Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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This case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review claims of breaches of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice against lawyers hired to defend insureds in a civil action where the insurance company provided the defense. The insureds claimed the lawyers failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest based on long-standing relationships the law firm had with the insurance company in not only accepting cases representing insureds in other civil cases, but also representing the insurance company itself in coverage disputes. The insureds also claimed the attorneys failed to advise them of settlement negotiations, and by taking settlement directions from the insurer. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the lawyers, finding the insureds failed to establish an actionable breach. The Court of Appeals affirmed. While the Supreme Court disagreed with portions of the appellate court's analysis, it affirmed the result. View "Arden v. Forsberg & Umlauf, PS" on Justia Law

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Former clients sued their attorneys for legal malpractice based, in part, on the attorneys' withdrawal from a prior ease. But the attorneys obtained that withdrawal by court order. In the original case, the former clients appealed the court's order approving withdrawal, and that appeal was rejected. The attorneys thus argued collateral estoppel applied to bar a malpractice action based on their withdrawal. The Washington Supreme Court agreed: withdrawal by court order in an earlier proceeding was dispositive in a later malpractice suit against the attorney. Although other malpractice complaints unrelated to the withdrawal would not be precluded, a client cannot relitigate whether the attorney's withdrawal was proper. “If we are to have rules permitting attorney withdrawal, we must allow attorneys to have confidence in those rules.” View "Schibel v. Eymann" on Justia Law

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Rachelle and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and had three sons. They raised their children in a conservative Christian church and sent them to private, Christian schools. In 2011, Rachelle told Charles that she was lesbian, and the parties divorces shortly thereafter. In the order of dissolution, the trial court designated Charles as the primary residential parent. The final parenting plan also awarded Charles sole decision-making authority regarding the children's education and religious upbringing. The record showed that the trial court considered Rachelle's sexual orientation as a factor when it fashioned the final parenting plan. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found improper bias influenced the proceedings. “This bias casts doubt on the trial court's entire ruling, and we are not confident the trial court ensured a fair proceeding by maintaining a neutral attitude regarding Rachelle's sexual orientation. Accordingly, we reverse.” View "In re Marriage of Black" on Justia Law

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Highland High School quarterback Matthew Newman suffered a permanent brain injury at a football game in 2009, one day after he allegedly sustained a head injury at football practice. Three years later, Newman and his parents (collectively Newman) sued Highland School District No. 203 (Highland) for negligence. Before trial, Highland's counsel interviewed several former coaches and appeared on their behalf at their depositions. Newman moved to disqualify Highland's counsel, asserting a conflict of interest. The superior court denied the motion but ruled that Highland's counsel "may not represent non-employee witness[es] in the future." Newman then sought discovery concerning communications between Highland and the former coaches during time periods when the former coaches were unrepresented by Highland's counsel. Highland moved for a protective order, arguing its attorney-client privilege shielded counsel's communications with the former coaches. The trial court denied the motion, and Highland appealed. At issue was whether postemployment communications between former employees and corporate counsel should have been treated the same as communications with current employees for purposes of applying the corporate attorney-client privilege. After review of the specific facts of this case, the Washington Supreme Court held that the privilege does not broadly shield counsel's postemployment communications with former employees. The superior court properly denied Highland's motion for a protective order. View "Newman v. Highland Sch. Dist. No. 203" on Justia Law

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The complaint in this case alleged negligence based on a failure to schedule a resentencing hearing for a criminal defendant after the Court of Appeals remanded for resentencing. Consequently, the defendant served more prison time than he otherwise would have had he been promptly resentenced. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether the "actual innocence" element of a criminal malpractice claim against the trial attorney, the appellate attorney and King County (through its agency, the Department of Public Defense), applied to the facts of this case to bar the complaint. The Supreme Court held that actual innocence was a necessary requirement to pursue the criminal malpractice claim and that no exception applied. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court's grant of summary judgment of dismissal in favor of all respondents. View "Piris v. Kitching" on Justia Law

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In December 1995, Teresa Schmidt slipped and fell while visiting a Tacoma grocery store. She retained Timothy Coogan to represent her in a claim against the store. Just days before the statute of limitations ran, Coogan filed a complaint naming the wrong defendant. He subsequently filed two amended complaints, but the trial court dismissed the case as barred by the statute of limitations. Schmidt filed a complaint against Coogan, asserting claims for negligence and breach of contract. The case went to trial in November 2003, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Schmidt and granted recovery for past economic and noneconomic damages. The trial court granted a new trial on the issue of damages only, finding that Coogan was denied a fair trial: Schmidt's counsel gave an improper closing argument, and the damages were so excessive as to unmistakably indicate that the verdict was the result of passion and prejudice. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's order granting a new trial. In 2010, Schmidt moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a claim for outrage/reckless infliction of emotional distress, alleging that Coogan harassed, intimidated, and belittled her when she raised the problem of the statute of limitations before it expired. In the 2003 trial, the jury was instructed to determine general damages arising out of Coogan's conduct and malpractice. In the second trial, however, Coogan challenged the availability of general damages in legal malpractice cases. Because her counsel could not find settled authority either affirming or denying the availability of emotional distress damages in Washington, Schmidt sought to add a claim that encompassed the damages. The trial court denied Schmidt's motion to amend. Schmidt also filed a motion for summary judgment on the availability of general damages and a motion in limine. The court denied both motions. After Schmidt rested her case in the damages-only trial, Coogan moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that collectibility was an essential element of legal malpractice and that Schmidt presented no evidence that a judgment against Grocery Outlet would have been collectible. The court denied the motion, and the jury again returned a verdict in favor of Schmidt. Coogan appealed the jury verdict, and Schmidt cross appealed on the ground that general damages are available in attorney malpractice claims and that the trial court erred in denying her motion to amend the complaint. The Court of Appeals concluded that collectibility was an essential component of damages that Schmidt failed to prove, and it reversed the trial court's denial of Coogan's motion. This case presented two issues of first impression for the Supreme Court: (1) whether the elements of legal malpractice include the collectibility of an underlying judgment; and (2) whether emotional distress damages are available in legal malpractice cases. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirm the trial court's judgment, holding that the uncollectibility of an underlying judgment is an affirmative defense to legal malpractice that defendant-attorneys must plead and prove. Furthermore, the Court held that the trial court properly denied emotional distress damages because Coogan's actions were not particularly egregious, nor was the subject matter personal. View "Schmidt v. Coogan" on Justia Law

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In this case and its companion, LK Operating, LLC v. Collection Grp., LLC,(No. 88132-4), the central issues on appeal arose from a joint venture agreement regarding a debt collection business. The debt collection business operated according to the terms of the joint venture agreement, as originally proposed, from approximately winter 2005 through summer 2007. In this opinion, the issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of equitable indemnification (known as the "ABC Rule") to hold that the legal malpractice plaintiffs here suffered no compensable damages as a matter of law and that summary judgment dismissal was appropriate. "Where the only damages claimed by a legal malpractice plaintiff are attorney fees incurred in a separate litigation and the only legal basis on which plaintiff asserts those fees are compensable is the ABC Rule, then the defendant is entitled to summary judgment dismissal if the ABC Rule does not apply to the undisputed facts as a matter of law." That was the situation presented in this case, and as such, affirmed the trial court. View "LK Operating, LLC v. Collection Grp., LLC" on Justia Law

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In this case and its companion, LK Operating, LLC v. Collection Grp., LLC, (No. 88846-9) (Wash. July 31, 2014), the central issues on appeal arose from a joint venture agreement regarding a debt collection business. The debt collection business operated according to the terms of the joint venture agreement, as originally proposed, from approximately winter 2005 through summer 2007. This opinion addressed whether the trial court proceedings complied with due process requirements; whether, as a matter of law, the joint venture proposal was entered by an attorney in violation of one or both of former RPCs 1.7 (1995) and 1.8(a) (2000); and, if so, whether the remedy imposed by the trial court and affirmed on appeal is appropriate. The Supreme Court found: (1) the trial court proceedings satisfied the requirements of procedural due process; (2) though on different reasoning from that used by the Court of Appeals, that the undisputed facts established as a matter of law that the joint venture proposal contemplated a business transaction subject to, agreed to, and entered into in violation of former RPC 1.8(a). The Court affirmed that the former RPC 1.8(a) violation rendered the terms of the business transaction unenforceable under the circumstances presented and the remedy imposed was appropriate. Furthermore, the Court affirmed that the business transaction was entered in violation of former RPC 1. 7. The Court declined to determine whether the former RPC 1.7 violation would have also justified the remedy imposed. View "LK Operating, LLC v. Collection Grp., LLC" on Justia Law

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Jennifer Holmes and James Lindsay entered the home of Laurence Wilkey, Holmes's former boyfriend. They tied him up, beat him, and took a number of items from his home. The State charged Holmes and Lindsay with first degree robbery, burglary, kidnapping, assault, and firearm theft. Holmes and Lindsay argued that they did not intend to commit a felony but were instead repossessing things that Wilkey had originally stolen from Holmes. A jury convicted them on most, but not all, counts. On appeal, Holmes and Lindsay argued that the prosecutor's remarks, particularly during closing arguments, constituted misconduct that prejudiced both defendants. The Court of Appeals agreed that the prosecutor committed misconduct but split as to whether that misconduct caused prejudice. "[G]iven the magnitude of the problem and the lawyers' inability to control their conduct," the Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals' dissent and reversed the trial court. View "Washington v. Lindsay" on Justia Law

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Stewart Title Guaranty Company hired the law firm Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, PS to defend its insured, Sterling Savings Bank, from a claim of lien priority on real property by a construction company. The claim was resolved in favor of the construction company, and Stewart Title sued the firm for malpractice. Witherspoon moved for summary judgment arguing it owed a duty to the client Sterling Bank and not Stewart Title, and that the alleged malfeasance (not arguing equitable subrogation) was not a viable argument in the lien priority suit. The trial court ruled against Witherspoon on the first, no-duty, ground but agreed with it on the second, no-breach, ground. The court therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Witherspoon. Stewart Title appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court in dismissing Stewart Title's malpractice case on the basis that Witherspoon owed Stewart Title no duty. The Court did not address the subrogation issue. View "Stewart Title Guar. Co. v. Sterling Sav. Bank" on Justia Law