Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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Attorney Beverly Gassner filed suit against her former client Loretta Stasa for unpaid fees. Gassner was represented by the Grossman firm. In 2016, Gassner voluntarily dismissed the action without prejudice. The trial court awarded costs - not only against the plaintiff, but also against the Grossman firm. The plaintiff moved to vacate the costs order, but the trial court denied that motion. The Grossman firm appealed. With regard to the order awarding costs, the Court of Appeal determined there was a split of authority as to whether such an order was appealable when it was made after a voluntary dismissal without prejudice. The Court followed the case law holding that it was appealable. The Grossman firm, however, failed to file a timely appeal of that order. With regard to the order denying the motion to vacate, ordinarily such an order was not appealable on grounds that could have been raised in an appeal from the underlying order. This bar does not apply, however, when the underlying order is void. "Moreover, the appeal is timely with respect to this order." On the merits, the Court held that the order awarding costs against the Grossman firm was indeed void, because the Grossman firm was not a party. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court's order. View "Gassner v. Stasa" on Justia Law

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Pursuant to a former version of Code of Civil Procedure section 128.5, the trial court ordered CPF Vaseo Associates, LLC (CPF) and its counsel, John Byrne, to pay Bruce and Barbara Gray (the Grays) just over $30,000 in fees and costs. Yet a mandatory procedural prerequisite to that award was never fulfilled. The motion requesting sanctions was served and filed on the same day, and no safe harbor period was afforded for CPF and Byrne to correct the challenged conduct. While a panel of the Court of Appeal previously determined that no such safe harbor applied to a sanctions motion like the one here, the Legislature's subsequent clarifying amendment of the section and the contrary opinion of another court convinced the Court to now reach a different conclusion. For that reason, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "CPF Vaseo Associates, LLC v. Gray" on Justia Law

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In 2014, the court of appeal decided a case that involved the legitimacy of certain retirement benefits regularly paid by the Oakland Police and Fire Retirement Board to members and beneficiaries of the Oakland Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS). The Retired Oakland Police Officers Association and individual PFRS pensioners then sought attorney fees under California’s private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 and the federal Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fees Award Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. 1988. The trial court determined that fees were not warranted under either statute. The court of appeal found an award of attorney fees under section 1021.5 to be proper. The Association was a prevailing party and several facts, including the relative poverty of the Association and its members, are all valid considerations in a section 1021.5 fee analysis and tip the scales decisively in favor of a fee award, especially when considered alongside the more modest estimated monetary value of the case discussed above. in successfully litigating to protect both procedural and substantive public pension rights on these facts, the Association was vindicating important rights affecting the public interest. The Association’s actions protected the pensions of the 590 living pensioners and their families, a clear economic benefit. View "City of Oakland v. Oakland Police and Fire Retirement System" on Justia Law

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JRI contracted with the City of Los Angeles Department of Airports (LAWA), to provide LAWA specialized airport firefighting trucks. Each sued the other for breach of the contract. LAWA further alleged JRI violated the California False Claims Act (CFCA), Government Code section 12650, asserting that when JRI submitted it[s] invoices for progress payments and final payments, JRI knew that it was not in compliance with the contract and sought to defraud the government entity LAWA into making payments and that JRI fraudulently induced LAWA to enter into the contract. LAWA was awarded $1 in contract damages. LAWA’s CFCA claim was rejected by the jury, as were JRI’s claims against LAWA. The court awarded LAWA costs as a prevailing party on the contract claims but awarded JRI attorney fees on the CFCA claim, finding the claim frivolous and harassing. The court of appeal affirmed JRI “prevail[ed] in the action” under the relevant CFCA fee provision (section 12652(g)(9)(B);) regardless of its failure to prevail in the action as a whole. View "John Russo Industrial Sheetmetal, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles Department of Airports" on Justia Law

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Halbig, a “school safety and security expert and consultant” living in Florida, began an independent investigation of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and established an organization, “Sandy Hook Justice.” Halbig believed that GoFundMe canceled his Sandy Hook Justice campaign because of a letter from the “Sandy Hook Defense Group” and discovered “defamatory posts” about himself on several websites and social media sites. Halbig sued five “John Doe” defendants in Florida for defamation for those postings. To determine the identities of the posters, Halbig served a subpoena on Google requiring the production of documents and information revealing the identity of the person maintaining http://sandyhookanalysis.blogspot.com. Google notified the account holder of the subpoena. That person, “Roe,” sought to quash the subpoena under Code of Civil Procedure section 1987.11 and requested fees and costs under section 1987.2(c). Before the hearing, Halbig withdrew the subpoena. At the subsequent hearing, the trial court found that Roe was the “prevailing party” under section 1987.2(c) and awarded attorney’s fees and costs to Roe. The court of appeal agreed that Roe was the prevailing party under section 1987.2(c), but concluded that the trial court erred in setting the amount of attorney’s fees. View "Roe v. Halbig" on Justia Law

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Genisman and Cline co-owned ECI and Coast. Genisman wanted Cline to buy out his interests and sought to be released from personal guarantees to lenders, including Blumenfeld. Genisman retained the Hopkins law firm. Initial drafts of the transaction documents structured it as a buyout. At some point, Hopkins revised the documents to implement a redemption of Genisman’s interest by the companies. Genisman, signed the documents unaware of the change. In July 2012, Blumenfeld sued Genisman for intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, and constructive fraud, alleging that Blumenfeld had loaned $3.5 million to Coast, secured by its assets and the personal guarantees; that he released Genisman from his personal guarantees; that $750,000 remained unpaid when, in 2009, Coast became insolvent; that, in 2012, Blumenfeld learned that the documents called for Coast to pay Genisman $1,115,000; and that he would not have agreed to release Genisman from his personal guarantees had Genisman properly advised him of the terms. Genisman’s new law firm billed Genisman $2,475.40 to defend. Genisman sued Hopkins in December 2013. The court affirmed rejection of the suit as untimely under Code of Civil Procedure 340.6(a), which requires legal malpractice claims be brought one year after actual or constructive discovery. View "Genisman v. Hopkins Carley" on Justia Law

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In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal noted that effective January 1, 2019, Code of Civil Procedure section 998 will have no application to costs and attorney and expert witness fees in a Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) action unless the lawsuit is found to be "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so." In regard to the litigation that predated the application of the amended version of Government Code section 12965(b), the court held that section 998 does not apply to nonfrivolous FEHA actions and reversed the order awarding defendant costs and expert witness fees pursuant to that statute. View "Huerta v. Kava Holdings, Inc." on Justia Law

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Ramos, an experienced litigator and patent practitioner with a doctorate in biophysics, was hired as a Winston law firm “Income Partner.” After allegedly being denied recognition for her work, excluded from opportunities for career advancement, evaluated based on the success of her male colleagues, and denied compensation and bonuses to which she was entitled, Ramos sued, asserting discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and anti-fair-pay practices. Winston moved to compel arbitration under the partnership agreement Ramos signed after joining the firm. Ramos argued she was an “employee,” not a partner, so that precedent (Armendariz) applied and that the arbitration provision failed to meet Armendariz's minimum requirements arbitration of unwaivable statutory claims. The trial court found that Ramos was “in a partnership relationship” for purposes of the motion, severed provisions related to venue and cost-sharing, and granted Winston’s motion. The court of appeal reversed. Under the Armendariz analysis, the agreement is unconscionable and the taint of illegality cannot be removed by severing the unlawful provisions without altering the nature of the parties’ agreement. Provisions requiring Ramos to pay half the costs of arbitration, pay her own attorney fees, restricting the ability of the arbitrators to “override” or “substitute its judgment” for that of the partnership, and the confidentiality clause, are unconscionable and significantly inhibit Ramos’s ability to pursue her unwaivable statutory claims. View "Ramos v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Both parties appealed the trial court's order denying prevailing party attorney fees in an action where GNC admitted liability for the unauthorized use of plaintiff's likeness. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court abused its discretion in its determination that plaintiff was not the prevailing party. In this case, plaintiff achieved an undeniable victory on his Civil Code section 3344 claim: a $213,000 verdict for actual damages versus the $4,800 verdict proposed by GNC; and $910,000 in emotional distress damages versus GNC's recommendation of zero damages. In contrast, GNC prevailed by defeating plaintiff's demand for unauthorized profits. Therefore, the court reversed the order denying plaintiff's motion for attorney fees. View "Olive v. General Nutrition Centers, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics

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Plaintiff Pamela Palmieri, an attorney hired by real party in interest California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Department) in part to conduct disciplinary cases against prison guards, was herself terminated for misconduct. After a 21-day hearing, she was found culpable of four counts of misconduct, one of which was her discourtesy and dishonesty to an administrative law judge (ALJ) after she was taken to task for her tardiness. She appealed her dismissal to the State Personnel Board (Board) which ultimately upheld her termination. The trial court denied her mandamus petition to overturn her dismissal, and she timely appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "Palmieri v. Cal. State Personnel Bd." on Justia Law