Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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This appeal centered on a challenge to the practice of requiring private attorneys who may be privy to confidential information related to a grand jury investigation to commit to maintaining the secrecy of all information they may acquire regarding the grand jury. The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016. Under the authority of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, subpoenas requiring the production of documents were recently issued to the Dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg (“Appellants” or the “Dioceses”). Their counsel requested a copy of the notice of submission that the Office of the Attorney General (the “OAG”) had provided to the supervising judge. The supervising judge replied that he would furnish a copy of this notice to counsel, but that counsel first would be required to sign and submit appearance form, which included an oath or affirmation to keep all that transpired in the Grand Jury room secret (under threat of penalty of contempt). Counsel declined to accept these terms, however, and Appellants lodged a joint motion to strike the non-disclosure provision from the entry-of-appearance form. They argued that the requirement of secrecy was not authorized by the Investigating Grand Jury Act, both as to the obligation being imposed upon counsel and, alternatively, in terms of the breadth of that duty. The Dioceses’ lead contention was that the secrecy requirement of 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4549(b) did not apply to private attorneys, positing that, “[b]y its terms,” Section 4549(b) applies only to persons who are “sworn to secrecy” -- i.e., those who are required in practice to sign an oath of secrecy -- such as “Commonwealth attorneys, grand jurors, stenographers, typists, and operators of recording equipment.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded an attorney would will be privy to matters occurring before an investigating grand jury shall be sworn to secrecy per the requirements of the Investigating Grand Jury Act, either via an appropriately tailored entry-of-appearance form or otherwise. The obligation of confidentially generally extends to all matters occurring before the grand jury, which includes, but is not limited to, what transpires in a grand jury room. A lawyer otherwise subject to secrecy, however, may disclose a client’s own testimony to the extent that the client would otherwise be free to do so under applicable law. Such disclosure is also subject to the client’s express, knowing, voluntary, and informed consent; the Rules of Professional Conduct; and specific curtailment by a supervising judge in discrete matters following a hearing based on cause shown. View "In Re: 40th Statewide IGJ" on Justia Law

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This matter arose from a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Estate of Richard Eazor deriving from a motor vehicle accident. The Eazor Estate was represented by Attorney William Weiler, Jr., who entered his appearance in the matter in March 2005. By December 1, 2005, Weiler became associated with Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. Weiler brought the Eazor Litigation with him and Meyer Darragh attorneys worked on the Eazor Litigation for over seventy hours over a nineteen-month period. In May 2007, Weiler resigned from Meyer Darragh. At that time, Meyer Darragh understood it would continue as lead counsel in the Eazor Litigation along with Weiler at his new firm. Written correspondence at the time of Weiler’s separation from Meyer Darragh indicated that Meyer Darragh would receive two-thirds of the attorneys’ fees arising out of the Eazor Litigation, and Weiler would retain one- third of the fees. In an earlier decision in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held Meyer Darragh, as predecessor counsel, was not entitled to breach of contract damages against successor counsel, the Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C., where a contract regarding counsel fees did not exist between the two firms. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review nunc pro tunc to determine whether Meyer Darragh was entitled to damages in quantum meruit against Malone Middleman, where the trial court initially held such damages were recoverable, but the Superior Court reversed. After review, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded to the trial court for reinstatement of its award of damages in quantum meruit to Meyer Darragh against Malone Middleman. View "Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, P.L.L.C. v. Law Firm of Malone Middleman, P.C." on Justia Law

Posted in: Contracts, Legal Ethics

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This case was a direct appeal in a judicial discipline case that resulted in Appellant Dawn Segal's removal from office as a municipal court judge in Philadelphia. In 2014, amidst a federal investigation encompassing electronic surveillance of telephone conversations in which she participated, Appellant reported to the Judicial Conduct Board (the “Board”) that she had ex parte communications with then-fellow- Municipal Court Judge Joseph Waters about several cases that were pending before her. FBI agents and federal prosecutors interviewed Appellant on several occasions, ultimately playing tapes of the intercepted conversations. The Board, which had already opened an investigation into the matter, proceeded to lodge a complaint against Appellant in the Court of Judicial Discipline (the “CJD”). The Board asserted violations of the then-prevailing Canons of Judicial Conduct, including Canon 2B, Canon 3A(4), Canon 3B(3), and Canon 3C(1). A federal prosecution of Waters was initiated, and he entered a negotiated guilty plea to mail fraud, and honest service wire fraud. Shortly thereafter, Appellant (through counsel) self-reported to the Board that she and Waters had had ex parte communications concerning pending cases. The correspondence stated that Appellant had not previously made these disclosures to the Board on account of a request from federal authorities to maintain confidentiality. In March 2015, the Board filed its complaint with the CJD. Finding the sanction imposed by the CJD as lawful, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined it lacked authority to disapprove it. As such, the CJD's decision was affirmed. View "In Re: Dawn Segal, Judge" on Justia Law

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Appellant Angeles Roca served as a common pleas judge in the family division of the First Judicial District, Philadelphia County. Her term overlapped with those of former Philadelphia Municipal Court Judges Joseph Waters and Dawn Segal. During this period, the FBI was investigating Waters’ activities; the investigation included wiretap surveillance of his telephone communications. Several conversations between Waters and Appellant were recorded in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Appellant asked Waters for advice on how her son, Ian Rexach, should proceed relative to a tax judgment. Appellant learned that Segal would not be presiding over these types of petitions after June 29, 2012; seeking to ensure that Segal presided over her son’s petition, Appellant called Waters to encourage him to intervene. Segal reviewed the petition for reconsideration and issued a rule to show cause why the relief requested should not be granted. Although Segal did not preside over Rexach’s case thereafter, she called Waters to advise him that she “took care of it” and to “tell her it’s done.” Waters called Appellant and discussed the matter, confirming that it had been “taken care of” by Segal. A default judgment against Rexach was ultimately vacated and the case against him was withdrawn upon his payment of $477 in taxes. In 2015, the Judicial Conduct Board sent Appellant informal letters of inquiry concerning her contacts with other judges. At the time, Appellant was unaware that her conversations with Waters had been recorded. In her written responses, Appellant made several representations which were inconsistent with the content of the recorded phone conversations. In 2016, the Board filed an amended complaint with the CJD alleging that Appellant had violated Article V, Sections 17(b) and 18(d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as well as several provisions of Pennsylvania’s former Code of Judicial Conduct (the “Code”). On appeal, Appellant alleged that the CJD’s removal-and-bar sanction was unduly harsh under the circumstances. She requestd a lesser penalty. In this respect, Appellant maintained, first, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was not bound by a state constitutional provision, which limited the Court's review of the sanction imposed by the CJD to whether it was lawful. In the alternative, Appellant proffered that the punishment was not lawful because it was inconsistent with prior decisions in cases where the misconduct was not extreme. The Supreme Court found the penalty imposed by the CJD was lawful. That being the case, the Court lacked authority to overturn it. View "In Re: Angeles Roca, Judge" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a trial court erred by denying a motion to recuse the entire bench of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Appellant James Kravitz was the sole officer, director, and shareholder of several companies known as the Andorra Group, which included Appellants Cherrydale Construction Company, Andorra Springs Development, Inc., and Kravmar, Inc., which was formally known as Eastern Development Enterprises, Incorporated (“Eastern”). Kravitz also owned a piece of property known as the Reserve at Lafayette Hill (“Reserve”). Andorra Springs was formed to develop residential housing on sections of the Reserve. In 1993, Andorra Springs hired Cherrydale as the general contractor to build the homes on the Reserve. Eastern operated as the management and payroll company for the Andorra Group. Appellee Roy Lomas, Sr., d/b/a Roy Lomas Carpet Contractor was the proprietor of a floor covering company. Cherrydale and Lomas entered into a contract which required Lomas to supply and install floor covering in the homes being built by Cherrydale. Soon thereafter, Cherrydale breached that contract by failing to pay. Lomas demanded that Cherrydale submit Lomas’ claim to binding arbitration as mandated by the parties’ contract. The parties arbitrated the matter, and a panel of arbitrators entered an interim partial award in favor of Lomas, finding that Cherrydale breached the parties’ contract. Following Kravitz’s unsuccessful attempt to have the interim award vacated, the arbitrators issued a final award to Lomas. Judgment was entered against Cherrydale in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Important to this appeal, then-Attorney, now-Judge Thomas Branca represented Lomas throughout the arbitration proceedings. Since the entry of judgment, Kravitz actively prevented Lomas from collecting his arbitration award by, inter alia, transferring all of the assets out of Cherrydale to himself and other entities under his control. In March 2000, Lomas commenced the instant action against Appellants. Then-Attorney Branca filed the complaint seeking to pierce the corporate veil and to hold Kravitz personally liable for the debt Cherrydale owed to Lomas. Approximately one year later, then-Attorney Branca was elected to serve as a judge on the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Prior to taking the bench, then Judge-Elect Branca withdrew his appearance in the matter and referred the case to another law firm. After several years of litigation, the parties agreed to a bifurcated bench trial. Although Appellants acknowledged that they were unaware of any bias or prejudice against them on the part of Judge Rogers or any other judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Appellants maintained that Judge Branca’s continued involvement and financial interest in the case created an “appearance of impropriety” prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct. Specifically at issue before the Supreme Court was whether the moving parties waived their recusal claim and, if not, whether the claim had merit. The Court held that the recusal issue was untimely presented to the trial court and, thus, waived. View "Lomas v. Kravitz" on Justia Law

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Petitioner challenged as unconstitutional certain restrictions imposed upon attorneys who were employed by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (Board), and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The Board filed preliminary objections, asserting petitioner lacked standing to pursue her claim, her claim was not yet ripe, and in any event, her claim failed on the merits. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the Board’s preliminary objections as to standing and ripeness, but nevertheless concluded petitioner was not entitled to relief on the merits as the restrictions included in the Gaming Act were constitutionally sound. View "Yocum v. PA Gaming Control Board" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the unemployment compensation claim filed by appellee Gary Powell. The Unemployment Compensation Service Center determined appellee was ineligible to receive benefits pursuant to Section 402(b) of the Unemployment Compensation Law (the UC Law) because he voluntarily quit his job with Joe Krentzman & Sons (employer), without “cause of a necessitous and compelling nature.” The Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether an attorney who has been suspended from the practice of law by the Supreme Court could represent a claimant in unemployment compensation proceedings. A divided three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court determined the claimant was entitled to his choice of representative, even if that representative was a suspended attorney, and remanded for a new hearing. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision to remand, but reversed the Commonwealth Court’s holding that a suspended attorney may represent claimants in unemployment compensation proceedings. View "Powell v. UCBR" on Justia Law

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In response to time demands of this primary election appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court entered a per curiam order on an expedited basis vacating the order of the Commonwealth Court and directing that Appellee Michael W. Beyer’s name be stricken from the primary ballot for the Democratic Party nomination for the Office of Representative in the General Assembly for the 131st Legislative District. In the per curiam order, the Court stated that an opinion would follow; this was that opinion. Beyer filed nomination petitions with the Department of State seeking placement of his name on the ballot for Democratic Nomination for the Office of Representative in the General Assembly. Appellant Objectors, qualified electors residing in the 131st Legislative District, petitioned to set aside the nomination petition on grounds that Beyer intentionally misrepresented his occupation as “lawyer” on both his Statement of Financial Interests (SOFI) and nomination petitions. At a hearing, .Beyer confirmed he had graduated law school, but had yet to pass or even take any state’s bar examination. Consequently, he was not licensed to practice law at the time he circulated his nomination petitions. He listed his occupation as “lawyer,” he said, because he understood the definition of “lawyer” as found in the Oxford English Dictionary to include someone who studied the law. He therefore thought it fair comment to describe his profession or occupation as “lawyer” on his nomination petition. Though she found that he likely used the title of “lawyer” to “enhance his stature with the electorate,” the trial judge accepted Beyer's explanation that he believed his having studied law and graduated law school in the past, alone, entitled him to claim the occupation. Appellant Objectors contended the Commonwealth Court erred in failing to find that Beyer’s self-designation as a lawyer-by-occupation represented a material defect borne of the intent to mislead the electorate. The Supreme Court agreed: the defect was both material to an elector’s decision to nominate a legislator and incurable by amendment because the candidate knew his representation had the potential to mislead signers about his credentials for the legislative office he sought. Having demonstrated as much, Objectors met their burden of disproving the presumptive validity of the contested nomination petition. Striking Mr. Beyer’s petition under such circumstances to avoid misleading the electorate was consistent with the Election Code’s purpose of protecting, and not defeating, a citizen’s vote. View "In Re: Nom. of Michael W. Beyer" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery has been temporarily relieved of his responsibilities on the Court. Media reports alleged that Justice McCaffery attempted to fix traffic tickets against his wife, authorized her "to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in referral fees from plaintiffs’ firms while she served as [his] administrative assistant, and that he may have attempted to exert influence over a judicial assignment on the Philadelphia common pleas bench outside the scope of his official duties. Adding to the controversy was the Justice's acceptance of responsibility for exchanging hundreds of sexually explicit emails with a member or members of the Office of Attorney General, which surfaced in the course of the Attorney General’s review of the handling of the Gerald Sandusky investigation. Within thirty days, the Judicial Conduct Board shall make a determination, on an emergency basis, whether there is or is not probable cause to file formal misconduct charges against Justice McCaffery concerning any of the aforementioned allegations. View "In re: Mr. Justice Seamus McCaffery" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics

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The Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint against Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) Thomas Carney, alleging that appellee Carney violated Article V, section 18(d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Constitution and Rules 2A and 11 of the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges. Following the Court of Judicial Discipline’s dismissal of the Board’s complaint, the Board appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the CJD erred in concluding that appellee did not violate any of the enumerated provisions. Two separate incidents gave rise to charges against appellee. One involved his work on an anti-graffiti task force and the solicitation of donations for the group’s work. The other involved a traffic incident in which appellee displayed his middle finger to the occupants of another car he tried to pass along the interstate; the drivers exchanged obscenities, and the incident ended with appellee rolling down his window, driving alongside the other vehicle, and displaying a silver handgun for the other car to see. Police were called, and charges were filed: making terroristic threats, simple assault, disorderly conduct and recklessly endangering another person. Following a trial, the CJD concluded appellee did not violate Rule 11 with regard to the solicitation of donations for the task force. Further, the CJD concluded the Board failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that appellee’s conduct was so extreme as to bring his office into disrepute. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed and part. The Court affirmed the CJD in its conclusion with regard to the task-force solicitations. But the Court disagreed that the Board did not establish appellee’s conduct was “so extreme as to brought the judicial office itself into disrepute.” That portion of the CJD’s order was reversed and the case remanded for the imposition of a sanction consistent with the misconduct. View "In Re: Carney, Magisterial District Judge" on Justia Law