Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a). The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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In a 2007 RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs under a contingent fee agreement. The Illinois attorneys withdrew; Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. They eventually settled the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. The attorneys also disagreed over the division of the fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the district court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle, ultimately following the written fee agreement. The Seventh Circuit affirmed an award of attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, with Needle 60 receiving percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. During the dispute, Needle was without counsel and was on the verge of a default judgment, when three partners from the O’Connor law firm stepped in to represent Needle P.C. Less than three months after appearing as counsel, O’Connor “understandably” withdrew due to irreconcilable differences and a total breakdown of the attorney-client relationship. O’Connor sought compensation under a quantum meruit theory and perfected an attorney’s lien. The district court granted O’Connor’s petition to adjudicate and enforce the lien. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. O’Connor is entitled to recover in quantum meruit and the district court properly concluded that the petitioned fees were reasonable. View "Michael Needle, P.C. v. Cozen O'Connor" on Justia Law

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In the underlying 2007 civil RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and two Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs. The attorneys executed a contingent fee agreement with their clients. The Illinois attorneys later withdrew from the representation, so Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. Needle and Royce agreed to split half of any fee equally and the other half proportional to the time each spent on the matter. Needle and Royce litigated the suit for several years before successfully settling the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. All payments were made to Royce as escrow agent. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. Needle and Royce also disagreed over the division of the attorney’s fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. The Seventh Circuit described what followed as “a long, tortured history” based on an “objectively frivolous" position; Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle for “obstructionist and vexatious” tactics. The district court followed the written fee agreement and awarded attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, then awarded Needle 60 percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. The Seventh Circuit affirmed: The district court’s rulings were correct, the sanctions were appropriate, and Needle’s other arguments are baseless. View "Royce v. Needle" on Justia Law

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Ahmed co‐owned an LLC that owned a condominium building. Ahmed recruited individuals to pose as buyers for the building's units and to submit fraudulent loan applications to lenders, including Fifth Third. The participants split the loan proceeds; no payments were made on the loans. Kaufman was the seller's attorney for every closing. The closings were conducted by Traditional Title at Kaufman’s law office. Traditional received closing instructions from Fifth Third to notify it immediately of any misrepresentations and to suspend the transaction if “the closing agent has knowledge that the borrower does not intend to occupy the property.” Kaufman concealed the buyers’ misrepresentations and instructed closing agents to complete closings even when buyers were purchasing multiple properties. Ahmed and Kaufman extended the scheme to other buildings. Although Kaufman testified that he was not aware of the fraud, Ahmed testified that Kaufman knew the buyers were part of the scheme. Two closing agents testified that they informed Kaufman about misrepresentations in loan applications. The Seventh Circuit affirmed a fraud judgment for Fifth Third. Kaufman participated individually in each closing as counsel and personally directed Traditional’s employees to conceal the fraud from Fifth Third, for his personal gain. The judgment against Kaufman was not derived solely from Traditional’s liability, based on his membership in the LLC, so the Illinois LLC Act does not bar his liability. Kaufman is not shielded by being the attorney for the seller in the fraudulent transactions. View "Fifth Third Mortgage Company v. Kaufman" on Justia Law

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Nutmeg LLC, formerly managed by Goulding, served as an investment advisor and sole general partner of more than a dozen investment funds, each a limited partnership under Illinois or Minnesota law. Goulding’s management of the Funds ended in 2009, when the SEC brought an enforcement action against him, Nutmeg, and others under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, alleging that Nutmeg misappropriated client assets and failed to maintain proper records. The district court found that the SEC made the showing necessary to warrant the issuance of a restraining order prohibiting Goulding from managing the Funds and granted the SEC’s unopposed motion to appoint attorney Weiss as receiver for Nutmeg. Unsatisfied with Weiss’s performance, Goulding and limited partners from certain funds managed by Nutmeg filed an individual and derivative action on behalf of the Funds, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. The court dismissed the federal securities law claim, claims against Nutmeg, all legal malpractice claims against Weiss and her firm, and two breach of fiduciary duty claims. The Seventh Circuit Affirmed, holding that even when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, no reasonable jury could find that either Weiss or her firm willfully and deliberately violated any fiduciary duties. View "Goulding v. Weiss" on Justia Law

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RMG sued Harmelech in 2006. Attorney Mac Naughton represented Harmelech in that suit for 10 weeks. The relationship ended in a fee dispute. After he withdrew, the case settled with a consent judgment against Harmelech. Mac Naughton pursued Harmelech by acquiring rights to that judgment. In 2014, Mac Naughton and his company, Casco sued Harmelech to collect the RMG judgment and to set aside a conveyance. In 2015, Judge Holderman disqualified Mac Naughton from attempting to collect the judgment personally and from representing Casco in its collection efforts. Mac Naughton defied that order. In 2018, Judge Feinerman dismissed the 2014 claims predicated on the RMG judgment as a sanction for willful defiance of the Holderman Order. In 2016, Mac Naughton sued third parties to collect for himself money owed to Harmelech. Judge Blakey dismissed that case as a sanction for violating court orders. In 2017, Mac Naughton sued Harmelech to set aside another property conveyance. Judge Durkin dismissed the case on the same grounds. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in the consolidated cases. The Holderman Order disqualified Mac Naughton. It barred him from pursuing his former clients to collect on the RMG judgment. Mac Naughton willfully defied disqualification. The judges were within their discretion in sanctioning Mac Naughton by dismissing the actions he should not have brought. Regardless of whether Mac Naughton agreed with the Holderman Order, he had to follow it until it was undone through proper channels. View "Mac Naughton v. Harmelech" on Justia Law

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Gaston, an Illinois prisoner, first complained about pain in his left knee in May 2009. Drugs did not help. After some delay, Gaston saw an orthopedic surgeon in September 2010. An MRI exam was approved but not conducted until February 2011. In August 2011, Gaston had arthroscopic surgery. While Gaston’s left knee was healing, Wexford (the corporation that provides prison medical care) delayed approving an MRI of his right knee; one knee had to be sound before treatment of the other. In May 2012 Gaston had an MRI exam on the right knee. It showed serious problems. Another arthroscopic surgery occurred in October 2012. This did not bring relief. Arthroplasty (knee replacement) was delayed while specialists determined whether Gaston’s pulmonary and cardiology systems would handle the strain but took place in February 2015 and was successful. Gaston claimed that the delays while waiting for surgeries reflect deliberate indifference to his pain so that the pain became a form of unauthorized punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Defendants offered evidence that the delays could be chalked up to a preference for conservative treatment before surgery and never to any desire to injure Gaston or indifference to his pain. The district court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants, ruling that none acted (or delayed acting) with the state of mind required for culpability. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and affirmed judgment in favor of Wexford. Private corporations, when deemed to be state actors in suits under 42 U.S.C. 1983, are not subject to vicarious liability. Wexford could be liable for its own unconstitutional policies, but the policies to which Gaston pointed, reflected medical judgment rather than a constitutional problem. View "Gaston v. Ghosh" on Justia Law

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HSBC obtained a foreclosure judgment against the Lisses. To extend the time for appeal of that judgment, attorney Nora filed two bankruptcy petitions and multiple appeals, accusing HSBC and its attorney of federal crimes and seeking sanctions. The district court ultimately ordered Nora and her client to pay damages and costs related to the bankruptcy litigation and suspended her from the practice of law in the Western District of Wisconsin. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that this was not Nora’s first encounter with attorney discipline. Nora’s attempt to relitigate HSBC’s foreclosure judgment in bankruptcy court was frivolous; her stall tactics were “blatant.” Such litigation behavior—even assuming pure motives—constitutes objective bad faith warranting sanctions under 28 U.S.C. 1927. The court noted “her serial dilatory, vexatious, and unprofessional litigation practices” and frivolous motion practice and legal arguments in her appeals. Flippant, unfounded accusations of misconduct and fraud by opposing counsel and court officials demean the profession and impair the orderly operation of the judicial system. View "Nora v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A." on Justia Law

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Courtney had a CT scan performed at CDI’ diagnostic imaging facility. The radiologist, Webster, an independent contractor hired by MSC, missed Courtney’s rectal cancer. Courtney's cancer festered for over a year before being diagnosed, having metastasized to her lungs and liver. CDI claimed that it could not be held liable because CDI did not directly employ Webster. The district court rejected this argument and applied Indiana’s apparent agency precedent, which instructs that a medical provider is liable if a patient reasonably relied on its apparent authority over the wrongdoer. The jury returned a $15 million verdict. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, first explaining that CDI had not registered under Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act, which limits liability for registered qualified health care providers and requires the presentation of a proposed complaint to a medical review panel before an action is commenced in court. MSC and Walker had registered as qualified health care providers, so the Websters had filed a complaint against them with the Indiana Department of Insurance. Courtney testified that she had no idea about the contractual relationships among MSC, CDI, and Dr. Walker and she was never provided information that the physician who would be interpreting her CT scan was not subject to CDI’s control or supervision. View "Webster v. CDI Indiana, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2002, in Texas, Dr. Phillips performed a laparoscopic hysterectomy on Bramlett, a 36-year-old mother. While hospitalized, Bramlett suffered internal bleeding and died. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and Dr. Phillips, who held a $200,000 professional liability insurance policy with MedPro. He notified MedPro of the lawsuit. In 2003, the hospital settled with the Bramletts for approximately $2.3 million. The Bramletts wrote to Dr. Phillips’s attorney, Davidson, with a $200,000 Stowers demand; under Texas law, if an insurer rejects a plaintiff's demand that is within the insured’s policy limit and that a reasonably prudent insurer would accept, the insurer will later be liable for any amount awarded over the policy limit. MedPro twice refused to settle. The family won a $14 million verdict. The Supreme Court of Texas capped Dr. Phillips’s liability. The family sued MedPro, which settled. MedPro was insured by AISLIC, which declined to cover MedPro’s settlement. The district court granted AISLIC summary judgment, concluding that coverage was excluded because MedPro should have foreseen the family’s claim. An exclusion precluded coverage for “any claim arising out of any Wrongful Act” which occurred prior to June 30, 2005, if before that date MedPro “knew or could have reasonably foreseen that such Wrongful Act could lead to a claim.” The Seventh Circuit reversed in part, finding genuine issues of material fact regarding whether MedPro’s failure to settle was a Wrongful Act and whether MedPro could have foreseen a "claim" before the malpractice trial. View "Medical Protective Co. of Fort Wayne, Indiana v. American International Specialty Lines Insurance Co." on Justia Law