Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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On January 23, 2015, Judge Callie Granade of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, issued an order declaring unconstitutional both the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act, as violating the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thereafter, the federal court entered an injunction prohibiting the Alabama Attorney General from enforcing any Alabama law that prohibited same-sex marriage. The injunction was to allow time for an appeal of that decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 27, 2015, Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, sent a letter, on Supreme Court of Alabama letterhead, to then Governor Robert Bentley regarding Judge Granade’s orders, expressing "legitimate concerns about the propriety of federal court jurisdiction over the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment." In his three-page letter, Chief Justice Moore laid out his arguments as to why Judge Granade’s federal-court orders were not binding upon the State of Alabama, and ultimately directed Alabama’s probate judges not to recognize marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Months later, the Alabama Supreme Court released a per curiam opinion ordering the probate judges named as respondents to discontinue issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in compliance with Alabama law. Chief Justice Moore’s name did not appear in the vote line of this opinion, nor did he author or join any of the special writings. On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in “Obergefell,” holding that "same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States" and that "there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character." The Court of the Judiciary ultimately suspended Chief Justice Moore for his defiance of the laws. He appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court determined it was “obligated to follow prior precedent” that it had no authority to disturb the sanction imposed by the Court of the Judiciary: “[b]ecause we have previously determined that the charges were proven by clear and convincing evidence and there is no indication that the sanction imposed was plainly and palpably wrong, manifestly unjust, or without supporting evidence, we shall not disturb the sanction imposed.” View "Moore v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2008, Kimberly Bond sued her former attorney, James McLaughlin, alleging legal malpractice. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of McLaughlin. In February 2006, Bond hired McLaughlin to provide legal services involving the estate of her husband, Kenneth Pylant II, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. McLaughlin allegedly failed to properly contest a copy of Pylant's will that was admitted to probate on November 29, 2005, and, as a proximate result of McLaughlin's breach of duty, Bond was injured and suffered damage. The Supreme Court found that Bond did not contest the will before probate, and, because of McLaughlin's negligence, she did not properly contest the will within six months after probate by filing a complaint with the circuit court. The Supreme Court determined that Bond presented evidence sufficient to overcome summary judgment, and accordingly reversed the circuit court’s order. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Bond v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

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Juakeishia Pruitt filed a legal-malpractice claim against Bobby Cockrell, Jr., and Cockrell & Cockrell ("the Cockrell law firm"). Cockrell appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Pruitt. The claims in this case arose from Byron House's representation of Pruitt from late 2000 until January 2012. House worked as an associate with the Cockrell law firm from September 1995 until January 2012. This case involved House's handling of Pruitt's claims with regard to four separate causes of action: Pruitt's discrimination and breach-of-contract claims against Stillman College; Pruitt's sexual-discrimination claims against her employer Averitt/i3; Pruitt's claims against Gwendolyn Oyler arising from an automobile accident; and Pruitt's breach-of-contract claims against A+ Photography. After the statute of limitations had run on Pruitt's underlying claims against Stillman College, Averitt/i3, and Oyler, House made intentional misrepresentations to Pruitt regarding the status of those cases. House also made intentional representations regarding the status of Pruitt's case against A+ Photography. Additionally, House continued to make such representations regarding the status of Pruitt's cases against Stillman College and Averitt/i3 until well after the time any legal-malpractice case against him would have been barred by the applicable statute of repose. "A fraud committed by an attorney that defrauds the attorney's client as to the status of the client's underlying claim is actionable under the ALSLA separate and apart from the attorney's failure to timely file a complaint on the underlying claim." Therefore, Alabama Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly denied the Cockrell defendants' motion for a summary judgment as to the malpractice claims alleging that the Cockrell defendants were vicariously liable for fraudulent misrepresentations House made to Pruitt to conceal the existence of an underlying legal-malpractice claim. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's order. View "Cockrell v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Richard Watters petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Mobile Circuit Court to vacate its order denying his motion for a summary judgment as to count one of an amended complaint filed by Michael Gamble, in Gamble's capacity as administrator of the Estate of Barbara Ruth Findley Long ("Long"), deceased. Count one asserted a legal-malpractice claim against Watters under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("the ALSLA"), alleging breach of a fiduciary duty. This proceeding involved title to real property located in Conecuh County, which was owned by Robert Findley at the time of his death. Long retained Watters & Associates, of which Watters was a partner, to represent her "in obtaining estate assets" of Findley, her deceased father. Watters filed suit seeking a declaration of Long's ownership in family property located in Conecuh County. The Circuit Court declaring that Long owned a one-sixth interest (approximately 30 acres) in the Conecuh County property Shortly thereafter, Long discharged Watters from any further representation in the declaratory-judgment action. Watters filed an attorney's lien against the Conecuh property to secure the payment of his attorney fees. Family members eventually quitclaimed their interests to Long. Taxes for 2006 weren't paid on the property, and Long's cousin Larry Findley purchased the property at a tax sale. According to Watters, Long asked him for a loan to redeem the property from the tax sale. Watters told Long that Langley would not record the quitclaim deed if Long repaid the loan within 30 days of redeeming the property; that, in the event the deed was recorded, any claim Watters might have against Long for services rendered regarding her deceased father's estate would be satisfied; and that Watters and Long agreed to terms concerning the loan arrangement. This arrangement was never reduced to writing. Long executed a quitclaim deed prepared by Watters, conveying title to the Conecuh property to "Langley & Watters, LLP." In 2010, Watters submitted to the Conecuh Probate Court a letter, enclosing "his client's" application for redemption of the Conecuh property. Long died on April 2, 2013, and a few months later, the Conecuh Probate Court appointed Gamble as administrator of Long's estate. Gamble filed a complaint against Watters, asserting claims of legal malpractice among other things. After review of this case, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that Watters had another adequate remedy (i.e., an appeal) other than a writ of mandamus. Therefore, the Court denied relief. View "Ex parte Richard L. Watters." on Justia Law

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Chad Bostick petitioned for a writ of certiorari seeking review of the Court of Civil Appeals' opinion reversing a circuit court judgment that reversed the administrative order issued by the Alabama Board of Examiners of Landscape Architects ("the Board") suspending Bostick's license for one year and imposing a $250 fine against him. Bostick had been employed by GRC Design Group, Inc. (GRC), a landscaping business owned and operated by Greg Curl. A dispute between Bostick and GRC arose, and Bostick resigned from GRC in 2010. Bostick started his own landscaping firm. In February 2010, Curl filed a written complaint with the Board alleging that Bostick had, while employed with GRC, "misrepresented himself to clients as part owner in [GRC] and as a result had clients write checks payable to him which he cashed for his own personal use." Curl claimed that Bostick "admitted to stealing these design fees and eventually to several more acts of fraud." Bostick denied these accusations. Bostick argued on appeal of the circuit court's adoption of the Board's findings, among other things, that the Board's decision was not supported by evidence presented and that the Board acted beyond its jurisdiction and authority in suspending his license to practice landscape architecture and in imposing a fine. After review of the record, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the circuit court's judgment. View "Ex parte Chad Bostick." on Justia Law

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Municipal Workers Compensation Fund, Inc. ("the Fund"), appealed a circuit court's order denying the Fund's motion to vacate a judgment entered on an arbitration award. The Fund entrusted the management and investment of approximately $50 million in assets to Morgan Asset Management, Inc. ("MAM"), and Morgan Keegan & Company, Inc. ("Morgan Keegan"). MAM served as an investment advisor for a managed account and certain mutual funds owned by the Fund. Morgan Keegan served as the broker-dealer for the Fund's managed account and had the authority as the broker-dealer to execute transactions in that account as directed by the Fund. A second account at Morgan Keegan held the mutual funds that had been sold to the Fund through a Morgan Keegan broker. The Fund stated that it directed MAM and Morgan Keegan to invest its funds conservatively and that it relied on MAM and Morgan Keegan for sound financial advice and management. However, according to the Fund, MAM and Morgan Keegan disregarded this mandate by recommending that the Fund purchase and hold what the Fund says were unsuitable investments, by overconcentrating the Fund's assets in investments that had undue exposure to the sub-prime mortgage market and in other risky investments, and by misrepresenting and failing to disclose material facts pertaining to the investments. The Fund claims that it sustained losses in excess of $15 million in 2007 and 2008 as a result of the actions of MAM and Morgan Keegan. The Fund initiated arbitration proceedings against MAM and Morgan Keegan by filing a statement of claim with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA") pursuant to the arbitration provision contained in its contracts with MAM and Morgan Keegan, asserting claims of breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract; negligence; fraud; violations of NASD and NYSE Rules; and violations of the Alabama Securities Act. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded from the admissible evidence entered at trial, the Fund established an evident partiality on the part of one of the arbitrators, and that the Fund was entitled to have the judgment entered on the arbitration award vacated. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Municipal Workers Compensation Fund, Inc. v. Morgan Keegan & Co." on Justia Law

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Tommy Sundy petitioned for a writ of mandamus to direct the circuit court to dismiss third-party claims asserted against him by accounting firm Frost Cummings Tidwell Group, LLC ("FCT"). Adams Produce Company, Inc. ("APCI"), purchased Crestview Produce of Destin, Inc., from Sundy. As part of the transaction, APCI and Sundy executed a promissory note in the amount of $850,000, and Sundy became an employee of APCI. FCT alleges that, based on representations from APCI and Sundy, certain budget and bonus projections were set for APCI, but those goals were not met. Because of that failure, Sundy was not entitled to bonuses that had been paid to him throughout 2009. With the alleged help and direction of FCT, APCI recharacterized the bonuses as repayments of principal on the promissory note. The nonpayment of certain amounts to Sundy in the context of this action effectively increased APCI's income and decreased its indebtedness. APCI also allegedly entered into an oral, undocumented agreement with Sundy stipulating that it would make him whole in future years for the forfeited bonus payments. In 2009, APCI's shareholders decided to sell the company to API Holdings, LLC. API Holdings alleges that it discovered that, contrary to representations made by FCT in an audit report, APCI's financial statements were fraudulent, causing API Holdings to believe that APC was worth more than it actually was. API Holdings sued FCT asserting claims of negligent misrepresentation, auditing malpractice, fraud, and other claims of professional malfeasance. Among several other claims, API Holdings alleged that FCT had failed to uncover misrepresentations by Sundy and APCI and that FCT had acted fraudulently in confirming the recharacterization of Sundy's bonuses as payments on principal of the promissory note. A few months later, APC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. APC filed an adversarial complaint in FCT's bankruptcy case, alleging that FCT's audit work had painted a false financial picture of APC upon which APC had relied in continuing to operate its business even after reaching the point of insolvency. FCT filed a third-party complaint with the bankruptcy court against Sundy and others. FCT's complaint alleged various theories under Alabama law as bases for FCT to "recover over" against Sundy. Sundy subsequently moved to dismiss FCT's third-party complaint on the basis of 6-5-440, Ala. Code 1975, Alabama's abatement statute. The circuit court denied the motion, and Sundy then filed his petition for a writ of mandamus seeking to have the Supreme Court direct the circuit court to vacate its judgment denying his motion to dismiss and to order the circuit court to dismiss FCT's claims against Sundy asserted in its third-party complaint at circuit court. The Supreme Court concluded that FCT's third-party claims against Sundy were not barred by the abatement statute. The circuit court properly declined to dismiss those claims. Therefore, the Court denied the petition for a writ of mandamus. View "In re: API Holdings, LLC v. Frost Cummings Tidwell Group, LLC" on Justia Law

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Wade Tucker and Wendell Cook Testamentary Trust, on behalf of shareholders of HealthSouth Corporation brought a shareholder-derivative action against Ernst & Young, LLP ("E&Y"), asserting claims of "audit malpractice" based on E&Y's failure to discover and, if discovered, to report accounting fraud. The "audit malpractice" claims included various claims of negligence, breach of contract, and fraud. The action was referred to arbitration, and an arbitration award was entered in favor of E&Y. HealthSouth filed a motion in the Circuit Court seeking to vacate the award. The circuit court denied the motion to vacate and entered a final judgment in favor of E&Y based on the award. HealthSouth appeals. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Tucker v. Ernst & Young LLP " on Justia Law

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Tommy Hand sued the Prattville law firm of Howell, Sarto & Howell and William P. Roberts II, an attorney formerly employed by the Howell firm, asserting a claim under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act based on their alleged negligent representation of him in an action seeking damages for personal injuries he suffered as a result of an automobile accident. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the Howell firm and Roberts; Hand appealed. On appeal, Hand argued that Roberts and the Howell firm committed legal malpractice when they failed to name the Montgomery Advertiser, which Hand labeled "the critical deep-pocket defendant" as a party in Hand's personal injury action. Hand argues that the failure devalued his case to the extent that he had to settle for approximately half of what the case was worth and for an amount significantly less than his actual economic damage, not to mention his pain and suffering. Because there was no evidence indicating, only speculation, that Hand would have been able to settle his injury claim for a higher amount if Roberts and the Howell firm had also named the Montgomery Advertiser as a defendant, the Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Roberts and the firm. View "Hand v. Howell, Sarto & Howell " on Justia Law

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Rodgetta Colvin Jett n/k/a Octavia R. Cantelow-Jett ("Jett") appealed the grant of summary judgment entered against her in a legal-malpractice action against attorney James M. Wooten and his law firm, the Law Offices of James M. Wooten, P.C. ("Wooten P.C."). Jett was injured when she fell down the stairs while leaving a YMCA facility in Birmingham. Jett filed a legal-malpractice action against the Wooten defendants as a result of their failure to initiate legal actions on her behalf against the YMCA before the limitations period expired on those claims. The trial court thereafter entered a summary judgment in favor of the Wooten defendants, holding that Jett's claims against them were themselves barred by the two-year statute of limitations that applied to Alabama Legal Services Act (ALSA) claims because Jett did not initiate her action until December 30, 2010, more than two years after the two YMCA incidents. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the ALSA tolled the statute of limitations and that the two-year period in which Jett could initiate an action against the Wooten defendants based on Wooten's failure to file actions against the YMCA did not begin to run until Jett discovered that Wooten had not filed the legal actions she alleged he told her he had filed. Accordingly, her lawsuit against the Wooten defendants was timely filed. The judgment of the trial court was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Jett v. Wooten" on Justia Law