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The Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court has censured a prosecutor who obtained the conviction of three defendants in a murder case. While appeals were pending, the prosecutor wrote a book about the prosecution. Two of the Defendants filed motions for a new trial, alleging that the book demonstrated that there was exculpatory evidence that was not turned over to them before trial. The Board concluded that the lawyer violated Rule 1.8 (conflict of interest) by obtaining a personal benefit from writing the book and Rule 8.4(d) prejudice to the administration of justice.

The lawyer may have avoided some of the ethical problems had he waited ten years after the last appeal was decided.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

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The polarization of politics in our country has caused an attorney to try to compel the Maryland Grievance Commission to investigate attorneys who represented Hillary Clinton. An attorney, Ty Clevenger, believed that three Maryland attorneys who represented Hillary Clinton had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. He wrote to the Grievance Commission but the Commission closed the investigation because Mr. Clevenger had no personal knowledge of the alleged unethical conduct. Undeterred by that decision, Clevenger then filed a Mandamus Action in the trial court to require the Grievance Commission to investigate the attorneys.  The trial court ordered the Grievance Commission to investigate the complaint. As the court explains:

This case began when the Appellee, Ty Clevenger, submitted to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland a complaint alleging professional misconduct by three Maryland-barred attorneys while they were representing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Office of Bar Counsel thereafter informed Mr. Clevenger that it would not undertake an investigation of the allegations in his complaint because he had no personal knowledge of the allegations presented and was not an aggrieved party or client…….

On December 20, 2016, Mr. Clevenger, proceeding without the assistance of a Maryland-barred attorney, filed in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County a Petition for Writ of Mandamus (“Petition”). He sought to have the circuit court compel Bar Counsel to conduct an investigation, arguing that then-effective Maryland Rule 19-711 required Bar Counsel to investigate every complaint that was not facially frivolous or unfounded. The Commission moved to dismiss the Petition for lack of jurisdiction, among other grounds. It asserted that the Court of Appeals retains original and complete jurisdiction over all attorney disciplinary matters.

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In a malpractice case, the plaintiff must show that the lawyer breached the standard of care and that the lawyer’s error cost the client money. In most cases, the only way to prove this is to examine the underlying case. The underlying case is the prior case that was handled by the lawyer who allegedly breached the standard of care.

Because underlying cases can come in a variety of disciplines, we have to learn how to analyze (and sometimes prove-up) the allegations of the underlying case.

An example would be a personal injury case that was dismissed because the lawyer missed the statute of limitations. To prove that the error caused the client to lose the case, we must show that the underlying personal injury case had merit and prove the allegations contained in that case. If the underlying case was not well-founded, the lawyer’s error did not cause the loss. The client would have lost the case anyway.

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The case is Holtzman v. Griffith, 2018 NY Slip Op 04540, decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department.

Holtzman sued for fees and his former client, Griffith, counterclaimed for legal malpractice. The trial court on the basis of an account stated ordered Griffith to pay the legal fees that were due. The trial court dismissed Griffith’s malpractice claim because he had voluntarily settled the underlying divorce case and had agreed that the settlement was fair and equitable.  The explanation:

The plaintiff’s submissions demonstrated that in representing the defendant, who was also the defendant in the divorce action, she exercised the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession, and that the stipulation of settlement executed by the defendant in the divorce action was not the product of any mistakes by the plaintiff (see Schiff v Sallah Law Firm, P.C.,128 AD3d 668, 669). The stipulation of settlement recited, among other things, that the defendant reviewed and understood its terms, had an opportunity to consult with counsel and have the legal and practical effect of the stipulation fully explained to him, executed the stipulation voluntarily, without coercion or pressure of any kind, and believed the stipulation to be fair and reasonable (see Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield, LLP v Wilson, 136 AD3d 1326, 1328Schiff v Sallah Law Firm, P.C., 128 AD3d at 669). In opposition, the defendant failed to raise a triable issue of fact.

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John Crane, Inc. (JCI) was a manufacturer of asbestos. It sued plaintiff lawyers who had filed asbestos-related cases against it. JCI was a citizen of Illinois. One of the defendant law firms was located in Texas; the other in Pennsylvania. JCI argued that the law firms established sufficient contacts with Illinois when they instituted fraudulent litigation against JCI, an Illinois company. The law firms responded that the lawsuits were filed in Pennsylvania and Texas, not in Illinois. Therefore, there were insufficient contacts with Illinois. Although the lawyers directed document requests, interrogatories against JCI and sent those requests to Illinois, that was not sufficient to allow Illinois to assert jurisdiction over the lawyers. Thus, there was no personal jurisdiction over the defendants and the case was dismissed. The Seventh Circuit agreed with this holding and affirmed the dismissal.

The legal standard used in personal jurisdiction cases is legal boilerplate that adds little to the discussion of whether or not there is jurisdiction.

“Federal courts ordinarily follow state law in determining the bounds of their jurisdiction over persons.”Walden v. Fiore, 134  S.  Ct.  1115,  1121  (2014)  (quoting  Daimler  AG  v.  Bauman, 134  S.  Ct.  746,  753  (2014)). The  Illinois  long-arm  statute  requires  nothing  more  than  the  standard  for  federal  due  process: that the defendant have sufficient contacts with the forum state “such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend  traditional  notions  of  fair  play  and  substantial  justice.” Brook v. McCormley, 873 F.3d 549, 552 (7th Cir. 2017).  This vague formulation means that the party being sued has to have taken some action in the state where the lawsuit is brought. Here, suing an Illinois corporation in Texas or Pennsylvania was not sufficient to give Illinois jurisdiction.

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This is an opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court, holding that a legal malpractice case was time-barred. The case is Skadburg v. Gately, 17-0151. Skadburg was the administrator of an estate and alleged that she hired the defendant to give her legal advice. Skadburg claimed that she used funds from a life insurance policy to pay debts of the estate. Skadburg alleged that the lawyer failed to inform her that the life insurance proceeds were exempt from any claims and would pass directly to the beneficiary. Thus, in Skadburg’s view, the lawyer’s failure to advise her that the life insurance was exempt cost her the life insurance proceeds.

The case had one huge problem – the estate was closed on August 18, 2010. The malpractice case was filed more than five years later on August 19, 2015. The trial court held the case was time-barred but the appellate court reversed. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed that decision.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that Skadburg had notice of her cause of action in 2008 when she paid the creditors and that the case was filed after the five-year statute of limitations expired.  The continuous representation exception to the statute of limitations did not apply because the plaintiff had actual or constructive notice of her claim before the attorney-client relationship ended. Further, there was no exception for fraudulent concealment of the cause of action.

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The case is Tebbens v. Levin & Conde, 2018 IL App (1st) 170777. Tebbens believed that his former divorce counsel made an error in drafting the marital settlement agreement and drafted an agreement that was not consistent with what the parties had verbally agreed to.  This is a tough case to win as Tebbens signed the agreement. The defense would ask why he did not read what he had signed. However, Tebbens made a further and fatal error to his malpractice claim.

The Divorce statute allows a lawyer to file a fee petition before the judge who heard the divorce. Here Levin & Conde filed such a fee petition. Tebbens made the mistake of alleging malpractice in his response to the fee petition. The court ruled against him and awarded fees. Then Tebben sued for malpractice. The problem is that the doctrine of res judicata barred his claim because the malpractice issue has already been heard and decided in the fee petition case.

This is a litigation blunder that I have personally witnessed on several occasions. As the Eminem song says “you get one shot, one opportunity” to allege legal malpractice. “Don’t let it slip.” You won’t get a second chance.

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Judicial estoppel is a doctrine that penalizes a litigant who takes one position in one lawsuit and a contrary position in another lawsuit. In other words, the litigant’s position shifts based on the litigant’s interests in a particular case. Kershaw v. Levy, Tennessee Court of Appeals, No. M2017-01129-COA-R3-CV., is a divorce malpractice case where the plaintiff’s claims against her former lawyer ran into the judicial estoppel doctrine. The lawyer entered the divorce case and Kershaw was promptly held in contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Later, the lawyer settled the divorce case and obtained an order vacating the contempt finding.  When Ms. Kershaw sued him for legal malpractice the lawyer filed a motion arguing that she was judicially estopped from bringing claims based on the divorce settlement.

The court summarizes the judicial estoppel argument in this fashion:

On March 1, 2017, Mr. Levy filed a motion for summary judgment contending that Ms. Kershaw should be judicially estopped from claiming in the malpractice case that her damages from Mr. Levy’s negligence resulted from an inequitable settlement agreement with Elliot Kershaw when she previously claimed under oath that the settlement had been equitable. Further, Mr. Levy argued that Ms. Kershaw should not be allowed to pursue any malpractice claim against him based on her criminal contempt convictions because they had been vacated and she voluntarily relinquished her right to pursue any post-conviction relief related to them in the MDA. Ms. Kershaw responded in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, asserting the damage resulting from Mr. Levy’s alleged negligence left her with no bargaining power in her settlement negotiations with Mr. Kershaw, and the fact that she entered into an agreement several months after Mr. Levy’s involvement that stated the settlement with Mr. Kershaw was fair and equitable was irrelevant.

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In a legal malpractice case, the plaintiff is required to prove a case-within-a-case or that had the lawyer met the standard of care the plaintiff would have won the case. The case here is Roumbos v. Vazanellis and Thiros & Stracci,  Case No. 45S03-1710-CT-635. decided by the Indiana Supreme court on April 12, 2018.

The client hired the lawyer to file a personal injury case, against a hospital. The plaintiff who was elderly had fallen when she went to visit her husband at the hospital. The lawyer allegedly failed to file with the limitations period. In the malpractice litigation against the lawyer, the lawyer defended the case on the ground that the plaintiff could not prove that her fall was proximately caused by the negligence of the hospital. The trial court granted summary judgment but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. It held that the plaintiff had introduced sufficient evidence that the hospital was negligent to proceed to trial.

The opinion is thoughtful and well-written and it does a great job of explaining how the proof of a case-within-a-case works.

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The case is Grayson v. Michael J. Korst, P.C., and Michael J. Korst, 16 c 1297 N. D. Ill.  Grayson and his business partner were represented by the Defendants in a transaction in which Grayson and his business partner sold the business (a Domino’s franchise) to a buyer. Grayson alleged that Korst had a conflict in that he represented the company and the two partners and that their interests conflicted. Grayson claimed that Korst failed to notify him that he was entitled to a share of the sale proceeds.

There was also evidence in the record that Grayson was going through a divorce and tried to claim that his interest in the company had a negligible value so that he would not have to make payments to his soon to be ex-wife.

Ultimately, because the case involved complicated conflict issues, Grayson had a duty to obtain an expert. Because he had no expert, he had no ability to explain how the lawyer’s performance failed to meet the standard of care. The lawyer had had both business partners, including Grayson, sign a waiver of any potential conflict, which further weakened the case.