Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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An attorney represented a Native corporation in litigation nearly three decades ago. The corporation disputed the attorney’s claim for fees, and in 1995, after the attorney’s death, the superior court entered judgment on an arbitration award of nearly $800,000 to the attorney’s law firm, then represented by the attorney’s son. The corporation paid eight installments on the judgment, but eventually stopped paying, citing financial difficulties. The law firm sought a writ of execution for the unpaid balance, and the writ was granted. The corporation appealed but under threat of the writ paid $643,760 while the appeal was pending. In a 2013 opinion the Alaska Supreme Court held the writ invalid and required the firm to repay the $643,760. The corporation was never repaid. The original law firm moved its assets to a new firm and sought a stay of execution, averring that the original firm now lacked the funds necessary for repayment. The corporation sued the original firm, the successor firm, and the son for breach of contract, fraudulent conveyance, conspiracy to fraudulently convey assets, violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA), unjust enrichment, and punitive damages. The firm counterclaimed, seeking recovery in quantum meruit for attorney’s fees it claimed were still owing for its original representation. The superior court granted summary judgment for the corporation on the law firm’s quantum meruit claim and, following trial, found that the son and both law firms fraudulently conveyed assets and were liable for treble damages under the UTPA. The son and the law firms appealed, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) holding that the quantum meruit claim was barred by res judicata; (2) holding the defendants liable for fraudulent conveyance; (3) awarding damages under the UTPA; and (4) making mistakes in the form of judgment and award of costs. The Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error with one exception. The Court remanded for reconsideration of whether all three defendants are liable for prejudgment interest from the same date. View "Merdes & Merdes, P.C. v. Leisnoi, Inc." on Justia Law

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Following a disciplinary sanction, a judge was not recommended for retention by the Alaska Judicial Council. Although the judge chose not to campaign, an independent group supported his retention and campaigned on his behalf. After the election the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a disciplinary complaint against the judge and later imposed an informal private admonishment on the judge because he did not publicly address allegedly misleading statements made by the independent group. Because the statements clearly originated with the independent group rather than the judge, and the judge had no knowledge of one statement, the judge had no duty to publicly address any of the statements. Accordingly, we reverse the Commission’s admonishment and dismissed the Commission’s complaint against the judge. View "In Re District Court Judge" on Justia Law

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A client personally financed the sale of his business corporation. His attorney drafted documents that secured the buyer’s debt with corporate stock and an interest in the buyer’s home. Over seven years later the government imposed tax liens on the corporation’s assets; according to the client, it was only then he learned for the first time that his attorney had not provided for a recorded security interest in the physical assets. The client sued the attorney for malpractice and violation of the Alaska Unfair Trade Practice and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The superior court held that the statute of limitations barred the client’s claims and granted summary judgment to the attorney. But after review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that it was not until the tax liens were filed that the client suffered the actual damage necessary for his cause of action to be complete. Therefore, the Court reversed the superior court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Jones v. Westbrook" on Justia Law

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In 2010 the Alaska Judicial Council recommended that the electorate not retain a sitting district court judge. Susan Kruse and a handful of other voters1 challenged the constitutionality of AS 22.15.195, which granted the Council power to make such recommendations. The superior court concluded that the statute was constitutional but enjoined the Council from releasing new information about the judge in the 60 days prior to an election. On appeal, the Supreme Court also found that AS 22.15.195 was constitutional and does not limit the Council's dissemination of new information. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's ruling in part but reversed and vacated the superior court's injunction prohibiting the Council's public dissemination of new information in the 60 days preceding an election. View "Alaska Judicial Council v. Kruse" on Justia Law

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A client sued his lawyer for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, misrepresentation, and professional negligence in a fee agreement dispute. After a jury found in favor of the lawyer and judgment was entered, the client appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by issuing certain jury instructions regarding contract interpretation and by denying the client's motion for a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that any error in the superior court's jury instructions was not prejudicial, and affirmed the superior court's decision to deny the client's post-trial motions because there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find for the lawyer on each of the claims. View "Zamarello v. Reges" on Justia Law

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Shareholders of a closely held corporation brought a derivative suit against a shareholder-director and the corporation's former attorneys for fiduciary fraud, fraudulent conveyance, legal malpractice, and civil conspiracy. After an evidentiary hearing, the superior court ruled all the claims were time-barred. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's dismissal of most claims, but reversed its dismissal of two and remanded those claims for further proceedings. View "Gefre v. Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP" on Justia Law

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In early April 2012 the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) referred to the Supreme Court its unanimous recommendation for removal of Judge Dennis Cummings, a district court judge in Bethel. However in December 2011, Judge Cummings had announced his retirement and he retired shortly after the Court received the Commission's recommendation. Despite Judge Cummings's retirement, the Court considered this matter a live controversy - a judge's retirement did not extinguish the Commission's and the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to complete disciplinary proceedings, and "there [were] important policy reasons to do so." After independently reviewing the record and the Commission's recommendation to remove Judge Cummings, the Court accepted the Commission's recommendation for removal. View "In Re Cummings" on Justia Law

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A bar served a man alcohol while he was visibly intoxicated, and the man murdered a woman later that evening. The lawyer representing the bar in the subsequent dram shop action did not attempt to add the murderer as a party for apportionment of fault. Following entry of a large judgment against the bar, the bar brought a legal malpractice suit against its attorney. The attorney moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, arguing that where case law is unsettled, as a matter of law an attorney cannot be held liable for an error in judgment. The superior court granted the motion and the bar appealed. "Because the existence of unsettled law does not excuse an attorney from fulfilling a duty of care," the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "L.D.G., Inc. v. Robinson" on Justia Law