Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court declining to grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment in this legal malpractice action, holding that Thomas v. Hillyard, __ P.3d __ (Utah 2019), squarely addressed the issues presented in this case. On advice from Defendant, Plaintiff, an optometrist, pled guilty to charges arising out of Plaintiff's Medicaid billing for his services. Plaintiff later sued Defendant for legal malpractice, alleging that Defendant failed to inform him of the consequences of pleading guilty or to advise him of the likelihood of success at trial. Defendant moved for summary judgment asking the district court to conclude that Plaintiff's claims failed as a matter of law under two rules embraced in other jurisdictions - the exoneration rule and the actual innocence requirement. The district court declined to adopt either rule. Around the time the Supreme Court heard Plaintiff's appeal, the Court decided Thomas, holding that neither the exoneration rule nor the actual innocence requirement have a place in malpractice law. Thus, based on Thomas, the Court affirmed in this case. View "Paxman v. King" on Justia Law

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Terence Bruce and Stanley Nicholson were convicted by juries of common-law misconduct in office. Defendants were federal border patrol agents assigned to a Hometown Security Team (HST) task force that included Michigan State Police troopers, border patrol agents, and other officers operating in Jackson County, Michigan. Defendants had been assigned to ensure perimeter security around a home during the execution of a search warrant and to help search the home and remove confiscated evidence. The task force kept a tabulation of items seized, but defendants took additional property not included on the tabulation. Defendant Nicholson took an antique thermometer and barometer device, insisting that it was junk, and he accidentally ruined the device when he took it home to clean it. Defendant Bruce took a wheeled stool with a leather seat home with him, but he returned it to the police department when asked about it. Defendants were charged with common-law misconduct in office as well as larceny in a building. Defendants moved for directed verdicts, arguing that they were not public officers for purposes of the misconduct-in-office offense. The court denied the motions, and the jury convicted defendants of misconduct in office but acquitted them of larceny in a building. Defendants appealed. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals, held that defendants were not public officers and vacated the convictions. The State appealed. The Michigan Supreme Court held that whether defendants were public officers depended on the duties they exercised and the color of office under which they acted. In these cases, because defendants exercised duties of enforcement of Michigan law and acted under authority granted to them by Michigan statute, they acted as public officers. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to that Court for consideration of defendants’ remaining issues. View "Michigan v. Bruce" on Justia Law

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In this legal malpractice action against Plaintiff's former attorneys the Supreme Court reversed the order of the circuit court granting one attorney's motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction and granted summary judgment in favor of all the former attorneys, holding that while the court erred when it dismissed one attorney for lack of personal jurisdiction it correctly granted summary judgment to that attorney and the other defendants. Plaintiff, a physician, filed this action against three attorneys he retained to prosecute a legal malpractice claim against his former divorce attorney. The court granted one attorney's motion to dismiss, finding it lacked personal jurisdiction due to insufficient minimum contacts in South Dakota. The court then granted summary judgment for all the defendants. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the circuit court erred when it determined it did not have personal jurisdiction over one attorney because that attorney's conduct and connection with South Dakota were such that it could reasonably anticipate being haled into a South Dakota court; but (2) because Plaintiff failed to establish a submissible case of legal malpractice against the defendants the circuit court correctly granted summary judgment. View "Zhang v. Rasmus" on Justia Law

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Jared Karstetter worked for labor organizations representing King County, Washington corrections officers for over 20 years. In 1987, Karstetter began working directly for the King County Corrections Officers Guild (Guild). Throughout his employment with the Guild, Karstetter operated under successive 5-year contracts that provided for just cause termination. Eventually, Karstetter formed his own law firm and worked primarily for the Guild. He offered services to at least one other client. His employment contracts remained substantially the same. Karstetter's wife, Julie, also worked for the Guild as Karstetter's office assistant. In 2016, the King County ombudsman's office contacted Karstetter regarding a whistleblower complaint concerning parking reimbursements to Guild members. The Guild's vice-president directed Karstetter to cooperate with the investigation. The Guild sought advice from an outside law firm, which advised the Guild to immediately terminate Karstetter. In April 2016, the Guild took this advice and, without providing the remedial options listed in his contract, fired Karstetter. In response, Karstetter and his wife filed suit against the Guild, alleging, among other things, breach of contract and wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Guild moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim. The trial court partially granted the motion but allowed Karstetter's claims for breach of contract and wrongful termination to proceed. On interlocutory review, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case, directing the trial court to dismiss Karstetter's remaining breach of contract and wrongful termination claims. The Washington Supreme Court found that “the evolution in legal practice has uniquely affected the in-house attorney employee and generated unique legal and ethical questions unlike anything contemplated by our Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs).” In this case, the Court found in-house employee attorneys should be treated differently from traditional private practice lawyers under the RPCs. “Solely in the narrow context of in-house employee attorneys, contract and wrongful discharge suits are available, provided these suits can be brought without violence to the integrity of the attorney-client relationship.”Karstetter alleged legally cognizable claims and pleaded sufficient facts to overcome a CR 12(b)(6) motion of dismissal. The Court of Appeals' ruling was reversed. View "Karstetter v. King County Corr. Guild" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of the superior court dismissing Plaintiff's complaint alleging professional malpractice and related causes of action arising from Defendant's legal representation of him in federal criminal proceedings, holding that the complaint failed to state a claim for relief. Defendant was appointed to represent Plaintiff in criminal proceedings on the charge of failure to register as a sex offender. Plaintiff admitted that he did not dispute that he failed to register, and the court sentenced him to a term of months and a period of supervised release with conditions. Later, in probation violation proceedings, Plaintiff admitted that he had violated the conditions of his supervised release. Plaintiff was sentenced, and his conviction was affirmed on appeal to the federal district court. Plaintiff later filed this civil complaint against Defendant, alleging legal malpractice and related claims arising from Defendant's representation of him both at sentencing for failure to register and during the proceedings to revoke his supervised release. The superior court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that the complaint was properly dismissed for failure to state a claim. View "Goguen v. Haddow" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant on grounds that Plaintiff's malpractice action was barred by the statute of limitations, holding that Plaintiff's claim was timely filed. In his complaint, Plaintiff alleged that he was convicted of two felonies due to the malpractice of Defendant, his trial counsel. After Plaintiff hired new counsel he secured a new deal that replaced his two felony convictions and three misdemeanor convictions. At issue in this case was when Plaintiff's cause of action accrued. The district court concluded that Plaintiff's malpractice action was untimely filed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Plaintiff's malpractice claim accrued at the conclusion of his criminal case when he pled guilty to three misdemeanors, and not at the time the jury first returned its guilty verdict, and therefore, Plaintiff's malpractice action was filed within the statute of limitations. View "Thomas v. Hillyard" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Respondents, a real estate appraisal company and a professional real estate appraiser, as to Appellants' allegations that Respondents' negligence prevented them from refinancing their home loan, holding that Appellants' claims lacked evidentiary support and were based on little more than conclusory allegations and accusations. After purchasing a home, Appellants brought this action against Respondents asserting claims for professional negligence, negligent misrepresentation, breach of the statutory duty to disclose a material fact, and breach of contract as third-party beneficiaries. Specifically, Appellants alleged that Respondents negligently relied on inaccurate information in calculating the home's size and market value, which resulted in a misleading appraisal report and inflated purchase price. The district court granted summary judgment for Respondents. The Supreme Court affirmed and took the opportunity of this case to emphasize the important role of summary judgment in promoting sound judicial economy. View "Boesiger v. Desert Appraisals, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Louisiana Physical Therapy Board (“Board”) was established under the provisions of La. R.S. 37:2403, requiring that the Board shall consist of seven members appointed by the governor and further provided at least one member shall be a licensed physician. The underlying litigation arose when the Board filed an administrative complaint against physical therapist Kevin Bias after he was arrested for an alleged aggravated assault while driving. The matter proceeded to a hearing. At the hearing, the Board was composed of five members. The acting chairperson introduced the board members and asked for objections to the makeup of the panel. Counsel for Bias responded there were none. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board suspended Bias’s physical therapy license with conditions for reinstatement. Bias appealed the Board’s decision to the district court, and when unsuccessful there, appealed to the court of appeals. The issue presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Board had authority to conduct disciplinary proceedings when there was a vacancy in its statutorily-mandated composition. The Supreme Court found the court of appeal erred in finding the board’s actions were invalid because it was not lawfully constituted at the time of its actions in this case. View "Bias v. Louisiana Physical Therapy Board" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ron L. Beaulieu & Company appealed a superior court order affirming the New Hampshire Board of Accountancy. The Board suspended plaintiff’s license to do business in New Hampshire for three years and imposed a $5,000 fine after concluding plaintiff committed professional misconduct by failing to retain work papers and records for five years and by failing to properly conduct auditing services for Tri-County Community Action Program (TCCAP) from 2008-2011. Finding no reversible error in the superior court’s judgment, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed. View "Ron L. Beaulieu & Company v. New Hampshire Board of Accountancy" on Justia Law

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Appellant Stephan Palmer, Sr. appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of appellee, Attorney Mark Furlan. While incarcerated, appellant filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR). Attorney Furlan, an ad hoc public defender, was assigned to represent appellant in the PCR proceedings. The petition was litigated until the parties agreed to settle, arriving at a proposed stipulation to modify appellant’s sentence. December 23, 2015 the PCR court granted the parties’ stipulation motion. The entry order was immediately emailed to the criminal division; the criminal division issued an amended mittimus to the Commissioner of Corrections the same day; and the following day, the Department of Corrections received the amended mittimus and recalculated appellant’s sentence in accord with the PCR court’s order amending the sentence. Appellant was released from incarceration on December 24. Appellant then filed a civil action against Attorney Furlan, alleging legal malpractice. Not knowing that immediate release was at stake, the PCR court took more time than it would have otherwise in scheduling a hearing and approving the stipulation. Appellant characterized the length of incarceration between when he posited he would have been released if Attorney Furlan had more aggressively attempted to get the PCR court to act in an expedited manner and when he was actually released as wrongful and the basis for his damages. In affirming summary judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded "The proof provided here, or rather the lack thereof, leaves all reasonable minds to speculate as to whether or not the PCR court would have: not scheduled a hearing on the motion; scheduled a hearing on the motion sooner than it did; issued an order on the motion in a shorter period of time after the hearing; come to the same conclusions and granted the stipulation motion; or behaved in any of the seemingly endless alternative manners a reasonable person could posit. Appellant’s argument simply leaves too much to speculation, which is something this Court and trial courts will not do when examining a motion for summary judgment." View "Palmer v. Furlan" on Justia Law