Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The case involves the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans ("Archdiocese") which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief due to numerous lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. The United States Trustee appointed an Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors ("Committee"), which included the appellants. The appellants' attorney, Richard Trahant, violated a protective order by disclosing confidential information related to abuse allegations against a priest. The bankruptcy court found Trahant's breach to be a disruption to the bankruptcy process and ordered the removal of Trahant's clients, the appellants, from the Committee.The appellants appealed their removal from the Committee to the district court, arguing that the district judge who was originally assigned their appeal should have recused himself earlier. The district court dismissed the appeal, concluding that the appellants lacked standing to appeal their removal from the Committee. The appellants then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. It found that the district court did not err in declining to vacate the judgment, and the appellants lacked standing under Article III to prosecute this appeal. The court held that the appellants failed to demonstrate an injury to any legally protected interest. Their substantive rights as creditors in the bankruptcy case were not impaired by their removal from the Committee. The court also noted that the bankruptcy court's order did not amount to a personal sanction against the appellants, but was a consequence of the conduct of their attorney. View "Adams v. Roman Catholic Church" on Justia Law

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Levi Rudder, a non-lawyer, was sanctioned by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas for engaging in unauthorized practice of law. Rudder had contacted a detainee facing federal firearm charges and attempted to involve himself in the case, despite being told not to by the defense counsel. He held an unprivileged, monitored video meeting with the detainee, offered legal advice, and encouraged the detainee to sign a form appointing him as additional counsel. The district court found Rudder guilty of unauthorized practice of law and imposed a monetary sanction of $500. He was also barred from filing documents in the Northern District of Texas without the court's permission.Rudder appealed the decision, arguing that the district court lacked the authority to impose these sanctions. He contended that the Constitution does not afford federal courts inherent powers to sanction individuals for engaging in unauthorized practice of law.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with Rudder's argument. The court cited previous cases that established federal courts' inherent power to police the conduct of litigants and attorneys who appear before them. The court also noted that a party cannot be represented by a non-lawyer and that a minimum level of competence is required to protect the client, their adversaries, and the court from poorly drafted, inarticulate, or vexatious claims. Therefore, the court concluded that a federal court's power to regulate and discipline attorneys extends to conduct by non-lawyers amounting to practicing law without a license. The court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing the sanctions on Rudder and affirmed the lower court's decision. View "In re: Rudder" on Justia Law

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In September 2020, George Fluitt was indicted on three counts of fraud and offering kickbacks related to genetic testing services that his company, Specialty Drug Testing LLC, provided to Medicare beneficiaries. As part of a nationwide investigation into genetic testing fraud, the Government executed search warrants at laboratories referred to as the Hurricane Shoals Entities (“HSE”), allegedly operated by Khalid Satary. The Government copied several terabytes of data from HSE, some of which were later determined to be material to Fluitt’s defense.In the lower courts, the Government established a “Filter Team” to review materials seized in its investigation and identify any that might be privileged. The Filter Team’s review was governed in part by a Protocol Order, which established a multi-step process for notifying a third party that it might have a claim of privilege and then adjudicating that claim. HSE and Satary provided privilege logs to the Filter Team, asserting thousands of claims of privilege. Both Fluitt and the Filter Team found these privilege logs to be facially deficient as they made only threadbare assertions of privilege, without any accompanying explanation.In the United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit, the court affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that the appellants failed to establish their claims of privilege. The court also found that the appellants' argument that they are not bound by the Protocol Order was a red herring, as the magistrate judge evaluated the appellants’ privilege logs under the standards established by federal caselaw. The court also rejected the appellants' argument that Fluitt “has not shown a need for the documents” and has not “demonstrated any kind of relevancy.” The court found that the record suggests that Fluitt “has a need” for the potentially privileged documents, as the Government determined that the potentially privileged materials were material to preparing Fluitt’s defense. View "United States v. Fluitt" 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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This case involved an appeal by David Clapper, who had filed a lawsuit against American Realty Investors, Inc., and other associated entities. Clapper alleged that these entities had transferred assets to avoid paying a judgment from a previous lawsuit, in violation of the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act and the doctrine of alter ego liability. The jury had ruled in favor of the defendants, but Clapper appealed, asserting that the defendants' counsel had made multiple improper and prejudicial statements during the closing argument.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Clapper and found that the defendants' counsels' closing argument had indeed irreparably prejudiced the fairness of the trial. The court noted that the counsels had made several improper and highly prejudicial statements, including launching personal attacks against Clapper's counsel, making references to Clapper's wealth, discussing matters not in the record, appealing to local bias, and suggesting Clapper's bad motives. These statements were considered collectively and in the context of the trial.The court reversed the decision of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court also highlighted the importance of civility in the practice of law, discouraging the use of abusive tactics and emphasizing the need for courtesy, candor, and cooperation in all lawyer-to-lawyer dealings. View "Clapper v. American Realty Investors" on Justia Law

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In this case, Mike Austin Anderson, the defendant, was convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, and using a gun during a crime of violence. These charges stemmed from an incident that took place on the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Mississippi, where Anderson shot Julian McMillan after an argument. On appeal, Anderson contested that the district court erred in ruling that the prosecution presented sufficient evidence for the jury to return guilty verdicts, despite the court's self-defense instruction. He also argued that the district court wrongly denied his pretrial motion to recuse the lead prosecutor and the entire United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Mississippi due to a conflict of interest. Anderson claimed that the lead prosecutor had previously represented him and his father while working as a public defender in Choctaw Tribal Court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, holding that the evidence against Anderson was sufficient and that the district court did not err in denying his recusal motion. The appellate court found no substantial relationship between the prosecutor's prior representation of Anderson and the current federal prosecution against him. View "USA v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court's denial of Lucas James Tighe's habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. After being convicted and sentenced for possession of stolen firearms, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and conspiracy to possess stolen firearms, Tighe alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. He claimed that his trial attorney, Sharon Diaz, did not consult with him about filing an appeal. The Court of Appeals, applying the Strickland test, found that Diaz failed to adequately consult with Tighe about the potential appeal, which was considered professionally unreasonable. Furthermore, the court found that Tighe demonstrated a reasonable interest in appealing, given the unexpected severity of his sentence and his request to Diaz to ask the court to run his federal sentence concurrently with his forthcoming state sentence. The court also determined that Tighe had shown there was a reasonable probability that he would have timely appealed, but for Diaz's deficient performance. As a result, the court found that Tighe had successfully made an ineffective assistance of counsel claim which entitled him to an appeal. The case was remanded to the district court with instructions to grant an out-of-time appeal and reenter Tighe's criminal judgment. View "United States v. Tighe" on Justia Law

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After several instances of inappropriate behavior and twice failing to show up for a client’s sentencing hearing, mostly due to a problem with substance abuse, attorney Plaintiff was referred by a presiding judge to a three-judge disciplinary panel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Following an investigation and hearing, the panel sanctioned Plaintiff by suspending him from practicing before that court for 12 months, with the option to reapply upon proof of sobriety during the period of suspension. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that a three-judge panel could not sanction him because the rules say only that “[a] presiding judge” may take disciplinary action. He also says the 12-month suspension is excessive.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion. The court explained that the district court did try a less severe option. An informal panel of judges privately reprimanded him in June 2020. That lesser sanction did not work. The court was thus justified in imposing a harsher sanction like the suspension. Moreover, the sanction here is appropriately tailored to Plaintiff’s unique situation: his inability to practice law stemmed from his alcohol abuse, so the court ordered him not to practice until he is able to demonstrate sustained sobriety for one year. Further, the court wrote that the district court here considered that a lesser, non-suspension sanction had not deterred Plaintiff from reverting to his old ways. The panel also considered that Plaintiff’s conduct had persisted for some time and that he was not remorseful for his conduct. View "In re Sealed Appellant" on Justia Law

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Appellant Matthew Johnson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and separately moved to recuse the district judge to whom that petition was assigned. On appeal, The Fifth Circuit denied Petitioner’s motion for a certificate of appealability, explaining that each of his arguments had already been considered and rejected by binding precedent. The court also affirmed the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to recuse.   The Fifth Circuit denied the petition. The court explained that Defendant petitioned for rehearing en banc, arguing that the panel opinion stands for the proposition that a district court has the power to shorten the one-year statute of limitations. The court explained that the opinion stands for no such thing. It holds only that the district court’s case-management order is not a ground for disqualification under 28 U.S.C. Section 455(a). Especially probative for that holding is the fact that the district court ultimately granted Johnson the extension he sought. The court explained that its conclusion that the district court was not required to recuse says nothing about the hypothetical issue of whether a district court would commit legal error if it did order a post-conviction habeas petitioner to file his petition before the deadline provided by the statute of limitations. View "Johnson v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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The attorney appointed to represent Defendant moved for leave to withdraw and has filed a brief in accordance with Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), and United States v. Flores, 632 F.3d 229 (5th Cir. 2011). Defendant did not file a response.The Fifth Circuit granted the motion to withdraw. The court concurred with counsel’s assessment that the appeal presents no nonfrivolous issue for appellate review. The court wrote that consistent with Crawley, it holds that Defendant’s restitution order does not present a nonfrivolous issue for appeal because he is liable for the same restitution amount regardless of the ultimate recipients. View "USA v. Fults" on Justia Law