sued CMGT over a dispute related to this agreement and obtained a $17 million default judgment against CMGT, which had no assets. Spehar Capital devised a plan to: force CMGT into bankruptcy; convince the bankruptcy trustee to bring a malpractice action against CMGT’s law firm on the theory that but for the firm’s negligence, Spehar would not have obtained the default judgment; win the malpractice action or force a settlement; obtain a share of the payment to the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy trustee sued CMGT’s law firm, Mayer Brown. The district court granted Mayer Brown summary judgment, reasoning that the doctrine of judicial estoppel barred the inconsistencies in the suit, based on undisputed facts. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. If the trustee were to prevail, there would be a clear impression that a court was misled. It would be “absurd” for Spehar to recover when proving the causation element of malpractice would require the trustee to prove that Spehar was not entitled to prevail in the earlier suit. View "Grochocinski v. Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, LLP" on Justia Law
Goyal v. Gas Tech. Inst.
Gomberg briefly represented Goyal in 2004 settlement negotiations with a former employer over his claims of retaliation for whistle-blowing and gave Goyal’s employer notice of an attorney lien on any settlement or judgment. The negotiations did not produce an agreement; Goyal later retained new counsel to pursue litigation. In 2009, without the aid of any counsel, Goyal settled with his former employer. After Goyal settled, Gomberg reappeared and demanded a share. The employer paid a portion of the settlement to Gomberg. The district court granted Goyal’s motion to quash the lien, effectively ordering Gomberg to pay Goyal. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that Gomberg is not entitled to any part of the settlement funds Goyal secured and that “Gomberg’s professional conduct is questionable.” His position that he “secured” funds for Goyal when the opposing party made an unacceptable and unaccepted settlement offer is unreasonable to the point of being frivolous and possibly warranting sanctions. Gomberg’s assertion of a lien for $70,000 was far greater than 10 percent of even the employer’s unaccepted (and not yet made) offer of $375,000 and was without basis. View "Goyal v. Gas Tech. Inst." on Justia Law
Koransky, Bouwer & Poracky, P. C. v. Bar Plan Mut. Ins. Co.
The law firm represented a potential buyer in the purchase of a drugstore. Buyer and Seller executed the sales contract separately. The firm misfiled the contract executed by Buyer, however, and Seller subsequently attempted to rescind the contract, which it characterized as an offer, because it had not timely received a copy of the contract executed by Buyer. When Seller’s efforts to avoid the purported contract were successful, Buyer sent a “formal notice of claim” to the firm, which sought coverage from its professional liability insurer. That insurer concluded that the firm was not entitled to coverage because it failed to properly notify the insurer of the mistake that ultimately led to the malpractice claim. The firm sought a declaratory judgment. The district court granted the insurer summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the firm’s knowledge of the email exchange with Seller’s counsel and of an Alabama declaratory-judgment action constituted knowledge of “any circumstance, act or omission that might reasonably be expected to be the basis of” a malpractice claim. View "Koransky, Bouwer & Poracky, P. C. v. Bar Plan Mut. Ins. Co." on Justia Law