Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Deeply-Rooted Bias Requires Reversal

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a criminal conviction for carjacking and related offenses as a result of concerns about juror racial bias

...on the second day of deliberations, Juror 4 told Jurors 5 and 12 she was "concerned" and "nervous" because she had seen two African-American men that morning in the neighborhood where she lives. Juror 4 noted, "[t]hey certainly don't live around there, and they don't hang around there." Juror 5, who works in that area, agreed that this seemed strange because that area "mostly is Italian and White people. There really are no Black people around there." Because both defendants are African-American, Juror 4 feared the presence of two African-American men in her neighborhood may have had some kind of sinister connection to the trial.

Jurors 5 and 12 were sympathetic with juror 4's predicament and suggested she should report her concerns to the Sheriff's Officer who was assigned to secure the jury during deliberations. The Sheriff's Officer informed the trial judge, who then questioned each of the three jurors separately. The judge decided to allow all three jurors to remain on the jury and continue deliberating after they assured him this incident did not have an effect on their impartiality, they would follow the court's instructions on the law, and they would base their verdict only on the evidence presented at trial.

The court

 On these facts, we are compelled to reverse. When Juror 4 inferred a sinister conspiratorial purpose from a facially innocuous event, based only on the race of the participants, she revealed a deeply-rooted, latent racial bias that required her removal from the jury. The trial judge erred in permitting her to remain on the jury and continue deliberating merely based on the juror's self-serving denial of racial bias. Her initial instinctive, subliminal association of race with criminality or wrong-doing far trumped her subsequent assurances of impartiality.

(Mike Frisch)

September 1, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New Trial Order Affirmed; Court Condemns Prosecutor Online Campaign

Legal Ethics Forum has posted a story on the Fifth Circuit's affirmance of the grant of a new trial to the Danziger Bridge defendants.

The court majority

That three supervisory-level prosecutors committed misconduct in connection with the Danziger Bridge prosecution is beyond dispute. Perricone’s comments spanned the entire prosecution and went directly to the guilt of the defendants, the collective guilt of NOPD, and the relative competence and integrity of defense counsel versus the USAO. Dobinski’s comments stirred the pot by encouraging commenters who were plainly familiar with the trial proceedings, one of whom was Perricone, to keep doing a “public service” with their biased reports. Mann’s comments, posted during post-trial sentencing proceedings, displayed partiality toward the prosecution and denigrated the district court and defense counsel in another Danziger Bridge case...

Most pernicious, these attorneys’ online comments knowingly contributed to the mob mentality potentially inherent in instantaneous, unbridled, passionate online discourse. These prosecutors created an air of bullying against the defendants whose rights they, especially Dobinski, were sworn to respect. That they were several among dozens of commenters, some of whom may have disagreed with their views, does not dissipate the effect of this online cyberbullying. Just as a mob protesting outside the courthouse has the potential to intimidate parties and witnesses, so do streams of adverse online comments. The impact is felt not only by the defendants but by codefendants pressed to plead guilty or defense witnesses dissuaded from testifying. Preventing mob justice is precisely the goal of prosecutorial ethical constraints. The government here should not be able to shelter under a banner of “no prejudice proved” while the prosecutors acted no better than, and indeed tried to inflame, the public. For all these reasons, we conclude that the district court did not err in finding that the defendants were prejudiced by the government’s misconduct. On this basis, too, the defendants are entitled to a new trial.

There is a dissent from Judge Prado that condemns the conduct but would deny the relief

The majority opinion, the district court’s order, and the defendant’s own briefing all stray far from Rule 33(b)(1)’s narrow standard. Perhaps this is because the defendants advance no credible argument that the newly discovered evidence in this case—the identity of the commenters on NOLA.com—would likely produce an acquittal. The defendants devote only six pages of their 105-page brief to arguing they were actually prejudiced by the government’s conduct; almost none of the contentions in those pages relate to newly discovered evidence. The defendants advance a “theory of government media manipulation,” leading to an “overriding tenor of guilt in the community long before trial” and a “prejudicial, poisonous atmosphere.” Although they assert that “[t]his ‘poisonous atmosphere’ and concerted government misconduct had a substantial deleterious effect on the fairness of appellees’ trial,” they fail to point to any indication of actual prejudice resulting from newly discovered evidence, citing instead to a student note for the proposition that “damaging media spin can . . . be used to manipulate negotiation before trial—potentially driving individuals to settle or accept a plea where they otherwise would pursue trial on the merits.” Fatally to the defendants’ claim, these arguments are not grounded in newly discovered evidence—i.e., the identities of the commenters. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this evidence could possibly have changed the outcome of the proceedings. The district court conducted an extensive voir dire: prospective jurors completed a lengthy questionnaire, and the district court questioned both the venire panel as a whole and individual jurors in chambers. Then, counsel for both parties questioned the jurors based on their answers to the questionnaires...

Most importantly, the truth about Perricone’s postings came to light long after judgment was entered in this case. Therefore, even if the jurors had disregarded the court’s instructions and read articles on NOLA.com during the trial (we must presume the contrary); even if they had bothered to read the user-generated comments on this public website; and even if they had paid particular attention to the comments posted under Perricone’s or Mann’s aliases, they still would not have known they were receiving impermissible information from a source within the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The post-verdict discovery of the posters’ identities does not change this conclusion, which proves fatal to the defendants’ claim...

It is a fundamental tenet of our legal system that neutral rules must be applied evenly to all. We do not—and indeed we cannot—interpret the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure differently based on the character of the defendant or the circumstances surrounding his trial. The government attorneys acted deplorably in this case, and their punishment has been unconscionably mild. But a new trial is not the proper remedy on the record before us. I respectfully dissent.

The District Court's order is linked here. 

The Times-Picayune had a story on the bar discipline imposed  on two of the named attorneys.

A search of the D.C. Bar "find a member" function reveals that the third attorney was admitted in the District of Columbia in 1985.

The district court opinion lays out a rather compelling disciplinary case against that attorney starting at page 56.

So far as I am aware, no action has been taken with respect to her D.C. license.  

Perhaps the D.C. Bar Counsel is awaiting the outcome of the DOJ internal probe  reported by the Times- Picayune.

If so, my experience is that deferring the investigation of prosecutorial misconduct cases never serves the public interest.

Having had a number of such cases, I rarely found the work of the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility sufficiently  helpful to justify the delay. (Mike Frisch)

August 19, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Contract Attorney V. Machine: Document Review Not Practice Of Law

An interesting decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concludes that document review is not the practice of law under the facts of the case.

The litigation involves a contract attorney suing Skadden Arps and Tower Legal Staffing under the Federal Labor Standards Act

Lola, a North Carolina resident, alleges that beginning in April 2012, he worked for Defendants for fifteen months in North Carolina. He conducted document review for Skadden in connection with a multi‐district litigation pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Lola is an attorney licensed to practice law in California, but he is not admitted to practice law in either North Carolina or the Northern District of Ohio.

Holding

We agree with the district court that: (1) state, not federal, law informs FLSA’s definition of “practice of law;” and (2) North Carolina, as the place where Lola worked and lived, has the greatest  interest in this litigation, and thus we look to North Carolina law to determine if  Lola was practicing law within the meaning of FLSA. However, we disagree with  the district court’s conclusion, on a motion to dismiss, that by undertaking the  document review Lola allegedly was hired to conduct, Lola was necessarily “practicing law” within the meaning of North Carolina law.

The court explains

The district court erred in concluding that engaging in  document review per se constitutes practicing law in North Carolina. The ethics  opinion does not delve into precisely what type of document review falls within  the practice of law, but does note that while “reviewing documents” may be  within the practice of law, “[f]oreign assistants may not exercise independent 10 legal judgment in making decisions on behalf of a client.” N.C. State Bar Ethics 11 Committee, 2007 Formal Ethics Op. 12. The ethics opinion strongly suggests that  inherent in the definition of “practice of law” in North Carolina is the exercise of at least a modicum of independent legal judgment...

The gravamen of Lola’s complaint is that he performed document review  under such tight constraints that he exercised no legal judgment whatsoever—he  alleges that he used criteria developed by others to simply sort documents into different categories. Accepting those allegations as true, as we must on a motion  to dismiss, we find that Lola adequately alleged in his complaint that he failed to  exercise any legal judgment in performing his duties for Defendants. A fair  reading of the complaint in the light most favorable to Lola is that he provided  services that a machine could have provided. The parties themselves agreed at oral argument that an individual who, in the course of reviewing discovery documents, undertakes tasks that could otherwise be performed entirely by a  machine cannot be said to engage in the practice of law.

Thanks to a faithful reader for sending this opinion. (Mike Frisch)

July 23, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 17, 2015

North Carolina: No Computer Tablet Giveaway In Client Solicitation

From the web page of the North Carolina State Bar

At its meeting on April 17, 2015, the State Bar Council adopted the ethics opinions summarized below:

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 1
Preparing Pleadings and Other Filings for an Unrepresented Opposing Party

Opinion rules that a lawyer may not prepare pleadings and other filings for an unrepresented opposing party in a civil proceeding currently pending before a tribunal if doing so is tantamount to giving legal advice to that person.

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 2
Preparing Waiver of Right to Notice of Foreclosure for Unrepresented Borrower

Opinion rules that when the original debt is $100,000 or more, a lawyer for a lender may prepare and provide to an unrepresented borrower, owner, or guarantor a waiver of the right to notice of foreclosure and the right to a foreclosure hearing pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 45-21.16(f) if the lawyer explains the lawyer’s role and does not give legal advice to any unrepresented person. However, a lawyer may not prepare such a waiver if the waiver is a part of a loan modification package for a mortgage secured by the borrower’s primary residence.

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 3
Offering Prospective Client a Computer Tablet in Direct Mail Solicitation

Opinion rules that a lawyer may not offer a computer tablet to a prospective client in a direct mail solicitation letter.

(Mike Frisch)

July 17, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wisconsin Decides John Doe Investigation Cases

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has issued its opinion in several consolidated cases dealing with the so-called John Doe investigation.

From Justice Gableman's majority opinion

To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor's legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law.  Consequently, the investigation is closed.  Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation must cease all activities related to the investigation, return all property seized in the investigation from any individual or organization, and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation.  All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation...

We hold that the special prosecutor has failed to prove that Reserve Judge Peterson violated a plain legal duty when he quashed the subpoenas and search warrants and ordered the return of all property seized by the special prosecutor.  In quashing the subpoenas and search warrants, Reserve Judge Peterson exercised his discretion under the John Doe statute, Wis. Stat. § 968.26, to determine the extent of the investigation.  Because the purpose of a supervisory writ does not include review of a judge's discretionary acts, Kalal, 271 Wis. 2d 633, ¶24, the supervisory writ sought by the special prosecutor is denied, and Reserve Judge Peterson's order is affirmed...

in Three Unnamed Petitioners, we hold that the Unnamed Movants have failed to prove that either Reserve Judge Kluka or Reserve Judge Peterson violated a plain legal duty by: (1) accepting an appointment as a reserve judge; (2) convening a multi-county John Doe proceeding; or (3) appointing a special prosecutor.  Although the circumstances surrounding the formation of the John Doe investigation raise serious concerns, and the appointment of the special prosecutor may well have been improper, such concerns do not satisfy the stringent standards of a supervisory writ.  Put another way, if we were to grant the supervisory writ in this case, we would risk "transform[ing] the writ into an all-purpose alternative to the appellate review process," which we cannot do.  Id.  Accordingly, we deny the supervisory writ and affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

There are concurring opinions. This from Justice Zeigler

During pre-dawn darkness in October 2013, several armed law enforcement officers wearing flak jackets, carrying battering rams, and using bright floodlights executed secret John Doe search warrants in the homes of Wisconsin residents.  What was the prosecution searching for?  The prosecution was in search of documents and electronic evidence, including personal computers and cell phones, to support alleged violations of Wisconsin's campaign finance law.  The warrants sought evidence that had been around for more than four years.  The warrants were executed shortly before morning, days after a judge signed them, while it was still dark outside.  Law enforcement certainly has, and should have, a great deal of discretion when it comes to how and when a warrant will be executed, but ultimately courts may review the reasonableness of that execution...

I join the majority opinion in all three cases.  I write separately to explain that even if the search warrants were lawfully issued, the execution of them could be subject to the reasonableness analysis of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution's counterpart.  A totality of the circumstances analysis could include consideration of, among other things, the timing of the issuance and execution of the warrants, the manner in which the warrants were executed, whether public or officer safety concerns justified the manner of execution, and what type of evidence was being sought.

Justice Abrahamson concurred and dissented

The majority opinion and Justice Prosser's concurrence decide that the secrecy order does not bind the justices of this court. The secrecy order, in their view, binds only the parties and the public.

Because the majority of this court disregards its own secrecy order, Justice Prosser opines at length, without the benefit of briefs or facts, about allegedly overbroad search warrants and subpoenas.  Moreover, he  waxes eloquent about privacy and the limits that should be placed on search warrants seeking electronic material.  But he has previously waxed eloquent about privacy rights and has nevertheless upheld searches of electronic material that he recognized raise substantial privacy concerns.

Likewise, Justice Ziegler opines at length about the allegedly unconstitutional manner in which the search warrants were executed.  She does so without the benefit of briefs or facts.

Both justices opine about issues not previously raised by the parties or the court without giving the parties an opportunity to brief or argue the facts or law relevant to those issues...

I have repeatedly dissented to the excessive sealing and redactions this court has imposed in the John Doe trilogy and I have repeatedly dissented to this court's position that the John Doe secrecy order automatically binds this court, but I nevertheless conclude that the secrecy orders issued by this court (over my dissent) are binding on this court.  As explained above, it is settled law that a "magistrate" who issues a secrecy order is bound by that secrecy order.  The majority opinion and Justice Prosser's concurrence improperly ignore this principle...

n closing, I note that even if this court determined that the John Doe proceedings were procedurally defective and that a supervisory writ is warranted, only those Unnamed Movants who raised the objection before the John Doe judge may be entitled to any relief.  If not raised, these objections were waived (forfeited).  See Village of Trempealeau v. Mikrut, 2004 WI 79, ¶27, 273 Wis. 2d 76, 681 N.W.2d 190 (stating that "the common-law waiver [forfeiture] rule applies to challenges to the circuit court's competency" and explaining that a competency challenge is waived as a matter of right if raised for the first time on appeal); In re Commitment of Bollig, 222 Wis. 2d 558, 564, 587 N.W.2d 908 (Ct. App. 1998) (providing that a defect in the appointment of a special prosecutor is waived (forfeited) if raised for the first time on appeal).

Justice Crooks also concurred and dissented.

It is also imperative to note that the majority conveniently overlooks the special prosecutor's secondary argument of criminal activity in its effort to end this John Doe investigation.  Specifically, the special prosecutor seeks to investigate whether particular express advocacy groups coordinated their spending with candidates or candidate committees in violation of their sworn statement of independence under Wis. Stat. § 11.06(7).  Despite the fact that the special prosecutor utilizes a significant portion of his brief to present evidence of such illegal coordination, the majority determines, without explanation, that the John Doe investigation is over.

Has the majority abused its power in reaching this conclusion?  The majority's rush to terminate this investigation is reminiscent of the action taken by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in O'Keefe v. Schmitz, 19 F. Supp. 3d at 875, an action that was both criticized and reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in O'Keefe, 769 F.3d at 942.  Although the focus of my writing lies elsewhere, the majority's error in this regard cannot be overlooked.

For these reasons, I respectfully dissent in State ex. rel. Two Unnamed Petitioners v. Peterson (Two Unnamed Petitioners). 

However, because I agree that the special prosecutor and certain Unnamed Movants have failed to meet their heavy burden of establishing that the John Doe judge violated a plain legal duty in either initiating these proceedings or quashing various subpoenas and search warrants related to the investigation, I respectfully concur with the majority in State ex. rel. Schmitz v. Peterson (Schmitz v. Peterson) and State ex. rel. Three Unnamed Petitioners v. Peterson (Three Unnamed Petitioners).  In concurring in Schmitz v. Peterson, it is significant for me that when an appellate court decides to issue a supervisory writ, it is a rare, discretionary decision.  Madison Metro. Sch. Dist., 336 Wis. 2d 95, ¶¶33-34.  Here, the John Doe judge also made a discretionary decision in deciding a complex legal issue.  Deference should be given where there is such discretion.

 

Justice Bradley did not participate.

Obviously, this complex series of opinions will be the subject of intensive commentary. We have not attempted to carefully evaluate the opinions but post them so that interested persons can begin that process. (Mike Frisch)

July 16, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2015

My Two Cents

There is an interesting post with comments by Professor Stephen Gillers over at Legal Ethics Forum on civility and the recent dissents of Justice Scalia. 

For an example of what I believe is the appropriate tone of a dissent when the author perceives an injustice perpetrated by a majority of the Supreme Court, let's quote the first Justice Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson

 I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race, and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens now constituting a part of the political community called the People of the United States, for whom and by whom, through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by Congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

For the reasons stated, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.

Perhaps the most significant dissent in court history (and which, to its discredit, endorses the idea of the permanent supremacy of the white race) did not include any references to fortune cookies or hiding the author's head in a paper bag.

And I admit a bit of shock over the Chief Justice's references to the views of five lawyers.

Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.

Surely he understands that every Supreme Court decision does no more than reflect the views of five or more such lawyers, whether it is Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, Shelby County, Heller or Town of Greece.

I thought he had more respect for his own institution.

I also think that these decisions show that the rule limiting criticism of judges by lawyers should be abolished. Something about sauces, gooses and ganders.

The rules that govern an attorney's ethical obligations in the conduct of litigation are quite adequate without Rule 8.2(a). (Mike Frisch)

June 29, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Juror's Lies On Voir Dire Lead To New Trial

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has vacated and remanded a conviction in a high-profile tax prosecution based on findings that a juror lied extensively about her background in order to get on the jury.

Parse and several others were indicted in 2009 and were ultimately charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, and with multiple substantive counts of tax evasion and other tax-related offenses in connection with the creation of a series of tax shelters "designed and marketed by [a law firm and an accounting firm] to take advantage of Internal Revenue Code . . . loopholes so taxpayers could claim non-economic tax losses to avoid taxes they otherwise would have owed" (Parse brief on appeal at 7).

Parse was a broker employed by an investment banking firm that executed transactions for implementation of the shelters. In the spring of 2011, Parse was tried along with four of his codefendants: Paul Daugerdas and Donna Guerin, who were attorneys at the law firm; Denis Field, a member of the accounting firm; and Craig Brubaker, a broker at the investment bank that employed Parse.

He was convicted of mail fraud and attempting to interfere with the administration of the federal tax laws.

The lies included the juror concealing the fact that she was a suspended attorney. Indeed, she created a fictitious persona in order to get on the jury.

Further, she concealed the fact that she was on probation for shoplifting at the time of the trial.

As the district court later found. the juror was "a pathological liar and utterly untrustworthy."

The investigation into the juror's lies began after she wrote a post-verdict letter to the prosecutors  "praising its performance at trial but lamenting the acquittals of Parse." 

The letter was turned over to defense counsel and the court about a month after receipt.

The circuit court found no waiver based on information that the defense had at the trial

although the court stated that Parse's attorneys' "suspicion that Juror No. 1 was not the person she represented herself to be during voir dire . . . . leavened into tangible evidence that Conrad was a monstrous liar," id. at 484 (emphasis added), that leavening did not occur until Conrad sent her May Letter to the government after the verdicts were returned. It was that post verdict letter that first disclosed the juror Conrad's (claimed) street address (against which one of the addresses in the Westlaw Report could be matched) and her telephone number (against which the telephone number shown for the suspended lawyer Catherine M. Conrad on the New York attorney registration website could be matched). And the monstrosity of her deliberate and purposeful voir dire deceit came to light in her statements to the court in the hearings conducted thereafter. As Conrad had "lied about virtually every detail of her life," id. at 473, almost none of the Westlaw Report information cited by the district court about the suspended lawyer matched the information Conrad had provided under oath during voir dire. The information in that Report did not support a finding that Parse's attorneys knew that Conrad the juror was the same person as Catherine M. Conrad the suspended lawyer.

Bloomberg Business reported that the juror testified that she had lied to "make [herself] more marketable" to serve as a juror.

Bloomberg further reported on the trial court hearing

Conrad also admitted she didn’t tell the judge that her husband had been convicted of crimes including check fraud, weapons possession, harassment and burglary. He served seven years and seven months in prison for auto theft, Conrad testified.

“Your husband is a career criminal, isn’t he,” [Daugerdas attorney Chris] Gair asked Conrad.

“So are most attorneys,” she answered, prompting laughter from some in the courtroom.

The district and circuit court did not join in the laughter.

Alison Frankel at Reuters has an interesting take on the implications of this decision.

Thanks to a reader for sending the opinion. (Mike Frisch)

June 8, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Return Of the Blues

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided a divorce case involving the widow of John Belushi.

In late December, 1988, the husband, who had previously been married, and the wife, a widow, "agreed to marry and discussed that a premarital agreement was necessary to protect various assets each had acquired, including intellectual property rights they intended to exploit or continue to develop in the future and that each wanted to protect in the event of divorce, separation or death." The wife had valuable real property located in Martha's Vineyard as well as an interest in her parents' house in New Jersey. The wife also had valuable intellectual property rights, including rights she inherited from her late husband, the actor/comedian, John Belushi. While the wife had achieved some success in her own right as an author, writer, producer, and speaker, her income was derived primarily from royalties and residuals from the intellectual property rights she inherited from Belushi.

The husband is involved in the entertainment industry and, prior to the marriage, had, among other things, written, produced and co-directed a successful television miniseries, produced a concert television special, and written scripts or concepts for several full length screenplays, one of which was sold to a studio. The husband had also negotiated various business transactions regarding production, residual rights, and intellectual property and royalty payments for himself and his production company.

The great comedian may be gone but the  money stream continues

The wife stated that her right to receive the royalties and residuals, as well as her right to exploit the name and likeness of her late husband and the Blues Brothers, represent valuable assets, albeit assets that are difficult to value as it is "impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy what income stream they might generate in the future." Although there was fluctuation in the amounts of income received by the wife from her intellectual property interests, the amounts were substantial.

The court here affirmed the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement over the husband's objections and dismissed his request for sanctions. (Mike Frisch)

May 29, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mississippi Yearning

The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that an out-of-state paramour had insufficient contacts with the state to permit long-arm jurisdiction over an alienation of affections suit.

This is an alienation-of-affections lawsuit brought against a nonresident paramour over whom our courts have personal jurisdiction under the Mississippi long-arm statute. But because the paramour did not make purposeful minimum contacts with Mississippi that were sufficient to satisfy the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we reverse the circuit court’s denial of the paramour’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and we render judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint and this action for lack of personal jurisdiction over the paramour.

Phillip was married to Paige and had an affair with Francesca as well as with an unnamed fitness instructor.

Francesca could not be sued because she was under the mistaken impression that Phillip was from Tennessee

The record in this case includes no evidence whatsoever that Francesca ever purposefully made any contact—minimum or otherwise—with Mississippi. She had an affair (never in Mississippi) with a man (a) who worked in Memphis for a Memphis-based corporation; (b) whose cell phone had a Tennessee area code; (c) who sent her packages using a Tennessee return address; (d) who drove a truck with a Louisiana license plate; and (e) who asked her to meet him in “MEM” so they could disclose the affair to his wife...

It is uncontroverted that Francesca never knew of Phillip’s home in Mississippi. There is no evidence in the record to suggest that Francesca knew or should have realized her calls and texts to Phillip’s Tennessee telephone number would be received in Mississippi. And while Francesca certainly should have known her affair with a married man might break up a marriage somewhere, there is nothing in the record to suggest she knew or should have known the marriage would break up in Mississippi.

Presiding Justice Randolph disagreed and would find that Francesca's conduct was sufficiently purposeful to invoke the power of Mississippi

Were the contacts between [Francesca]... and Phillip purposeful? Yes. Were [Francesca's] contacts with a resident of Mississippi? Yes. Did the complaint allege that a tort was committed, in whole or in part, in Mississippi? Yes. Our law requires no more to exercise in personam jurisdiction, other than to conduct a due process analysis of fair play and substantial justice. Today’s outcome achieves neither...

Today’s case presents a claim of injury which arose out of and is related to communications through cell phone calls, text messages, and emails. Considering the contacts have been admitted, Paige has a right to seek redress for damages related to those contacts.

Justice Pierce joined the dissent.

Paige divorced Phillip and has moved to Texas.

This 2012 Mississippi College Law Review article  discusses the tort. David Neil McCarty correctly predicted

Recent rulings from the Mississippi Supreme Court make clear that the tort is here to stay and is evolving to meet the digital contours of the twenty-first century.

The article also favors adoption of the tort beyond  the six states that recognize the action. (Mike Frisch)

May 28, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Massey Successor Must Pay Blankenship Legal Fees

Incurred and future legal fees to defend criminal charges against former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship must be paid by the company that acquired Massey, according to a Delaware Court of Chancery decision issued today. 

This advancement action involves some unusual facts but an all too common scenario: the termination of mandatory advancement to a former director and officer when trial is approaching and it is needed most.

Plaintiff Donald L. Blankenship is the former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Massey Energy Company, which is now known as Alpha Appalachia Holdings, Inc. (“Massey”). Blankenship held those positions when there was a tragic explosion at a Massey subsidiary’s coal mine in West Virginia in April 2010, killing 29 miners. In June 2011, after Blankenship had retired from Massey, Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (“Alpha”) acquired Massey. For several years after the explosion, Massey and Alpha (together, the “Defendants”) honored Blankenship’s rights to advancement and paid his legal expenses relating to various civil proceedings and a federal criminal investigation that had been launched as a result of the explosion.

Alpha paid his fees until he was indicted. The decision to stop paying counsel's bills came after Alpha had sought advice from Cleary Gottlieb

In the wake of the indictment, Alpha stopped paying Blankenship’s legal fees. Alpha management, with approval from Alpha’s board of directors, then initiated a process to review the company’s indemnification and advancement obligations to Blankenship. Alpha focused on an unusual undertaking Blankenship had signed in April 2011 (the “Undertaking”), which states, in relevant part, that Massey’s indemnification and advancement obligations to Blankenship are “contingent upon [certain] factual representations and undertakings,” including a representation that, in performing his duties as a director and officer of Massey, Blankenship “had no reasonable cause to believe that [his] conduct was ever unlawful.” In late January 2015, after a process described below, Philip Cavatoni, an Alpha officer and Massey director, determined that Blankenship had breached that representation (the “Determination”). Based on the Determination, Alpha asserts that Blankenship is no longer entitled to advancement of any of his legal expenses from Massey.

Alpha must pay

Defendants must (1) advance Blankenship’s unpaid legal expenses incurred in connection with the federal criminal investigation and the Criminal Proceeding and (2) pay his reasonable expenses of litigating this action. Counsel shall confer and submit an implementing order within five business days, providing for the foregoing payments to be made within ten business days of entry of judgment.

And

Defendants have not advanced any substantive argument that the aggregate fees that have not been paid (approximately $5.8 million as of April 1, 2015) are unreasonable. Nor have they identified, in my view, any “gross problem” or other legitimate reason that would warrant injecting a special master to “perform the task of playground monitor, refereeing needless and inefficient skirmishes in the sandbox.” Disputes over the reasonableness of Blankenship’s expenses in the Criminal Proceeding can ultimately be resolved when any determination on indemnification is made

Blankenship is represented by the Zuckerman Spaeder firm. (Mike Frisch)

May 28, 2015 in Billable Hours, Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Advertising Injunction Against Law Firm Vacated

The Georgia Supreme Court has vacated a permanent injunction and remanded a case where a nursing facility had sued to enjoin a law firm's advertisement seeking potential clients against it.

The case was described in this post by Alyson Palmer of the Daily Report

As recounted in briefs for both sides, the advertisement said the government had cited a nursing facility, Heritage Healthcare of Toccoa, "for failing to assist those residents who need total help with eating/drinking, grooming and personal and oral hygiene." The ad rhetorically asked whether readers' loved ones had suffered bedsores, broken bones, unexplained injuries or death. Providing the firm's contact information, the ad invited anyone concerned that a loved one was being "neglected or abused" at the facility to call McHugh Fuller.

The day after the ad ran, the owner of the facility, PruittHealth-Toccoa, sued the law firm in the Mountain Circuit Superior Court. Beside citing Georgia legal ethics rules on advertising and contacting prospective clients, the complaint alleged the ad had violated Georgia's version of the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act because it was false and misleading. The nursing home company initially requested damages but later amended its complaint to seek only injunctive relief.

Superior Court Judge B. Chan Caudell promptly granted PruittHealth's request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the law firm from running similar advertisements, then set the case for a hearing a little less than a month later.

In its defense, the firm pointed to a 2012 inspection report by the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. That report listed multiple deficiencies at the site under the heading "Assist those residents who need total help with eating/drinking, grooming and personal and oral hygiene." In particular, the document referred to one resident not having access to mouthwash in her room and another resident's long, dirty fingernails.

At the close of the hearing, Caudell found the ad was misleading and deceptive because it said the nursing facility had been cited "for failing to assist" residents in certain areas, while the government report did not use that "failing to" language in its report. He later issued a written order prohibiting McHugh Fuller from publishing or causing the ad to be published in the future and giving the firm 20 days to make sure any electronic posting of the ad by the newspaper was removed.

The law firm appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, raising several arguments. The firm says that Caudell abused his discretion in finding the ad false and misleading. But the law firm also raises a procedural argument, saying it didn't have advance notice that the judge was going to make a final decision in the case based on the May 2014 hearing. McHugh Fuller later filed a separate appeal complaining that Caudell had excluded from the appellate record materials that the law firm thought should be included.

The court found that the trial court had erred in granting a permanent injunction without clear notice to the law firm that such an order was contemplated. (Mike Frisch)

May 11, 2015 in Current Affairs, Hot Topics, Law & Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Litigation Privilege Protects Disparaging Opening Statement

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has held that the litigation privilege requires dismissal of an action brought by a party ("OBG") who had settled a claim with a mutual non-disparagement clause.

After the settlement, the other party went to trial against another defendant. 

This claim was based on OBG's contention that the plaintiff's attorney violated the provision in opening statement by accusations against the defendant who had settled.

Well over 100 years ago the Court of Appeals recognized in Maryland common law an absolute litigation privilege that immunizes litigation participants from liability in tort for words spoken or written in the course of a judicial proceeding. It crafted an absolute litigation privilege for Maryland that is a hybrid of the English and American versions of that privilege. Lawyers are protected by the American version, which immunizes them from liability in tort for words spoken or written in the course of a judicial proceeding so long as the words are relevant to the proceeding... (citations omitted)

Lawyers are duty bound by the Maryland Lawyer’s Rules of Professional Conduct to zealously advocate for their clients, which includes introducing evidence that supports their clients’ positions and presenting argument in furtherance of their clients’ claims or defenses. See Preamble to MRPC (“as advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.”). The specter of civil liability for words spoken or written in the course of a judicial proceeding will inhibit lawyers from abiding by their professional obligation to advocate zealously, imperiling the rights of their clients. See T. Leigh Anenson, “Absolute Immunity from Civil Liability: Lessons for Litigation Lawyers,” 31 Pepp. L. Rev. 915, 922 (2004); see also Greenberg Traurig, LLP v. Frias Holding Co., 331 P. 3d 901, 903 (Nev. 2014) (explaining that “[t]he policy behind the [litigation] privilege, as it applies to attorneys participating in judicial proceedings, is to grant them as officers of the court the utmost freedom in their efforts to obtain justice for their clients.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (alteration in Greenberg).

Thus, the contentions at the trial were immunized from the assertion that they violated the non-disparagement clause.

The court also affirmed the trial court's denial of a motion to disqualify counsel as a necessary witness.

Judge Nazarian dissented

The ultimate question...is whether the City agreed, as part of settling its differences with OBG, not to disparage OBG in the Plant Upgrade Case. The outcome of that question depends in the first instance on what the parties intended the non-disparagement clause to cover. The circuit court erred in dismissing the case in the face of that looming factual dispute, and I would reverse and remand on that basis. From there, I would hold that the City could well have agreed to limit its litigation positions in the ongoing litigation, whether viewed as a positional or tactical decision or as a waiver of the litigation privilege, and direct the circuit court on remand to address OBG’s claims against that backdrop. And for those reasons, I respectfully dissent.

(Mike Frisch)

April 28, 2015 in Current Affairs, The Practice | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Take That, Chief Justice Roberts

The New Jersey Appellate Division has held that a corporation convicted at trial and declared indigent by the trial judge is not entitled to a public defender on appeal at public expense.

Western World, Inc. was indicted for crimes arising from a shooting during a reenactment of a gunfight at Wild West City. The corporation was represented at trial by private counsel, who negotiated a plea deal.

The plea deal preserved an appeal issue.

The Office of the Public Defender noted the appeal but sought to be relieved, citing its limited resources.

The defendant had opposed the motion.

The court did reaffirm a corporation's right to be represented by counsel under federal and New Jersey law. (Mike Frisch)

March 30, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Appeal Dismissed: Dissent Contends Dismissal Encourages Discovery Violations Against Law School Clinic Clients

The Ohio Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal and, according to a dissent, endorsed the proposition that fees for discovery violations cannot be awarded to law school clinics as such clinics charge no fees to their clients.

Justice Pfeifer's dissent

As can happen, something we said in one context, where it made sense, is being applied in another context, where it does not. In State ex rel. Citizens for Open, Responsive & Accountable Govt. v. Register, 116 Ohio St.3d 88, 2007-Ohio-5542, 876 N.E.2d 913, we stated that “an award of attorney fees as a sanction for a discovery violation must actually be incurred by the party seeking the award.” In that case, there was an ongoing dispute involving compensated attorneys, and an award of attorney fees made sense only if additional fees had actually been incurred. Nothing in that opinion suggests that we were deciding the issue with respect to every situation involving discovery sanctions that might possibly arise in Ohio.

Legal services can be rendered in Ohio by legal interns, including, as here, those working for a law-school clinic. Gov.Bar R. II. In that special context, legal fees are not allowed. Gov.Bar R. II(6) (“A legal intern shall not ask for or receive any compensation or remuneration of any kind from a financially needy client * * *.”)

The lower court’s opinion, as allowed to stand, holds that discovery sanctions can never be granted when the prevailing party is represented by a law-school clinic because attorney fees cannot be incurred by a clinic’s client. Such a conclusion reads too much into Register, an opinion that had nothing to do with law-school clinics and legal interns. Moreover, the holding allows parties to commit discovery violations with some level of impunity. It is also contrary to Gov.Bar R. II(6), which states that a law-school clinic “may be awarded attorney fees for services rendered by the legal intern consistent with the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct and as provided by law.” Attorney fees as sanctions for discovery violations are attorney fees “provided by law.”

By dismissing the appeal as improvidently accepted, this court is implicitly endorsing a decision that allows attorneys opposing law-school clinics to commit discovery violations without fear of economic sanctions, subverting Gov.Bar R. II(6), and devaluing the efforts of hundreds of legal interns and licensed attorneys who provide pro bono legal services throughout this state.

I would reach the merits of the case before us and reverse the judgment of the court of appeals. I dissent.

Justices French and O'Neill joined the dissent. (Mike Frisch)

February 11, 2015 in Billable Hours, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Medicaid Advice And Unauthorized Practice

The Florida Supreme Court has approved an ethics opinion dealing with whether providing medicaid advice violates prohibitions on the unauthorized practice of law

 the Florida Bar Elder Law Section’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Subcommittee petitioned the Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on the Unlicensed Practice of Law (Standing Committee) for an advisory opinion on whether it constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to engage in the following Medicaid planning activities leading up to the Medicaid application: (1) drafting of personal service contracts; (2) preparation and execution of qualified income trusts; or (3) rendering legal advice regarding the implementation of Florida law to obtain Medicaid benefits.

The committee

It is the opinion of the Standing Committee that it constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to draft a personal service contract and to determine the need for, prepare, and execute a Qualified Income Trust including gathering the information necessary to complete the trust. Moreover, a nonlawyer should not be authorized to sell personal service or Qualified Income Trust forms or kits in the area of Medicaid planning.

 It is also the opinion of the Standing Committee that it constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to render legal advice regarding the implementation of Florida law to obtain Medicaid benefits. This includes advising an individual on the appropriate legal strategies available for spending down and restructuring assets and the need for a personal service contract or Qualified Income Trust.

 It is the position of the Standing Committee that a nonlawyer’s preparation of the Medicaid application itself would not constitute the unlicensed practice of law as it is authorized by federal law. As noted earlier, it is also not the unlicensed practice of law for DCF staff to tell Medicaid applicants about Medicaid trusts and other eligibility laws and policies governing the structuring of income and assets when relevant to the applicant’s facts and financial situation.

The court order states that the inquiry was a result of activities of the Forida Department of Children and Families.

The opinion has the force and effect of the court's orders. (Mike Frisch)

January 15, 2015 in Bar Discipline & Process, Current Affairs, Hot Topics, Law & Society | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Locating The Puck

The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law - the brainchild of my colleagues Mitt Regan and Jeff Bauman - has just issued it 2015 report on the State of the Legal Market.

From the introduction

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once explained the secret to success in his sport by noting that "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."

Gretzky's observation has often been cited for its obvious relevance to the process of business strategy, and it seems particularly apt for law firm leaders in the current environment. In the six and a half years since then onset of the Great Recession, the market for legal services has changed in fundamental -- and probably irreversible -- ways.  Perhaps of greatest significance has been the rapid shift from a sellers' to a buyers' market, one in which clients have assumed control of all of the fundamental decisions about how legal services are delivered and have insisted on increased efficiency, predictability, and cost effectiveness in the delivery of the services they purchase. This shift in the dynamics of the market, coupled with at best modest growth in the demand for legal services, the decision of many corporate clients to shift more legal work in-house, the growing willingness of clients to disaggregate services among many different service providers, and the growth in market share of non-traditional competitors, have all combined to produce a much more intensely competitive market for legal services than existed prior to 2008.

Over the past five years, law firms have responded to these market changes in a variety of ways. They have become more adept at responding to RFPs and participating in competitive selection processes; they have become more proficient indeveloping and working under project budgets and in responding to client demands for alternative fee arrangements and they have begun to develop project management capabilities as well as the skills needed to partner with other providers in disaggregated service settings. For the most part, however, these changes have been in response to specific client pressures. They have not generally resulted from law firms themselves taking a longer range view of the changes impacting the legal market and restructuring their services to meet likely client expectations in the future. In other words, to use the Wayne Gretzky metaphor, they represent playing where the puck is and not where it is going to be

Congrats to Mitt and Jeff and the center's staff for their thought-provoking work (Mike Frisch)

January 9, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 26, 2014

STAND And Deliver Legal Services

An unauthorized practice decision of the Ohio Supreme Court is described by Kathleen Maloney

A Lorain County non-lawyer and his corporation engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by providing legal advice to individuals facing criminal charges, according to an Ohio Supreme Court decision today.

The court directed King Ayettey Zubaidah and STAND, Inc., to stop practicing law and ordered them to pay a civil penalty of $20,000 for their involvement in four legal matters.

Zubaidah formed STAND (Striving Towards a New Day!) in 2008 after his experience with the justice system in the 1980s when he was convicted on a drug charge and sentenced to five years probation. STAND’s mission was “to help change the unfair and partial treatment against minorities in the judicial system.”

In each of the four cases brought before the Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL), the defendant or a parent of the defendant asked for Zubaidah’s guidance during the criminal case and signed an agreement with STAND, which stated that the organization would assist them. No payment was required. Family members testified that Zubaidah did not claim to be an attorney and they knew he was not one.

In one matter, Isaiah Harris faced several charges in three different cases in 2008 involving the same victim. The court appointed a lawyer to represent him. Harris also signed an agreement with STAND.

The three cases were combined, and before Harris’ trial Zubaidah sent a letter to the judge indicating he had in-depth knowledge about the facts in the case and defending Harris’ actions.

In the midst of trial, Harris’ lawyer negotiated a plea deal for a four-year prison term. Zubaidah attended the trial, but his involvement was disputed. Harris’ lawyer claimed that Zubaidah advised Harris not to accept the deal. Harris rejected the offer and was later convicted and sentenced to 23 years, 6 months in prison.

In the other cases, Zubaidah sent letters to the judges asking for lower bonds, citing cases, and making legal arguments, though indicating that he was not an attorney.

In today’s per curiam opinion, the court noted that an individual who negotiates legal claims for another person and provides legal advice – even without charge and even when stating that he is not an attorney – is practicing law.

While a non-attorney who sends a character-reference letter for someone to a judge is not engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, the court stated that when a letter shifts to advocating specific legal positions for that person, the unauthorized practice of law occurs.

“[D]espite the laudable desire to seek reform in the criminal system, such a desire cannot be realized by legally advising and advocating on behalf of a criminal defendant without violating our prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law,” the opinion stated.

“Zubaidah’s actions extended beyond the permissible conduct of endorsing a person’s character, advocating a social issue generally, advancing personal interests, or providing nonlegal advice to a family member. Despite Zubaidah’s good intentions and intermittent disclaimers, his conduct shows a pattern of advocating legal positions on behalf of defendants and providing legal advice to those defendants, leading to serious consequences for the STAND clients who trusted him.”

The court pointed out that Zubaidah held himself out as “an advocate with legal expertise,” his agreements implied that he had specialized knowledge of the legal system, and his letters to judges “cited case law, raised legal issues, and asked for legal results.”

Adopting the UPL board’s recommendation, the court determined that a $5,000 penalty for each violation was reasonable.

The court’s majority included Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French. Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill concurred in part and dissented in part.

While Justices Pfeifer and O’Neill agree that Zubaidah engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, they would instead impose $1,000 for each violation, for a total penalty of $4,000.

2013-0072. Lorain Cty. Bar Assn. v. Zubaidah, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4060.

(Mike Frisch)

September 26, 2014 in Current Affairs, Hot Topics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

New Jersey Favors Pro Bono

The New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed an opinion of the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics that had ruled it an impermissible conflict of interest for pro bono participants in the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice program to provide legal services in bankruptcy matters where their firm (Lowenstein Sandler) represents creditors in unrelated matters.

VLJ’s pro bono bankruptcy program does not present a conflict of interest under RPC1.7. With appropriate safeguards, a volunteer attorney can represent a low-income debtor in a no-asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy matter even if the attorney’s firm represents one or more of the debtor’s creditors in unrelated matters.

The unanimous court found that the public policy in favor of pro bono services "informed" its decision. (Mike Frisch)

July 3, 2014 in Bar Discipline & Process, Current Affairs, Pro Bono | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Praise For "Confidence Games"

The Georgetown Law web page has this post on the new book by Tanina Rostain and Mitt Regan

In their new book Confidence Games: Lawyers, Accountants, and the Tax Shelter Industry (MIT Press, 2014), Professors Tanina Rostain and Milton C. Regan Jr. describe the rise and fall of the tax shelter industry, the professional misconduct that allowed it to flourish and the ultimately successful government efforts to subdue it.

Rostain and Regan set the stage for this development — the boom years at the turn of the 21st century and the raft of complex tax shelters developed by such accounting firms as KPMG and Ernst & Young — and the hobbled Internal Revenue Service that struggled to keep up with it. The authors acknowledge that individual wrongdoers were at fault, but they also probe the organizational causes and the responsibility of the tax adviser: “If the lawyer fosters the perception that other taxpayers lack a sense of civic obligation, she can lead the client to adopt a similar attitude in self-defense.”

 “Confidence Games is a lively and deeply informed human story,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning tax journalist David Cay Johnston. “… Rostain and Regan give readers a solid primer, translating arcane principles of accounting. Then they add a human touch with telling details mined from a public record few others have explored.” 

Claire Hill, Professor and James L. Krusemark Chair in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, says, “This book manages what many might think impossible: it’s a page-turner about tax."

(Mike Frisch)

July 2, 2014 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pregnant Associate's Claims Survive In Part

The civil claims of an associate attorney against her former firm may proceed in some respects, according to a decision issued today by the New York Appellate Dvision for the First Judicial Department.

In January 2008, plaintiff Ji Sun Jennifer Kim was hired as an associate attorney in the tax certiorari department of defendant law firm Goldberg, Weprin, Finkel, Goldstein, LLP. In January 2009, plaintiff learned she was expecting a child and informed the law firm of her pregnancy. In June 2009, while visibly pregnant, plaintiff was reprimanded by a partner at the law firm for allegedly reading a book during work hours. According to plaintiff, the partner stood extremely close and screamed at her, causing plaintiff to fear that she would be hit.

Plaintiff promptly emailed a complaint about the incident to defendants Arnold Mazel and Barry Zweigbaum, both partners in the law firm. In that complaint, plaintiff alleged that two other attorneys, both male, were engaging in similar behavior at the same time but were not admonished. Plaintiff's email expressed concern that she was singled out and treated unfairly due to her pregnancy. Defendant Andrew Albstein, the law firm's managing partner, wrote an email to plaintiff reiterating that reading a book during work hours was inappropriate, and denying that plaintiff was reprimanded due to her pregnancy. Plaintiff also alleges that Mazel told her that she made her situation worse by complaining.

In September 2009, plaintiff took 12 weeks' maternity leave. Upon her return to work in December 2009, plaintiff began to express breast milk at the office. At some point in February 2010, Zweigbaum, within earshot of plaintiff, is alleged to have made an inappropriate gender-based comment. The next day, plaintiff complained to Zweigbaum and another partner about the offensive remark. Plaintiff alleges that after she complained, Zweigbaum barely spoke to her.

At around the same time, plaintiff asked if she could work a reduced schedule so she could take care of her baby at home, but Mazel denied the request. According to Mazel, February was the tax certiorari department's busy season, and firm policy did not allow lawyers to work a reduced work schedule. Albstein confirmed that in the previous 10 years, the law firm had never allowed any associate attorney to work part-time. In April 2010, the law firm terminated plaintiff's employment, purportedly for budgetary reasons.

The court affirmed the dismissal of claims of gender discrimination and hostile work environment.

The retaliation claim can go forward.

Law360 had this earlier report. (Mike Frisch)

June 3, 2014 in Current Affairs, Law Firms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)