Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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Appellants N.C. and Alethea Young, Ph.D., appealed superior court orders denying Dr. Young’s motion to quash a subpoena for N.C.’s psychological records issued by appellee, the New Hampshire Board of Psychologists (Board), and dismissing N.C.’s petition for a declaratory judgment to prevent the Board from obtaining the records. N.C. has been a patient of Young for many years, attending at least two therapy sessions per week since the age of two. In August 2013, when N.C. was still a minor, she informed Young that her father, S.C., had physically and emotionally abused her. According to Young, throughout her treatment of N.C., she witnessed what she described as S.C.’s aggressive and humiliating treatment of his daughter, both in public as well as in therapy sessions. In September, S.C. filed a written complaint against Young with the Board. The complaint alleged that Young had breached her professional obligations by: (1) becoming personally over-involved with N.C., thus sacrificing her objectivity; (2) providing counseling to both S.C. and his daughter, thus creating an insurmountable conflict of interest; (3) violating RSA 169-C:29 (2014) by failing to timely report suspected abuse of a child to DCYF; (4) violating RSA 633:1, I-a (2007) and 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a) (2012) by detaining and concealing N.C., who was a minor at the time, from S.C. when she drove N.C. to Vermont without S.C.’s knowledge or consent; and (5) failing to respect S.C.’s wishes that she no longer treat his daughter. On appeal, appellants argued that the trial court erred in enforcing the subpoena because the Board failed to establish that it had just cause to issue the subpoena. Appellants also contended that, even if just cause existed to issue the subpoena, once they objected, the subpoena could not be enforced by the court because the Board failed to sustain what, in their view, was the additional burden necessary to pierce the patient’s privilege by showing that there was a reasonable probability the records were relevant and material and that the Board had an essential need for them. Furthermore, appellants argued that, even if the Board met the burden necessary to pierce the privilege, the court erred in not conducting an in camera review of the records before ordering compliance with the subpoena in order to limit the scope of disclosure. After review, the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with appellants that the statute required a court order to obtain a patient’s records when there was an objection to compliance with a subpoena based upon a claim of privilege. However, the Court concluded that the trial court did not err in finding that, under the circumstances of this case, the privilege must yield to the Board’s proper exercise of its regulatory responsibilities with regard to its licensee, Dr. Young. View "N.C. v. New Hampshire Board of Psychologists" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-client James Yager appealed a superior court order granting summary judgment to defendant-attorney K. William Clauson on the client’s legal malpractice claim and dismissing that claim as to defendant-law firm Clauson, Atwood & Spaneas. The client’s legal malpractice claim stems from the defendants’ representation of him in two timber trespass actions. In the first action, summary judgment was granted to Mighty Oaks, in part, because the client failed to prove that Mighty Oaks was the entity that cut the timber. In the second action, summary judgment was granted to D.H. Hardwick & Sons, Inc. because the action had been filed more than three years after the timber cutting had ceased and, thus, was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The client filed the instant malpractice action against the defendants alleging that the applicable standard of care was breached because the Hardwick action was not timely filed. In this case, the trial court concluded that a legal expert was necessary for the plaintiff to prove “what result should have occurred” had the Hardwick action been timely filed. The client argues that this was error because he could have used the “trial-within-a-trial” method to prove this. After review, the Supreme Court held that, to the extent that the trial court determined that the trial-within-a-trial method was unavailable to the client, as a matter of law, the trial court erred. The Court found no error with regard to dismissal of claims against the defendant law firm. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Yager v. Clauson" on Justia Law

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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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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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Respondent R. Eric Bloomfield, DVM, appealed a decision of the New Hampshire Board of Veterinary Medicine which reprimanded respondent based upon its findings that he failed to do a physical examination of a puppy prior to demonstrating a restraint technique, that his restraint of the puppy was excessive, and that he failed to respect the opinion of the puppy's owners. A couple took their five-month old puppy to respondent for a routine checkup. Respondent determined that the male puppy was "dominant" and proceeded to demonstrate a dominance-submission technique, which included picking the dog up by the scruff of the neck and pinching his snout. The dog responded by urinating on the examination table, then defecating, struggling briefly, then laid still. The dog was pronounced dead later that day. The couple filed a formal complaint against respondent regarding his treatment of their puppy. The Board found that respondent did not engage in misconduct, but that he failed to respect the couple's opinion to demonstrate the submission technique. On appeal, respondent argued that the evidence did not support the Board’s finding that he failed to do a physical examination of the puppy prior to demonstrating a restraint technique, and that his restraint of the puppy "was excessive, especially given the breed." He also argued that RSA 332-B:14, II(c) was "impermissibly vague," and, therefore, violates his procedural due process rights. Finally, he argued that the Board erred by not requiring expert testimony on the standard of care. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of R. Eric Bloomfield, DVM " on Justia Law

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Defendant, Suzynne D. Cumminngs and S.D. Cummings & Co., PC, appealed a Superior Court order awarding $44,403 to plaintiffs, Robert Audette and his company, H&S Construction Services, LLC (H&S), for breach of contract. Defendants provided various accounting and business services to Audette and his then-partner, Paul Fogarty, including helping them to start their construction business partnership, as well as preparing tax returns for both the business and Audette and Fogarty personally. In 2007, defendants helped Audette and Fogarty dissolve their partnership. One of the final acts defendants worked on for H&S was the placement of a mechanic's lien on a property on which H&S worked: the municipality halted construction on the project when H&S was approximately ninety-five percent complete. The lien placed on the property was for $44,403. Ultimately, plaintiffs’ 120-day statutory lien had not been timely secured or recorded, therefore it had lapsed. Plaintiffs brought suit against defendants in November 2009 for failing to secure the lien. The trial court found for plaintiffs and awarded damages in the amount of $44,403. Finding no error in the Superior Court's judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Audette & v. Cummings" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Dr. Kevin Boulard, D.M.D. appealed a New Hampshire Board of Dental Examiners (Board) finding that he committed professional misconduct and suspending indefinitely his “moderate sedation – unrestricted” permit. The Supreme Court concluded that because the Board was in the process of conducting other investigations of petitioner’s practice, without more, it was error for the Board to continue the suspension of petitioner's permit based on the other facts presented on the record. The Court vacated a portion of the Board's order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Appeal of Dr. Kevin D. Boulard, D.M.D." on Justia Law

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Defendant John Genovesi appealed the superior court's refusal to dismiss a claim against him for professional negligence brought by plaintiff Kimball Union Academy (KUA). KUA wanted a new field house built for its campus. The designer was supposed to supply a locally licensed architect and engineer for the project. Defendant was not licensed in New Hampshire nor did he live in state, but was hired anyway to serve as project engineer. Among other things, defendant failed to provide special inspection instructions for the footings and foundation system as required by the local building code. KUA had a number of problems with the footing and foundation that prompted it to terminate its contract with the designer and sue all parties involved. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that defendant's design work in New Jersey led to the injury to KUA in New Hampshire. The Court therefore affirmed the trial court's decision. View "Kimball Union Academy v. Genovesi" 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