Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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In 1998, McKernan was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former roommate, Gibson. McKernan admitted to hitting Gibson with a bat but claimed that it was self-defense and that Gibson’s injuries arose from Gibson hitting his head on the curb. During McKernan’s bench trial, after the Commonwealth had rested but before the defense had started its case-in-chief, the judge called the victim’s mother, his brother, the prosecutor, and defense counsel, into her robing room. McKernan was not present. The meeting was transcribed. The judge discussed online criticism of her decisions, including statements on the Gibsons’ website, and stated that she “want[ed] to make sure that you folks are happy with me.” Defense counsel did not object. The judge and Gibson’s brother agreed that the judge could “redline” the website. After conferring with McKernan, defense counsel told the judge and prosecutor that his client had “concerns” because “he thinks that you may be constrained to lean over backwards,” but advised McKernan to continue before the judge. After exhausting state remedies, McKernan filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief, finding that the state courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent as to whether McKernan’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek and for advising McKernan not to seek the judge’s recusal. View "McKernan v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law

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Doe was president and “sole proprietor” of Company A, but a 2008 document purports to memorialize Doe’s sale of all shares to Company B for $10,000. Numerous filings and tax documents suggested that Doe maintained control and ownership of Company A after the transfer. Multiple individuals have sued Doe and his businesses in state courts. Doe and the companies were investigated by a federal grand jury. The government obtained access to Doe’s email. Doe filed an interlocutory appeal to prevent its disclosure. While the appeal was pending, the district court granted permission to present the email to the grand jury, finding that although the email was protected by the work product privilege, the crime-fraud exception applied; in 2016, the grand jury returned an indictment, charging conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. The Third Circuit initially dismissed an interlocutory appeal, but, on rehearing, reversed, concluding that, while the grand jury investigation continues, it retains jurisdiction, and that the crime-fraud exception did not apply. The court stripped an attorney’s work product of confidentiality based on evidence suggesting only that the client had thought about using that product to facilitate fraud, not that the client had actually done so. An actual act to further the fraud is required before attorney work product loses its confidentiality. View "In re: Grand Jury Matter #3" on Justia Law

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In 2004, buyers contracted to buy an island off of St. Thomas and a St. Thomas launch for $21,000,000 and $2,500,000. The sellers’ attorney, D’Amour, also owned the escrow company involved in the transaction. The buyers deposited $1,000,000. They later paid another $500,000 to extend the closing date. The deposits were nonrefundable. After another extension, the buyers had not paid the purchase price; the sellers had not conveyed marketable title. D’Amour sent the buyers a notice of default; they demanded refunds. The buyers sued; the sellers filed counterclaims. The district court granted summary judgment to the buyers on a conversion claim against D’Amour for $500,000. A jury awarded one buyer, Taylor, $1,500,000 in contract damages from the sellers and $46,000 for fraudulent misrepresentation by D’Amour. The jury awarded the sellers $339,516.76 from the other buyers for misrepresenting their ability to purchase the properties; the court granted judgment as a matter of law, finding the tort claims barred by the gist of the action doctrine. The court reduced Taylor’s contract damages award to $0, but upheld the fraudulent misrepresentation verdict against D’Amour The Third Circuit concluded that all parties failed to perform under the contracts and denied all damages, but concluded that Taylor was entitled to restitution from the sellers ($1,500,000). On remand, the district court awarded prejudgment interest at rates of three and six percent; declined to award attorney’s fees to Taylor, citing Taylor’s “role in breaching the contract” and the complexity of the case; and concluded that D’Amour was not entitled to attorney’s fees . The Third Circuit affirmed, except the award of prejudgment interest at a rate other than the statutorily provided 9 percent. View "Addie v. Kjaer" on Justia Law
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Whiteside represented the County of Camden in a lawsuit brought by Anderson, which resulted in a jury award paid, in part, by the County’s excess insurer, National. According to National, the County did not notify it of the lawsuit until several months after it was filed. Whiteside initially informed National that the case was meritless and valued it at $50,000. During trial, Whiteside changed her valuation and requested the full $10 million policy limit to settle Anderson’s claims. National conducted an independent review and denied that request. The jury awarded Anderson $31 million, which was remitted to $19 million. Days later, National sought a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to provide coverage because the County had breached the policy contract by failing to timely notify National of the case and by failing to mount an adequate investigation and defense. National also asserted claims against Whiteside for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract. The court dismissed those claims because National could not demonstrate that Whiteside’s actions proximately caused it to suffer any damages. The Third Circuit dismissed and appeal for lack of jurisdiction, finding National’s notice of appeal untimely under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1), View "State Nat'l Ins. Co v. County of Camden" on Justia Law

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Bar Admission Rule 204 allows an attorney to join the Pennsylvania bar by motion, without taking the state bar exam, if the attorney has graduated from an accredited law school, has either passed the bar exam or practiced law for the “major portion” of five of the preceding seven years in a reciprocal state, remains a member in good standing of every bar to which the attorney has been admitted, obtains a favorable moral character determination in Pennsylvania, achieves a sufficient score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, and has not previously failed the Pennsylvania bar exam. Pennsylvania allows attorneys admitted in any state to apply for pro hac vice admission, limited to a particular case; 38 states and the District of Columbia have reciprocity agreements with Pennsylvania. An organization dedicated to extending reciprocal bar admission to additional states argued that Rule 204 violates the Equal Protection and Privileges or Immunities Clauses, the First Amendment, the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, and the Dormant Commerce Clause. The district court and Third Circuit upheld the rule, which does not classify attorneys based on residency, but rather, their state of bar admission, and it does not erect a barrier to migration. View "Nat'l Ass'n for the Advancement of Multijurisdictional Practice v. Castille" on Justia Law

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Jensen defaulted on a credit card. Her debt was sold to Midland, which retained the Pressler law firm for collection. Midland obtained a $5,965.82 default judgment and served an information subpoena and questions on Jensen. The information subpoena issued under New Jersey Rule 1:9-1, which allows attorneys to issue subpoenas in the name of the clerk of court, bearing the clerk’s signature, although the clerk did not sign the subpoena and likely is unaware of it. Pressler listed “Terrence Lee” on the clerk’s signature line. Lee had never worked as a court clerk; he had been County Clerk, but left that position years earlier. Jensen knew Lee was not clerk of the Superior Court. Jensen sent Pressler a letter, calling the subpoena “fraudulent,” but answered the subpoena questions. Jensen unsuccessfully moved to vacate the state court judgment against her, then filed a putative federal class action against Pressler and Midland, alleging violation of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692e., which prohibits making false, misleading, or deceptive statements in the collection of consumer debts. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment, finding that the misuse of Lee’s name was not a material false statement. A materiality requirement is subsumed within the “least sophisticated debtor” standard that governs FDCPA claims. View "Jensen v. Pressler & Pressler" on Justia Law
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The Criminal Justice Act, 18 U.S.C. 3006A, requires each federal district court to establish a plan to furnish representation to indigent persons charged with federal crimes. In seven different Post-Conviction Review Act cases in various Pennsylvania counties, hearings were initiated to disqualify the Federal Community Defender (FCD) as counsel, based on that organization’s alleged misuse of federal grant funds to appear in state proceedings. FCD acknowledges that it sometimes appears in PCRA proceedings without a federal court order directing it to do so, but claims that it uses federal grant funds only for preparatory work that will be relevant to a federal habeas petition and only if it has received a federal court order appointing it as counsel for federal habeas proceedings or is working to obtain such an appointment. FCD removed the motions under the federal officer removal statute, 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(1), (d)(1). The Commonwealth moved, under 28 U.S.C. 1447(c), to return each to state court, claiming lack of subject matter jurisdiction. FCD argued that the Commonwealth lacked a federal private right of action and that federal law preempted the motions. The district courts split. The Third Circuit held that FCD properly invoked removal jurisdiction and that the Commonwealth’s attempts to disqualify it as counsel proceedings are preempted. View "In Re: Commonwealth's Motion" on Justia Law

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Insurance companies allegedly refused to honor claims for payment of blood-clotting-factor products. After they paid the claims in full, the district court dismissed a complaint under the Employees Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and state law. Following dismissal, both the plaintiffs and defendants sought attorney’s fees and costs. The Third Circuit affirmed denial, but remanded one issue: whether the plaintiffs were entitled to interest on the delayed payment of benefits. On remand, they sought interest of $1.5 to $1.8 million, primarily under the Maryland Code, with $68,000 based on the federal Treasury bill rate. The companies agreed to pay $68,000.00 in interest and the district court dismissed the case. Plaintiffs then sought attorney’s fees and costs of $349,385.15. The district court denied the motion, finding that plaintiffs had failed to achieve “some degree of success on the merits” as required for an award of fees under ERISA. The Third Circuit reversed, holding that the court used an incorrect legal standard to evaluate eligibility for attorney’s fees and misapplied the “Ursic” factors. The “catalyst theory” of recovery is available to the plaintiffs and judicial action is not required under that theory in order to establish some degree of success. View "Templin v. Independence Blue Cross" on Justia Law

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Kaymark defaulted on a mortgage held by Bank of America (BOA). On behalf of BOA, Udren Law Offices initiated foreclosure proceedings. The body of the Foreclosure Complaint listed not-yet-incurred fees as due and owing, which, Kaymark alleged, violated state and federal fair debt collection laws and breached the mortgage contract. The Third Circuit reversed dismissal of claims that the disputed fees constituted actionable misrepresentation under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. 1692, but affirmed dismissal of all other claims. By attempting to collect fees for legal services not yet performed in the mortgage foreclosure, Udren violated FDCPA section 1692e(2)(A), (5), and (10), which imposes strict liability on debt collectors who “use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt,” and section 1692f(1) by attempting to collect “an[] amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.” The court analogized to similar claims in a debt collection demand letter. View "Kaymark v. Bank of America NA" on Justia Law

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Knight, a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association, was financial secretary for the Local. In 2000, he distributed a flier stating the Local was hosting the Worker’s Coalition. McBride, director of Diamond State Port Corporation (which operates the Port of Wilmington where Union members work) offered to be a speaker and contributed $500 to the hotel hosting the meeting. The Union’s national vice president, Paylor, told McBride that Worker’s Coalition was not affiliated with the Union. McBride withdrew as a speaker, but he did not seek return of the $500. Knight filed Union charges against Paylor for interfering with the Local. Paylor counter-charged, alleging frivolous claims and using the Union name without permission. A hearing board cleared Paylor, but decided that Knight committed violations. Knight filed suit. On first remand, the district court ordered and the Union created a new policy and held a new hearing. The Union did not comply with an order to change its constitution. On second appeal, the Third Circuit held that Knight’s due process rights were not violated in the second hearing, but the district court awarded Knight attorney’s fees ($243,758.34), costs, and interest, reasoning that, because of Knight’s suit, Union members: can no longer be disciplined for harmless references to the Union name or logo; are more aware of disciplinary hearing due process rights; and, are properly informed about the Act. On third appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. View "McBride v. Int'l Longshoremens Ass'n" on Justia Law