Justia U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The controversy, in this case, is rooted in the propriety of a lawyer charging a wage earner a contingent attorney’s fee for prosecuting the wage earner’s Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims in a U.S. District Court. The wage earner paid the contingent fee and then sued his lawyer in Alabama state court to recover part of the fee. That court stayed the action so the wage earner and his lawyer could present the attorney’s fee controversy to the District Court that had presided over the FLSA case. The district court found the contingent fee excessive, ordered the lawyer to return the attorney’s fee, and dismissed the proceeding as moot.   The Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal and instructed the district court to vacate its order and deny the attorney’s and Plaintiff’s motions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court explained that had Plaintiff’s Rule 60 motion sought actual Rule 60 relief, the district court would have had jurisdiction to entertain it because the district court had jurisdiction over the underlying FLSA and employment discrimination controversy. But Plaintiff did not ask for—and the District Court did not grant—the type of relief authorized by Rule 60. Doing anything more than reopening the matter that had previously been dismissed, which is all Rule 60 allows, required an independent jurisdictional basis. The district court did not have such an independent jurisdictional basis when it litigated the state court breach of contract action as if it had been brought under 28 U.S.C. Section 1332. View "Carlos Padilla v. Redmont Properties LLC, et al" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff a female employee of Wakulla County (“the County”), worked for the County’s building department. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in federal district court for, among other claims, the County’s violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the present case, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against the defense attorneys for the County. The defense attorneys and their law firms filed several motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the complaint, explaining that Plaintiff’s alleged facts did not demonstrate that the defense attorneys for the County had engaged in a conspiracy that met the elements of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(2).   Plaintiff’s complaint suggested that the defense attorneys filed the complaint for the “sole benefit of their client rather than for their own personal benefit.” Alternatively, Plaintiff points to the fact that the County defense attorneys had been aware of Plaintiff’s recordings for many months and only reported her recordings to law enforcement when they learned that Plaintiff “insist[ed] on her right to testify in federal court about the recordings and present them as evidence” in the sexual harassment case.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that per Farese, it is Plaintiff’s burden to allege facts that establish that the County defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation when they told law enforcement about Plaintiff’s recordings. Here, Plaintiff but in no way suggests that the defense attorneys were acting outside the scope of their representation, thus her Section 1985(2) claims were properly dismissed. View "Tracey M. Chance v. Ariel Cook, et al" on Justia Law

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An assistant district attorney (the “DA”) in Fulton County, Georgia obtained a material witness warrant requiring Plaintiff to appear as a witness at trial. Plaintiff voluntarily appeared at trial, making execution of the warrant unnecessary. After the trial ended, the DA failed to inform the trial judge that the warrant needed to be recalled. A few months later, a police officer arrested Plaintiff and placed him in jail because of the outstanding warrant. A judge eventually ordered Plaintiff’s release.   Plaintiff brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action alleging, among other things, that the DA’s failure to initiate the warrant’s cancelation violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The DA moved to dismiss the suit arguing that as a prosecutor she was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against her.   The Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that absolute prosecutorial immunity does not extend to DA’s failure to take action to cancel the warrant. The district court thus erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint.   The court wrote that determining whether prosecutorial immunity applies requires the court to take a fact-specific functional approach. Here, the court found that applying Third Circuit precedent from Odd v. Malone, 538 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2008), results in the conclusion that the DA is not entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. Thus the DA has failed to show that absolute immunity protects her post-trial conduct here. View "Kidanemariam Kassa v. Antionette Stephenson" on Justia Law

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Several years ago, law firm Lueder, Larkin & Hunter represented the Pine Grove Homeowners Association in lawsuits seeking to collect delinquent fees from homeowners. One homeowner settled, and eventually Pine Grove voluntarily dismissed the other two suits. The homeowners then sued Lueder, Larkin & Hunter, arguing in state court that the law firm’s actions violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). The firm removed the cases to federal court, where they were consolidated before a magistrate judge. After reviewing the complaints, the firm became convinced that the FDCPA claims filed against it were “unsubstantiated and frivolous”—meaning that the homeowners’ attorney had committed sanctionable conduct. The firm served the homeowners’ counsel with draft motions for Rule 11 sanctions.   The law firm appealed the denial of sanctions, and the homeowners appealed the summary judgment decision. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and vacated its denial of the Rule 11 motions. The court explained that it has long held that Rule 11 motions “are not barred if filed after a dismissal order, or after entry of judgment,” though it is apparently necessary to clarify that point in light of later cases. The homeowners claim that a later case, Walker, changed the Eleventh Circuit’s law. The court, looking at the relevant cases together, held that the reconciled rule follows: If a party fulfills the safe harbor requirement by serving a Rule 11 sanctions motion at least 21 days before final judgment, then she may file that motion after the judgment is entered and Lueder, Larkin & Hunter satisfied this rule. View "Wilbur Huggins v. Lueder, Larkin & Hunter, LLC" on Justia Law

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Petitioner appealed the district court’s denial of his 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 motion to vacate his 293-month prison sentence and convictions. Petitioner argued to the district court that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Petitioner asserted that his attorney told him if he pled guilty to five counts of mail fraud, he would serve no more than 10 years in prison because she had a deal with the government that his sentencing range would be 97–121 months’ imprisonment under the Sentencing Guidelines   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment and found that Petitioner’s attorney did not provide Petitioner with ineffective assistance by telling him she had an agreement with the government about his guideline range. Further, the court concluded that Petitioner’s attorney did provide ineffective assistance by underestimating Petitioner’s guideline range.   The court explained that to show deficient performance, the movant must establish that his attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The “petitioner bears the heavy burden of showing that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.” Gissendaner v. Seaboldt, 735 F.3d 1311 (11th Cir. 2013).   Here, the court concluded that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed each provision of the plea agreement with him at some point before the change-of-plea hearing. Further, the court held that the district court did not clearly err in finding that Petitioner’s attorney reviewed the plea agreement with Petitioner before the change-of-plea hearing. View "Michael Riolo v. USA" on Justia Law

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Hardwick helped found a law firm, MHS. MHS later sold part of its foreclosure operation. Hardwick received $14-$15 million in compensation. Hardwick lost the money and owed millions in loans, many for gambling debts. When a bank and a casino sued him, Hardwick lied to a different bank in a line-of-credit application. In addition, in 2011-2014, Hardwick siphoned off about $26.5 million from MHS; $19 million came from trust accounts. Hardwick relied heavily on Maurya, who initially worked as an MHS controller. Hardwick promoted Maurya to CFO, giving her broad authority over the trust accounts. At Hardwick’s request, she repeatedly sent money from MHS to Hardwick or his creditors and significantly underreported the distributions. After a 2014 internal audit, Hardwick was convicted of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and making false statements to a federally insured financial institution and was sentenced to 180 months’ imprisonment—an upward variance from the Guidelines range of 108-135 months. Maurya received a sentence of 84 months. A restitution order required Maurya and Hardwick to pay, jointly and severally, $40,307,431.00.The Eleventh Circuit vacated the restitution order as not supported by the reasoning required by law; affirmed Hardwick’s convictions and sentence; and vacated Maurya’s sentence. The district court violated the Ex Post Facto Clause by applying the 2018 Guidelines, which included a two-level substantial financial hardship enhancement added in 2015, after Maurya’s offense. View "United States v. Maurya" on Justia Law

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Booker is on Florida’s death row for first-degree murder. In 2012, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas relief. In 2020, the Capital Habeas Unit of the Office of the Federal Public Defender (CHU) sought permission to represent Booker in state court to exhaust a “Brady” claim so that Booker could pursue the claim in a successive federal habeas petition. The Brady claim focused on the prosecution’s failure to disclose notes that allegedly could have been used to impeach an FBI hair expert. Booker said that he had learned through a FOIA request and a review by a qualified microscopist that there were inconsistencies between the expert’s trial testimony and his notes. The state objected to the appointment of CHU, noting that Booker had a state-law right to counsel through Florida’s Capital Collateral Regional Counsel North (CCRC-N); CCRC-N counsel was appointed to represent Booker in state court. Nonetheless, the district court appointed CHU under 18 U.S.C. 3599 to represent Booker in state courtThe Eleventh Circuit dismissed an appeal. Florida cannot establish standing based on a hypothetical conflict of interest that is not actual or imminent. State courts are empowered to reject appearances by CHU counsel, so the appointment cannot have inflicted an injury on Florida’s sovereignty. View "Booker v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Davis, a former Congressman, mayoral candidate, candidate for governor of Alabama, and federal prosecutor, is Black. In 2016, he became Executive Director of LSA, a non-profit law firm serving low-income Alabamians. Davis experienced problems with some of his subordinates and colleagues; some complained to LSA’s Executive Committee. On August 18, 2017, as Davis left work, he was informed that the Executive Committee had voted to suspend him with pay pending an investigation of those complaints. A “Suspension Letter” cited spending decisions outside the approved budget, failure to follow LSA's hiring policies and procedures, creating new initiatives without Board approval, and creating a hostile work environment for some LSA employees. LSA posted a security guard in front of its building and hired Mowery, an Alabama political consultant, to handle public relations related to Davis’s suspension. Mowery had handled one of Davis’s failed political campaigns until their relationship soured; Mowery had worked for the campaign of Davis’s opponent in another race.Days later, Davis notified the Board of his resignation. He filed suit, alleging race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and under Title VII, and defamation. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants. Being placed on paid leave was not an adverse employment action and Davis did not raise a fact issue on his constructive discharge claim. LSA’s disclosures to Mowery did not constitute “publication”—an essential element of defamation. View "Davis v. Legal Services Alabama, Inc." on Justia Law

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Georgia's November 6, 2018, general election was a bellwether of the national political mood. On November 5, Common Cause sued, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Help America Vote Act, 52 U.S.C. 21082; the Georgia Constitution; and Georgia Code 21-2-211, claiming Georgia’s voter registration systems were vulnerable to security breaches, increasing the risk eligible voters would be wrongly removed from election rolls, or that information would be unlawfully manipulated to prevent eligible voters from casting a regular ballot.Common Cause sought an order preventing the final rejection of provisional ballots for voters who had registration problems until there was confidence in the voter registration database. The district court granted a temporary restraining order on November 12 but determined the relief requested was “not practically feasible” and enjoined the Secretary from certifying the election results before 5:00 p.m. on November 16. The Secretary complied. In 2019, new Georgia voting laws changed procedures surrounding handling provisional ballots. The parties agreed that these provisions made further litigation unnecessary and stipulated to dismissal.Common Cause sought attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses incurred through the issuance of the TRO and in preparing the fee motion. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the $166,210.09 award. Common Cause was a 42 U.S.C. 1988 prevailing party because, in obtaining the TRO, it succeeded on a significant issue in litigation which achieved some of the benefits the parties sought in bringing suit. The litigation was necessary to alter the legal relationship between the parties. View "Common Cause Georgia v. Secretary, State of Georgia" on Justia Law

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Beach Blitz sued the City and individuals, asserting that the City’s enactment and enforcement of ordinances regulating the sale of liquor and requiring businesses selling liquor to obtain licenses violated its substantive and procedural due process rights and that the City’s closure of its store one day after it met with a City attorney constituted retaliation for Beach Blitz’s protected First Amendment conduct. The district court dismissed the due process claims on the merits, without prejudice, and without leave to amend, and the First Amendment retaliatory claim on the merits, without prejudice but with leave to amend. Beach Blitz did not amend its that claim by the stated deadline. The district court found the City to be the prevailing party on all five claims, determined that each of them was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” and awarded attorney fees for each.The Eleventh Circuit upheld the prevailing party determination because the City rebuffed Beach Blitz’s efforts to effect a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties and affirmed frivolity determination concerning the procedural and substantive due process claims. The court vacated in part. There was sufficient support in precedent for Beach Blitz’s position that its retaliation claim was not so groundless on causation as to be frivolous. View "Beach Blitz Co. v. City of Miami Beach" on Justia Law