Articles Posted in Actual Innocence

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A former divorce client who was held in criminal contempt in the divorce case sued his former lawyers for legal malpractice. His claim was dismissed and the Court of Appeals of California, Second District, affirmed the conviction.  The case is Parchin v. Feinberg Mindel Brandt and Klein B295202, dated February 5, 2020. The explanation:

Pavel Parchin appeals from a judgment following an order by the trial court sustaining the demurrer of respondents Feinberg Mindel Brandt & Klein and John Chason (Respondents) without leave to amend. Parchin alleged that Respondents were negligent in representing him in connection with a criminal contempt proceeding in his marital dissolution action. Parchin was convicted of contempt for violating a judgment ordering the payment of spousal support. The trial court sustained the demurrer on the ground that Parchin failed to plead actual innocence and could not allege causation.

We affirm. Parchin was convicted of criminal contempt. An action for legal malpractice in a criminal proceeding requires a plaintiff to plead and prove actual innocence. Parchin’s claimed basis for his innocence—that the judgment underlying his contempt conviction was voided by a subsequent court order—is legally untenable, as confirmed by a prior appellate ruling in the dissolution action.

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The case is captioned Patterson v. Kohn, 2017 AP 1524, decided by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Patterson sued his former criminal defense lawyer for failing to properly investigate his defense (self-defense to a reckless homicide charge), and interview witnesses. Patterson was unable to obtain an expert witness to support his claims and his case was dismissed. The dismissal was affirmed on appeal. The Court of Appeals rejected Patterson’s argument that the breach did not require an expert witness.

¶10 Patterson relies on the exceptions to the rule requiring expert testimony by arguing that his “legal malpractice claim can be decided as a matter of law based on undisputed and conceded facts, expert testimony is unnecessary in this case” (emphasis omitted). Patterson’s argument centers entirely on what he considers to be Kohn’s negligence. Specifically, Patterson argues that Kohn negligently failed to follow “instructions” by failing to investigate certain facts, circumstances, and witnesses to support Patterson’s self-defense theory, and that the negligence led to his conviction. We do not agree with Patterson that this cause of action involves only a failure to follow instructions. Patterson’s legal malpractice cause of action implicates the applicable standard of care attorneys owe their clients, statutes and case law regarding criminal procedure, and the judgment criminal attorneys exercise on a case-by-case basis. See Pierce v. Colwell, 209 Wis. 2d 355, 362, 563 N.W.2d 166 (Ct. App. 1997) (“[E]xpert testimony will generally be required to satisfy this standard of care as to those matters which fall outside the area of common knowledge and lay comprehension.”). We conclude that under the facts of this case, Patterson was required to present expert testimony to prove his claim that Kohn’s alleged negligence caused his injury or damage. A lay person would not understand the evidence necessary for a successful (from Patterson’s standpoint) McMorris hearing, the discovery and investigation process in a criminal matter, or the level of discretion afforded to criminal defense attorneys.

¶11 Moreover, Patterson ignores a key requirement in legal malpractice actions stemming from an attorney’s representation in a criminal matter— Patterson’s claim requires proof of actual innocence. See Hicks v. Nunnery, 2002 WI App 87, ¶¶32-50, 253 Wis. 2d 721, 643 N.W.2d 809 (legal malpractice claim in criminal context requires proof of actual innocence). Put another way, Patterson has not made any showing that Kohn’s actions or inactions caused him harm. Patterson’s contention is that, if certain persons had testified to certain facts in his criminal case, he would not have been convicted. Patterson names those persons in his complaint. However, Patterson proffers no admissible evidence in the record to support his contention that those persons would have, if called, testified as Patterson contends.

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One issue that arises frequently is whether or not a criminal defendant must obtain a finding of actual innocence before he can sue trial counsel for legal malpractice. The Kentucky Supreme Court adopted the Exoneration Rule on December 13, 2018, in the case of Lawrence v. Bingham.  The Rule has been criticized by some scholars and lawyers on the ground that it is unfair to criminal defendants and that it allows bad lawyers to escape liability.

The link to the case is below:

https://law.justia.com/cases/kentucky/supreme-court/2018/2017-sc-000531-dg.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2018-12-14-professional-malpractice-ethics-c3b6da0bc8&utm_content=text-case-read-more-3

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This is an issue that has become controversial. In most states, a criminal defendant who was convicted cannot sue for legal malpractice unless he establishes “actual innocence” or in New York, a colorable claim of innocence. Roy v. The Law Offices of B. Alan Seidler, P.C., (17 Civ. 5644 S.D. N.Y.)   is one such case.  Roy was convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced to 87 months in prison. His conviction was affirmed on appeal.  His legal malpractice complaint, which alleged several alleged failings by his trial counsel, was dismissed.

The court explained the rule in this way:

Plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim must be dismissed. As the Second Circuit has repeatedly held, “under New York law, a plaintiff cannot state a malpractice claim against his criminal defense attorney if his conviction `remains undisturbed.'” Hoffenberg v. Meyers, 73 F. App’x 515, 516 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Britt v. Legal Aid Soc., Inc., 95 N.Y.2d 443, 446, 718 N.Y.S.2d 264 (2000)); see also Abuhouran v. Lans, 269 F. App’x 134, 135 (2d Cir. 2008) (“Thus, to succeed, [plaintiff] would have had to show innocence or a colorable claim of innocence.”).

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Another State Supreme Court, here Idaho, has abandoned the actual innocence rule. That rule holds that a criminal defendant cannot sue his lawyer for legal malpractice unless he establishes actual innocence.

The court explained:

This Court has addressed a legal malpractice claim arising from a criminal case only once, in Lamb v. Manweiler, 129 Idaho 269, 923 P.2d 976 (1996). Lamb did not address the statute of limitations issue; however, Lamb did address—in dicta—the actual innocence element. Id. at 272, 923 P.2d at 979. Before the appeal reached this Court, the Idaho Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment. In doing so, the Idaho Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression in Idaho: where a legal malpractice suit stems from the representation of a client in a criminal prosecution, must a plaintiff prove actual innocence? The Idaho Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff must prove that he or she was in fact innocent of a crime. Manweiler petitioned this Court for review, and this Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. This Court did not expressly require actual innocence as an element of the claim; rather, it stated that “Lamb does not dispute the proposition that in a legal malpractice action arising from representation of a defendant in a criminal proceeding, the person pursuing the claim must establish the additional element of actual innocence of the underlying criminal charges.” Id.

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I have written several times over the past year about the actual innocence rule, which requires a criminal defendant to prove actual innocence before he can sue his criminal defense lawyer for legal malpractice. Several courts have abandoned the rule in recent years. Washington, however, has decided in the case listed below to uphold the Rule. I don’t agree with the reasoning of the decision. There is no just reason to give the criminal defense lawyers immunity from malpractice lawsuits if they make an error that rises to the level of malpractice.

Professor Bernabe of John Marshall has written an excellent article on this case. You can find the article at this link. http://bernabepr.blogspot.com/2016/07/washington-state-supreme-court-holds.html

Source: PIRIS v. Kitching, 345 P. 3d 13 – Wash: Court of Appeals, 1st Div. 2015 – Google Scholar

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This is an important issue for legal malpractice attorneys. Is a former criminal defendant required to show actual innocence before he can sue for legal malpractice? Most courts have answered this question with “Yes,” but some states are beginning to deviate from the doctrine. The Iowa Supreme Court held that actual innocence is not required to bring a malpractice suit and but that guilt/innocence determinations are relevant to proof of proximate causation.  In other words, you can’t show the lawyer’s actions were the proximate cause of the conviction if you were really guilty.

Regarding actions for malpractice by a criminal defendant, the Restatement concludes that “it is not necessary to prove that the convicted defendant was in fact innocent,” although it notes that “most jurisdictions addressing the issue have stricter rules.” Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 53 cmt. d, at 392 (Am. Law Inst. 2000) [hereinafter Restatement]. The Restatement adds,

As required by most jurisdictions addressing the issue, a convicted defendant 166*166 seeking damages for malpractice causing a conviction must have had that conviction set aside when process for that relief on the grounds asserted in the malpractice action is available.