Friday, November 15, 2013
The New York Court of Appeals ruled against an estate that contested the claim of a German museum to a 3,000 year old gold tablet recovered by German archeologists prior to World War One.
The tablet was shipped to the claimant museum in 1926, was missing by 1945 and "resurfaced in 2003, when it was discovered in the possession of the decedent..."
The estate of the Nassau County resident and Holocaust survivor claimed that the tablet was a"spoil of war."
The "spoils of war" theory proffered by the Estate - that the Russian government, when it invaded Germany, gained title to the Museum's property as a spoil of war, and then transferred title to the decedent - is rejected. The Estate's theory rests entirely on conjecture, and the record is bereft of any proof that the Russian government ever had possession of the tablet. Even if there was such proof, we decline to adopt any doctrine that would establish good title based upon the looting and removal of cultural objects during wartime by a conquering military force.
The court answered a question certified by the Appellate Division. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, November 14, 2013
A majority of the New York Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department has held that one party to a long term committed same-sex relationship stated a cause of action for breach of an oral agreement.
Each had had a biological child that the other adopted. The plaintiff stayed at home while the defendant continued to work.
They ended the relationship in 2007 and were never married.
The parties lived together in a committed, same-sex relationship for nearly 18 years, and are the parents of two children. After the relationship ended, the plaintiff commenced this action seeking, inter alia, damages for breach of an alleged oral "joint venture/partnership" agreement whereby she would share in assets, including the defendant's retirement contributions and earnings, in exchange for leaving her full-time job to care for the parties' children. The plaintiff also asserted several equitable causes of action predicated upon the alleged oral agreement to share in the defendant's retirement contributions and earnings. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the complaint is sufficiently pleaded to state a cause of action sounding in breach of contract.
Justice Dillon concurred in part and dissented in part:
Distilled to its essence, the plaintiff in this action seeks "equitable distribution" of the defendant's assets and future pension benefits without alleging in the complaint that the defendant had promised to share them if the parties did not stay together. Indeed, there is no allegation that the parties had any meeting of the minds as to the distribution of property or assets upon a termination of their relationship. Absent such an allegation, and absent an affidavit from the plaintiff clarifying or expanding her description of the parties' agreement to cover such an eventuality, the complaint fails to state a cause of action. The plaintiff's theory of recovery is dependent upon implying terms for the distribution of retirement benefits to circumstances involving the dissolution of the parties' familial relationship. The Supreme Court properly refrained from implying such provisions into the oral contract in determining that, under the circumstances alleged, the "complaint lacks a contract for the court to enforce."
No aspect of this partial dissent speaks to the merits of the New York's more recent enactment of the Marriage Equality Act. This Court is sensitive to the complications occasioned by various forms of familial relationships that necessarily result in financial agreements or entanglements. The judiciary, however, is limited in addressing and determining the ownership and/or distribution of familial assets, absent either the existence of a lawfully recognized marriage or an enforceable expressed contract between persons in a cohabitational relationship.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
An attorney who shot a person in the leg claimed self-defense. He was found not guilty of criminal charges brought as a result of the shooting.
The shooting victim then filed a civil complaint against the attorney, who responded by bringing a third-party complaint against the prosecuting attorney.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal with prejudice of the third-party action based on the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity.
WV Metro News had this account of the verdict in the criminal case.
The State Journal also reported the verdict and noted charges of witness intimidation against the attorney
After a Clay County jury found former political candidate, Hiram Lewis, not guilty of maliciously shooting another person in the leg, Lewis says he's just glad the trial is over.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Lewis told The State Journal. "It was a great relief. I can get to work now and get back to a regular life."
Lewis said he will continue with his ministry and his law practice. He also plans to create Kayakers for Christ, which would be kayak rentals for youth groups.
However, Lewis is not yet out of the woods. He still faces another charge of intimidation of a witness, which goes to trial Aug. 7.
Prosecutors allege Lewis intimidated former Clay County Sheriff Randy Holcomb, following the initial October shooting incident. Lewis said in a previous interview that he was just exercising his rights for redress of grievances.
In that interview, Lewis said he went to the sheriff's home, following the incident, wanting Holcomb to express a preference to prosecutors about Lewis' guilt. Lewis said the sheriff told him that was unethical, but Lewis argues it wasn't because of a prosecutor's discretion.
The attorney had been a candidate for state attorney general. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, November 7, 2013
A court-appointed guardian ad litem forms an attorney-client relationship with an incarcerated inmate, according to an opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
When the incarcerated client directs the guardian ad litem to convey a statement to a third party, however, the attorney-client privilege is waived.
The case involves a domestic violence petition against one Chubby Hosten.
After a meeting with the client, the appointed guardian made an in-court statement at his client's direction. Charges of intimidation and witness harassment were brought based on the lawyer's statement:
what he [the client] said was if she doesn't leave me alone I am going to her place of employment and kill her....I do not believe that I am breaching confidentiality by saying that. I think there's actually an exception to the rules for this kind of information. But I was told by my client to say this, um, so there it is.
The prosecutor sought the lawyer's testimony and admission of the video of the in-court statement. The circuit court determined that the evidence was protected by privilege and the prosecutor appealed. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, October 31, 2013
The Spring 2013 edition of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics is now available at this link.
Monroe Freedman has again published with us -- an article entitled "The Unconstitutionality of Electing State Judges."
There are also fine pieces on advising the president by William R. Casto, the development of law firm marketing by Silvia Hodges, the "reason-giving" lawyer by Donald J. Kochan and the forgotten foundations of the attorney-client privilege by Norman W. Spaulding.
Thanks to the authors and editors for this contribution to the legal profession. (Mike Frisch)
Saturday, October 26, 2013
The Kentucky Supreme Court has affirmed on statute of limitations grounds the dismissal of claims of fraud, misepesentation and breach of fiduciary duty brought against attorneys involved in the litigation of Fen-Phen claims.
The court's opinion describes how "50 plaintiffs in Kentucky with Kentucky attorneys could end up in an Alabama court case represented by law firms in Mississippi and Alabama."
The 50 were a group of plaintiffs in Kentucky case that had what their Kentucky attorneys felt were "low value" claims.
They were sold off without their knowledge (and with a cut of the fee) to other law firms in an Alabama case that needed them because of a requirement that they certify within a given time frame that a minimum number of the claimants that they represented were willing to participate in a settlement.
The plaintiffs got no individualized consideration of their claims; rather, they were treated as "fungible commodities." They each got a settlement check for $29,500 of a $72,000 settlement but were left in the dark over the amount and distribution of the proceeds.
Suffice it to say that the lawyers divided up the rest.
The matter came to light when a lawyer conducted an investigation that peeled back the Fen-Phen litigation onion and found that the clients were supposed to have received slightly less than $48,000.
That discovery triggered the start of the statute of limitations.
Here, the court held that Kentucky statute of limitations law applied (not Alabama, as the Circuit Court had held) but that the suit was nonetheless filed too late. (Mike Frisch)
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
A former colleague at the Office of Bar Counsel brought a 2010 decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to my attention.
The case - Bergman v. District of Columbia, et al. , - raises some interesting questions concerning the ethical obligations of attorneys who solicit clients in the District of Columbia.
Historically, enforcement of solicitation restrictions has been the lowest of priorities in D.C. The Court of Appeals did not adopt ABA Model Rules 7.2 through 7.4 and seeded in its Rule 7.1 a provision that permits in-person solicitations that do not involve false statements or undue influence.
As a result, prosecutions for improper client solicitation rarely, if ever, take place.
In one reciprocal case I handled, the court declined to impose any discipline on an attorney sanctioned in Maryland for approaching a potential client as he was leaving a courthouse. The case is In re Roger Gregory.
The Bergman case involved a suit by a D.C. Bar member challenging the validity of a City Council act that, among other thing, makes it unlawful for an attorney to solicit business from a potential motor vehicle accident client within 21 days of an accident.
In an opinion authored by Senior Judge Frank Schwelb, the court upheld the provision and rejected the contention that the act contravened the court's exclusive authority to regulate the legal profession. The court relied on United States Supreme Court jurisprudence in the area of attorney solicitation, primarily Ohralik v. Ohio and Florida Bar v. Went For It.
Rather, the power is inherent but not exclusive: "we believe that it would be an inappropriate exercise of judicial power to restrict the legislative authority of our elected representatives in the manner that Bergman suggests...we are dealing here with uninvited attempts to secure employment for renumeration - a classic example of a business transaction."
The court gave short shrift to the attorney's First Amendment claims: "this case...is not about the benign democratic ideal of opposing views competing for public acceptance. Rather, it is about practitioners aggressively seeking to secure potentially profitable employment."
So, as a result, in the District of Columbia, attorneys are forbidden by legislative act from a form of solicitation that is not in any manner in violation of the court's own ethical rules.
Are D.C. lawyers now subject to bar proceedings if they violate the statute but not the ethics rules?
Should the ethics rules be amended to harmonize with the now-governing law?
Will the City initiate criminal prosecutions of soliciting attorneys?
I will confess myself a bit surprised to see the court's embrace of Ohralik and Went For It given the state of its own disciplinary rules.
The opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, September 19, 2013
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has affirmed an order to arbitrate a dispute between a former partner of K &L Gates and the firm.
The attorney had filed suit against the firm in California. The firm invoked arbitration and forum selection clauses in the firm partnership agreement, and moved in the D.C. Superior Court to compel arbitration.
The Superior Court ordered the parties to arbitrate the dispute. The attorney appealed the order.
The court here entertained the appeal and concluded that the dispute must be arbitrated.
The attorney had signed a supplement to the firm's partnership agreement when Kilpatrick & Lockhart merged with Preston, Gates & Ellis that bound him to the agreement "as amended."
The attorney (who was a partner at the Preston firm) agreed to the supplement when he chose to become a K &L Gates partner. The agreement provided for arbitration of disputes that arose between him and the firm and chose the District of Columbia as the forum.
The court rejected a host of contentions, including the suggestion that the firm engaged in fraud in having the agreement signed. The court held that the arbitration agreement broadly covered all issues in dispute between the attorney and the firm.
Associate Judge McLeese wrote the opinion. There are concurring opinion from Senior Judge Ferren, joined by Associate Judge Easterly.
The issue of the concurrences involved footnote four of the opinion. The concurring opinion proposes an alternate version.
Judge McLeese defended the footnote in a concurring opinion. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
From the Tennessee Supreme Court web page:
The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a trial court erred by failing to follow appropriate procedures after learning that a juror contacted a witness via Facebook during a murder trial.
William Darelle Smith was charged with the 2007 shooting death of Zurisaday Villanueva. During Mr. Smith’s trial in 2010, Dr. Adele Lewis, an assistant medical examiner, testified about the cause of death. Following her testimony, one of the jurors, Glenn Scott Mitchell, communicated with Dr. Lewis through her Facebook account. Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Lewis were acquaintances, and Mr. Mitchell complimented Dr. Lewis on her testimony.
Dr. Lewis informed the trial judge of these communications while the trial was still underway. Rather than taking immediate action, the trial judge informed the attorneys of the communication and sentenced Mr. Smith after the jury returned a guilty verdict. The trial court also denied Mr. Smith’s request to question the jury before they left the courthouse and later denied Mr. Smith’s request for a new trial because of these communications. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Smith’s conviction and life sentence.
In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals regarding the communications between Dr. Lewis and Mr. Mitchell. The Court decided that when communications between a juror and a third party are brought to a trial court’s attention, the trial court must immediately inform the parties and conduct a hearing on the record to establish the nature and extent of the improper communications and to determine whether the communications affected the outcome of the trial. The Court sent the case back to the trial court to conduct a proper hearing.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
The Nebraska Supreme Court has reversed a conviction in a high-profile case involving charges of abuse of developmentally disabled adults in residential care.
The jury was permitted to review a document not in evidence --the prosecution's "road map"--a mistake that resulted in the reversal.
Huffington Post had noted the conviction:
A 31-year-old man has been convicted of abusing residents at a state-run center for developmentally disabled people in Nebraska.
Pangborn was charged with beating and choking residents when he worked at the Beatrice State Developmental Center last summer.
Sixteen employees were suspended after an investigation found that at least seven of the center's developmentally disabled residents were routinely slapped, shoved, violently pinched, punched, ridiculed and choked. Five workers were initially charged with abuse.
Pangborn is the only one to face trial, after the four others pleaded to reduced charges.
The Beatrice Daily Sun had this report on the sentencing. (Mike Frisch)
Friday, July 12, 2013
The Iowa Supreme Court has affirmed its earlier conclusion that a dental assistant terminated because her employer's spouse was jealous of her did not make out a claim of unlawful gender discrimination.
Rather, she was "terminated because of the activity of her personal relationship with her employer, not because of her gender."
Bad treatment, perhaps, but not unlawful discrimination, according to the court.
There is a special concurring opinion that makes clear that the law supported the claim, but not the specific facts alleged by the discharged employee. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, July 11, 2013
On July 6, 2013, the Florida Supreme Court promulgated a Code for Resolving Professionalism Complaints.
Today, the court corrected the Code in two respects.
Rather than Anger Management Classes, the corrected order designates a Stress Management Workshop. Certain provisions are triggered by "cause to believe" rather than on "probable cause." (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
A significant decision today by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The issue and holding:
The issue presented on appeal is whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm's in-house counsel concerning a malpractice claim asserted by a current client of the firm are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege. We conclude that they are, provided that (1) the law firm has designated an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house counsel, (2) the in-house counsel has not performed any work on the client matter at issue or a substantially related matter, (3) the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel is not billed to a client, and (4) the communications are made in confidence and kept confidential. Because these criteria were met in this case, we affirm the judge's order allowing the defendant law firm and its attorneys to invoke the attorney-client privilege to preserve the confidentiality of these communications.
The law firm was retained by a commercial lender to investigate title and foreclose on property secured by what the lender thought was a first mortgage. A third party claimed a superior interest in the property.
A year later, the client (through outside counsel) sent the law firm a draft complaint alleging malpractice and breach of contract.
The lawyers in the firm then consulted with the firm partner "designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues on behalf of [the firm]..."
The court underscored the importance of the ethics attorney function:
Where a law firm designates one or more attorneys to serve as its in-house counsel on ethical, regulatory, and risk management issues that are crucial to the firm's reputation and financial success, the attorney-client privilege serves the same purpose as it does for corporations or governmental entities: it guarantees the confidentiality necessary to ensure that the firm's partners, associates, and staff employees provide the information needed to obtain sound legal advice. See Hertzog, Calamari & Gleason v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 850 F.Supp. 255, 255 (S.D.N.Y.1994) ("No principled reason appears for denying ... attorney-client privilege to a law partnership which elects to use a partner or associate as counsel of record in a litigated matter"). "[B]road protection of communications with law firm in-house counsel, including communication about the representation of a current client of the firm, ... would encourage firm members to seek early advice about their duties to clients and to correct mistakes or lapses, if possible, to alleviate harm." Chambliss, supra at 1724. As the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently noted:
"[I]ndividual lawyers who come to the realization that they have made some error in pursuing their client's legal matters should be encouraged to seek advice promptly about how to correct the error, and to make full disclosure to the attorney from whom that advice is sought about what was done or not done, so that the advice may stand some chance of allowing the mistake to be rectified before the client is irreparably damaged. If such lawyers believe that these communications will eventually be revealed to the client in the context of a legal malpractice case, they will be much less likely to seek prompt advice from members of the same firm."
The court rejected a differing result when the situation involves a current, rather than former, client:
In law, as in architecture, form should follow function, and we prefer a formulation of the attorney-client privilege that encourages attorneys faced with the threat of legal action by a client to seek the legal advice of in-house ethics counsel before deciding whether they must withdraw from the representation to one that would encourage attorneys to withdraw or disclose a poorly understood potential conflict before seeking such advice. The "current client" exception is a flawed interpretation of the rules of professional conduct that yields a dysfunctional result. See N.Y. St. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Prof. Ethics, Op. 789 (2005) ("We do not believe that the conflicts rules ... were intended to prohibit ethics consultation when it is most helpful: during the client representation"). As such, we decline to adopt it in Massachusetts.
Briefs were submitted by several amicus curiae, including the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, the American Bar Association and the Attorneys' Liability Assurance Society, Inc.
The case is RFF Family Partnership, LP v. Burns & Levinson LLP. One should be able to access the decision through this link.
Law firm ethics counsel --every firm of sufficient size needs one. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has affirmed convictions for second-degree reckless homicide in the death of an 11 year old child who died on Easter Sunday 2008.
The parents relied on prayers rather than treatment.
From Chief Justice Abrahamson's majority opinion:
Kara died when her father and mother, Dale R. Neumann and Leilani E. Neumann, chose to treat Kara's undiagnosed serious illness with prayer, rather than medicine. Each parent was charged with and convicted of the second-degree reckless homicide of Madeline Kara Neumann in violation of Wis. Stat. § 940.06(1) (2009) in separate trials with different juries.
The cause of death was diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from untreated juvenile onset diabetes mellitus.
Justice Prosser dissented:
This case is a tragedy in virtually every respect. I cannot say that the result of the Neumann trials is unjust. Nonetheless, there were and are serious deficiencies in the law and they ought to be addressed by the legislature and the courts. Failing to acknowledge these deficiencies will not advance the long-term administration of justice.
Monday, July 1, 2013
A decision last week from the Indiana Supreme Court:
The concept of parents negotiating away parenting time as a means to elimate the obligation to pay child support is repugnant and contrary to public policy. Attorneys should refuse to be a part of such discussion and should advise their clients that any such discussion is unacceptable. Here, an agreement to forego parenting time in exchange for relief from child support is declared void against public policy.
The court decried the use of a child as a "bargaining chip." (Mike Frisch)
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
An announcement from the Georgetown Law web page:
Georgetown Law's Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics has been honored by the New York State Bar Association's committee on professional ethics with its Sanford D. Levy Award. The award is given to "recognize those who have contributed to understanding and advancement in the field of professional ethics."
"The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics has published many of the most thought-provoking and influential articles in the field," said Steve Krantz, co-chair of the committee and an attorney with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. "The committee congratulates the Journal and looks forward to its continuing and vigorous explorations of topics in legal ethics."
Previous recipients of the award include Georgetown Law Professors Tanina Rostain and David Luban, as well as Judge Judith S. Kaye, the longest-serving chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals in the state's history.
The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, which was founded by the late Georgetown Law Professor Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., aspires to serve as the main forum for the discussion and development of the most compelling and pertinent issues currently affecting both the bench and the bar.
Congratulations and thanks to the superb journal staff for this recognition.
Somewhere Father Drinan is smiling! (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The South Carolina Supreme Court has held that modifying a loan without the participation of an attorney does not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.
The case involved petitioners who had obtained loan modifications and failed to make timely payments under the new terms.
They tried to prevent foreclosure by contending that the lenders had engaged in unauthorized practice by modifying the loans without using an attorney.
The court disagreed. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
A non-attorney may file a claim on behalf of a business entity in probate court without running afoul of unauthorized practice restrictions, according to an opinion issued today by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The process for an allowance of claim merely requires the filing of a single page standard form that can be found on a court web page. The form requires an attestation that the claim is valid, timely and unpaid.
None of these activities require the professional judgment of an attorney or entail specialized legal knowledge and ability.
Bravo. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held that the requirement of an affidavit of merit in a professional negligence action is an unconstitutional infringement on access to the courts:
The Oklahoma Constitution does not anticipate that litigants will be burdened with the entire bill for maintenance of the court system. The Oklahoma courts were never intended to be self-funded, and the increasing degree to which they have become so is disturbing. Despite our holding in Fent v. State ex. rel. Dep't of Human Services, 2010 OK 2, 236 P.3d 61, the judicial department of government is burdened with collecting fees for thirty seven entities--only seven of which have a relationship to the third branch of government. The Okla. Const. art. 2, §6, guarantees the right of individuals to access the courts, and while litigation does not have to be free and entirely at the public expense, at the very least the provision means that justice cannot be for sale. The idea that money cannot be used as a bar to deny justice long predates the Oklahoma Constitution, and is one of the fundamental values of our legal system.
The Magna Carta, one of the oldest progenitors of American legal principles, states: "We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man, either justice or right." When the cost of obtaining an affidavit of merit in professional negligence actions is added to the already high and increasingly rising cost of using the court system to resolve disputes, the result is that a line is crossed, and litigation costs go from being merely a hurdle to being an unconstitutional burden on accessing the courts.
The title expresses my views. (Mike Frisch)
Monday, May 13, 2013
A recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision is summarized on the court's web page:
Accordingly, the Court vacated the order of the Superior Court denying Sherwin-Williams’ motion for a protective order and remanded the case to the Superior Court.