Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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Based on the facts of this case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment, because the superior court gave no explanation for denying plaintiff’s contractual lien claim. Plaintiff Harvey Garod appealed a superior court order dismissing his conversion action against defendants R. James Steiner and Steiner Law Offices, PLLC. Plaintiff was retained by a client to pursue a personal injury action. In connection with the representation, the client signed plaintiff’s standard engagement contract. Plaintiff worked for the client for two years before being discharged without cause. The client subsequently hired defendants, who filed an action (underlying action) on behalf of the client. Defendants ultimately settled the underlying action on the client’s behalf. After the settlement of the underlying action, the client filed a motion to order that the settlement check be made “payable solely to [the client] and her counsel, R. James Steiner. On the same day, the plaintiff filed a series of motions in the underlying action, including a second motion to intervene wherein he asserted that he possessed a contractual lien, a motion for interpleader, and a motion to foreclose lien. The client objected to all these motions, and the court denied all of them without explanation. Plaintiff then filed suit against defendants, again alleging that he had an enforceable contractual lien for fees against the defendants. Defendants moved to dismiss the action, which was ultimately granted. In reversing the superior court’s order, the Supreme Court was persuaded by plaintiff’s argument that he may have had a valid lien, and the contract signed by the client was enforceable against defendants because defendants were aware of his lien at the time they were retained, and because the client should not be required to pay both lawyers’ fees. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Garod v. Steiner Law Office, PLLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Gregory and Sonia Riso appealed a superior court order dismissing their negligence claim against defendants Attorney Maureen C. Dwyer and Barradale, O’Connell, Newkirk & Dwyer, P.A., on grounds that defendants owed no duty of care to the plaintiffs to promptly execute Gregory’s mother’s will. Because the Supreme Court found this case indistinguishable from "Sisson v. Jankowski," (148 N.H. 503 (2002)), the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal. View "Riso v. Dwyer" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics

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Respondent Timothy O’Meara appealed a superior court order granting summary judgment against him and his law firm, O’Meara Newborn, PLLC, in an action brought by petitioners James and Anita Conant for the equitable recovery of fees paid to O’Meara. Anita Conant was injured in an automobile accident. James Conant retained O’Meara to represent the Conants in a personal injury suit arising out of the accident. He executed a contingent fee agreement providing, in part, “that O’Meara would be paid 33.33% of the gross amount recovered.” Despite knowing that he did not have authority to settle for policy limits, O’Meara informed opposing counsel that he believed the suit was “a policy limits case” and had been instructed “to proceed to trial” if the policy limits were not paid. After expressing concern over O’Meara’s unauthorized demand to settle, James Conant suggested that O’Meara reduce his fee. The parties discussed what O’Meara’s fee should be if the case settled for the policy limits: O’Meara offered to reduce his potential fee from $3.67 million to $3.17 million, which angered James Conant. O'Meara “told the Conants that if they terminated his services, he would sue them for his one-third contingency fee and ‘would win.’” Eventually the parties modified the original fee agreement, initialing handwritten changes indicating that O’Meara’s fee was “to be negotiated.” The dispute over fees continued, and on the day of a scheduled mediation in federal court in Pennsylvania, O’Meara informed the Conants at the courthouse “that he would not proceed with the mediation unless he received at least a $2 million fee.” James Conant felt he had no choice but to sign a memorandum agreeing to that fee. O’Meara negotiated an $11.5 million settlement subject to certain contingencies. After the mediation, the Conants dismissed O’Meara and the case settled for $11.5 million. The Conants and O’Meara agreed that the Conants would pay O’Meara an undisputed fee of $750,000, place $1,250,000 in escrow, and arbitrate the issue of how this amount should be divided.” An arbitration panel awarded O’Meara $837,000 of the escrow. Counsel for the Conants filed a grievance with the Attorney Discipline Office (ADO) alleging ethical violations by O’Meara. The ensuing disciplinary proceeding culminated with an order disbarring him. In appealing the superior court's order disgorging O'Meara of the $837,000 in fees he received at the end of arbitration, O’Meara argued that the trial court erred in: (1) permitting petitioners to relitigate matters determined in the prior arbitration; (2) failing to find the petitioners’ action barred by the statute of limitations; and (3) ordering fee forfeiture. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part: "we cannot say that the trial court’s order to disgorge the entire $837,000 award, as opposed to some lesser amount, constitutes an unsustainable exercise of discretion. [. . .] the fraud on the tribunal doctrine does not apply to the Conants’ claim for forfeiture of the $750,000 they paid O’Meara prior to arbitration. [. . .] the arbitrators 'were only tasked with considering whether O’Meara was entitled to a disputed portion of fees.' We fail to see how fraud on a tribunal can justify avoiding the time-bar of a claim not before that tribunal." The Court reversed the trial court’s award of the $750,000 paid prior to arbitration. The Court affirmed in all other respects. View "Conant v. O'Meara" on Justia Law

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Defendant Michael Addison moved to disqualify the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office from further participation in his case, and moved for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Defendant was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2008. In August 2009, Attorney Lisa Wolford, who had been employed by the New Hampshire Public Defender for approximately seven years, began working with the New Hampshire Appellate Defender. When Wolford began her rotation, the appellate defender office was preparing a brief regarding the standards applicable to our mandatory review of the defendant’s sentence. In early 2010, Wolford was reassigned from the defendant’s defense team. In March 2012, she submitted her resume to the attorney general’s office, requesting consideration for a position with the criminal justice bureau’s appeals division. Wolford was offered a position with the attorney general’s office; she began employment there in early July 2012. The defendant argued to the Supreme Court that it should "follow a line of cases that requires per se disqualification of an entire prosecutor’s office from a defendant’s case when (a) the defendant’s attorney switches sides and joins the prosecutor’s office in the middle of the case and (b) the defendant does not waive the conflict." The Supreme Court found Wolford had no involvement in the defendant’s case at the pre-trial or trial stages and participated in a limited aspect at one preliminary phase of the defendant’s multi-phased appeal approximately three years before joining the attorney general’s office. As such, the Court rejected defendant's per se argument, and further concluded defendant suffered no prejudice as a result in Wolford's change of employment. Accordingly, the Court denied defendant's motion to disqualify the Attorney General's office.View "New Hampshire v. Addison" on Justia Law

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In 2008, defendants K. William Clauson and the law firm of Clauson, Atwood & Spaneas, represented plaintiff James Yager in an action against D.H. Hardwick & Sons, Inc. (Hardwick), which alleged that Hardwick was the party who "trespassed on Plaintiff's land and cut timber belonging to Plaintiff." The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Hardwick because the action was filed more than three years after the timber cutting ceased and, therefore, was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court also concluded that plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that the discovery rule applied to toll the statute of limitations. The trial court denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Plaintiff subsequently filed a malpractice action against defendants, alleging that they "breached the duty of care owed to [plaintiff] by failing to file the D.H. Hardwick action within the timeframe allowed by the applicable statute of limitations, and by otherwise failing to represent [plaintiff's] interests with reasonable professional care, skill, and knowledge." Defendants moved to dismiss the case, alleging that plaintiff: (1) failed to provide requested discovery information; and (2) failed to disclose the experts required to prove his case. The trial court granted the defendants' motion. Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that expert testimony was not required to prove legal malpractice where defendants failed to file a claim within the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court denied the motion, and this appeal followed. In granting the defendants' motion to dismiss, the trial court did not examine the specific facts of the case to determine whether the nature of the case was such that expert testimony was required. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court's dismissal order and remand for further proceedings. View "Yager v. Clauson" on Justia Law

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Petitioner David Stacy appealed a decision of the New Hampshire Bar Association Public Protection Fund Committee (PPFC) denying his claim for reimbursement for the fees and costs that he and his conservatorship estate paid to attorney Donald Wyatt. The PPFC found that the petitioner failed to demonstrate that the funds at issue were lost as a result of Wyatt’s embezzlement, conversion, or theft. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the PPFC sustainably exercised its discretion when it denied petitioner's claims. View "Appeal of Stacy" on Justia Law

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Defendants Robert Christy, Christy & Tessier, P.A., Debra Johnson, and Kathy Tremblay, appealed a superior court decision that rescinded a professional liability policy issued by Plaintiff Great American Insurance Company (GAIC), to the law firm of Christy & Tessier, P.A. Robert Christy (Christy) and Thomas Tessier (Tessier) were partners in the firm, practicing together for over forty-five years. In 1987, Frederick Jakobiec, M.D. (Jakobiec) retained Tessier to draft a will for him. In 2001, Jakobiec's mother, Beatrice Jakobiec (Beatrice), died intestate. Her two heirs were Jakobiec and his brother, Thaddeus Jakobiec (Thaddeus). Jakobiec asked Tessier, who was Beatrice's nephew, to handle the probate administration for his mother's estate. From 2002 through 2005, Tessier created false affidavits and powers of attorney, which he used to gain unauthorized access to estate accounts and assets belonging to Jakobiec and Thaddeus. Litigation ensued; two months after Tessier and Jakobiec entered into the settlement agreement, Christy executed a renewal application for professional liability coverage on behalf of the law firm. Question 6(a) on the renewal application asked: "After inquiry, is any lawyer aware of any claim, incident, act, error or omission in the last year that could result in a professional liability claim against any attorney of the Firm or a predecessor firm?" Christy's answer on behalf of the firm was "No." The trial court found that Christy's negative answer to the question in the renewal application was false "since Tessier at least knew of Dr. Jakobiec's claim against him in 2006." On appeal, the defendants argued that rescission was improper because: (1) Christy's answer to question 6(a) on the renewal application was objectively true; (2) rescission of the policy or denial of coverage would be substantially unfair to Christy and the other innocent insureds who neither knew nor could have known of Tessier's fraud; and (3) the alleged misrepresentation was made on a renewal application as opposed to an initial policy application. GAIC argued that rescission as to all insureds is the sole appropriate remedy given the material misrepresentations in the law firm's renewal application. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred as a matter of law in ruling that Tessier's knowledge is imputed to Christy and the other defendants thereby voiding the policy ab initio. The Court made no ruling, however, as to whether any of the defendants' conduct would result in non-coverage under the policy and remanded for further proceedings. View "Great American Insurance Company v. Christy" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Lorraine Tessier appealed a superior court order that granted Defendants' Regina Rockefeller and Nixon Peabody, LLP's motion to dismiss. The plaintiff is the wife of Thomas Tessier, an attorney who practiced at the law firm of Christy & Tessier in Manchester. Dr. Frederick Jakobiec hired Attorney Tessier to handle certain estate matters on his behalf. Attorney Rockefeller, an attorney employed by Nixon Peabody, and acting on behalf of Dr. Jakobiec, accused Attorney Tessier of misusing and converting substantial assets of the Jakobiec family to his own use. Plaintiff alleged that Attorney Rockefeller met with Attorney Tessier on numerous occasions and threatened him demanding an immediate return of the misappropriated assets. Attorney Rockefeller stated to Attorney Tessier that if he repaid the money no further action would be taken against him. Plaintiff alleged that over the next two years, Defendants "stripped" her and her husband of their individual and joint interests in all of their tangible assets. And despite a settlement agreement, and without notice to her or her husband, Defendants reported Attorney Tessier’s actions the attorney discipline office, and others. In addition, Dr. Jakobiec hired an attorney to bring suit against Attorney Tessier and to foreclose on the mortgage that was the subject of the settlement agreement. Plaintiff alleges that she suffered severe emotional and physical distress requiring hospitalization. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed part of the trial court's decision, and affirmed part. The Court found there was sufficient facts pled to support multiple causes of action Plaintiff brought in her original lawsuit. The Court found that the trial court was correct in dismissing Plaintiff's allegations of abuse of process and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Tessier v. Rockefeller" on Justia Law