Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Legal Ethics
Poulsen v. Department of Defense
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees in this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) action against the DOJ. The panel concluded that plaintiff obtained relief through a judicial order that changed the legal relationship between the parties, and thus he is eligible for a fee award under 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(E)(ii)(I). In this case, plaintiff initially submitted a FOIA request for records related to the alleged electronic surveillance of President Trump and his advisors during the 2016 election. The DOJ responded with a Glomar response. After plaintiff filed suit, President Trump declassified a memorandum that divulged the existence of responsive records and the DOJ then agreed to turn over any newly revealed, non-exempt documents by a specific date.The panel explained that Congress passed the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which provided that a plaintiff may establish eligibility for FOIA attorneys' fees in one of two ways: (1) where the relief sought resulted from a judicial order or consent decree and (2) where a voluntary change in position afforded the plaintiff relief. The panel remanded to the district court to determine whether plaintiff is entitled to fees given the unique circumstances underlying the government's change of position. View "Poulsen v. Department of Defense" on Justia Law
In re Brooks
The Supreme Court ordered that Respondent William F. Brooks be suspended without compensation from office as a Judge of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division, Judicial district Twenty-Three, for thirty days from the entry of this order, holding that Respondent violated Canons 1, 2A, 5D, and 6C of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.The Judicial Standards Commission recommended that Respondent be censured for violations of Canons 1, 2A, 5D, and 6C amounting to conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that constituted willful misconduct in office. Respondent accepted responsibility for his actions, acknowledging they were wrong, and the Commission found that Respondent cooperated, admitted error and showed remorse. The Supreme Court concluded that the Commission's findings of fact were supported by clear and convincing evidence and that the Commission's conclusions of law were supported by those facts and then determined that a one-month sanction was appropriate. View "In re Brooks" on Justia Law
Bd. of County Comm’rs v. Assoc. of County Comm’rs of Okla Self-Insured Grp.
The Board of County Commissioners of Harmon County, Oklahoma, filed an action against the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma Self Insured Group (ACCO-SIG). ACCO-SIG sought to disqualify the Board's lawyers, alleging one of the Board's attorneys had a conflict of interest because he had previously represented ACCO-SIG in a substantially similar matter four years earlier. ACCO-SIG sought to have the lawyer, and his entire law firm, disqualified from representing the Board. After the trial court held a disqualification hearing, it denied ACCO-SIG's request to disqualify. ACCO-SIG appealed. The Oklahoma Supreme Court held that under the facts presented, disqualification was not required. View "Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Assoc. of County Comm'rs of Okla Self-Insured Grp." on Justia Law
Duke v. Georgia
In 2017, a grand jury indicted Ryan Duke for malice murder and related offenses in connection with the October 2005 death of Tara Grinstead. For approximately 17 months, Duke was represented by a public defender from the Tifton Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office. Then, in August 2018, Duke’s public defender withdrew from representation and John Merchant and Ashleigh Merchant filed an entry of appearance, indicating that they were representing Duke pro bono. The Georgia Supreme Court granted interlocutory review in this case to determine whether the trial court erred in determining whether Duke had neither a statutory right under the Indigent Defense Act of 2003, nor a constitutional right to state-funded experts and investigators needed to prepare a defense, notwithstanding private counsel as his representation. Contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, the Supreme Court found the IDA allowed an indigent defendant to obtain such ancillary defense services through a contract between pro bono counsel and either the Georgia Public Defender Council (“GPDC”) or the appropriate circuit public defender. Consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Duke v. Georgia" on Justia Law
Sargent v. Board of Trustees of the California State University
Sargent began working for the University in 1991 as an environmental health-and-safety technician. Sargent was the campus’s licensed asbestos consultant. Sargent sued, presenting abundant evidence about retaliation after he raised concerns about environmental hazards. A jury found in his favor on claims alleging unlawful retaliation and on a claim under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (Labor Code 2698, PAGA), which was premised almost entirely on violations of the California Occupational Safety and Health Act (Labor Code 6300, CalOSHA). He was awarded more than $2.9 million in PAGA penalties and more than $7.8 million in attorney fees.The court of appeal affirmed the award of attorney fees but reversed the award of PAGA penalties. Education Code 66606.2 does not bar PAGA claims against the California State University (CSU) system; CSU is not categorically immune from PAGA penalties because it is a public entity. Viable PAGA claims can be asserted against CSU only when the statutes upon which the claims are premised themselves provide for penalties. Here, Sargent brought some viable PAGA claims but ultimately failed to establish CSU’s liability for them because the jury found that he was not personally affected by the underlying statutory violations. View "Sargent v. Board of Trustees of the California State University" on Justia Law
Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al.
Carrie Thompson-Widmer appealed the dismissal of her claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship against Kimberly Larson, Wells County, Eddy County, and Foster County. In January 2017, Larson filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Social Work Examiners against Thompson-Widmer on the basis of Thompson-Widmer’s actions in two child protection services cases. Larson alleged Thompson-Widmer misrepresented information about a child’s home environment in one case, and altered a report about methamphetamine in an infant’s meconium in the other case. Larson also met with a state’s attorney about Thompson-Widmer’s actions. The attorney referred the matter to a special prosecutor for consideration of potential criminal charges. Because the complaint to the State Board was filed while Thompson-Widmer was a Tri-County employee, Larson placed the complaint and the supporting documents in Thompson-Widmer’s employee personnel file. After the criminal investigation into Thompson-Widmer’s action was suspended, she became employed with Catholic Charities in April 2017. Tri-County worked with Catholic Charities on adoption placement cases. Larson’s staff informed her they did not feel comfortable working with Thompson- Widmer. Larson notified Catholic Charities that Tri-County would rather work with someone other than Thompson-Widmer. Catholic Charities submitted an open records request for Thompson-Widmer’s personnel file, and Larson fulfilled the request on Tri-County’s behalf. In May 2017, after receiving the personnel file, which included Larson’s complaint against Thompson-Widmer, Thompson-Widmer was terminated because she was not forthcoming about her issues while employed by Tri-County. After review, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding Larson’s communications were privileged and therefore not subject to liability for defamation. View "Thompson-Widmer v. Larson, et al." on Justia Law
Wireman v. Commissioner of Social Security
For many years, attorney Conn obtained social security benefits for his clients by submitting fraudulent reports and bribing an Administrative Law Judge. After the government discovered this fraud, the SSA decided to redetermine whether each of Conn’s 1,500 claimants was actually eligible for disability benefits. The SSA held hearings and allowed the claimants to submit evidence but categorically excluded medical reports created by the doctors with whom Conn had conspired because it had “reason to believe” fraud was involved in the creation of the reports (42 U.S.C. 1383(e)(7)(A)(ii))). The claimants were not permitted to challenge that finding. After the denials of their claims, 57 plaintiffs filed suit.The Sixth Circuit held that the exclusion of the reports violated the Due Process Clause and the APA. On remand, the district courts concluded that remand to the SSA was proper because “the Commissioner erred in some respect in reaching the decision to deny benefits.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed the subsequent denial of the plaintiffs’ motions for attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The government’s position in the litigation was “substantially justified,” in light of the precedent cited by the government, the rationale for the decision, and the fact that district courts across the country have split on this issue. The case involved numerous issues of first impression. Despite the fact that the government’s arguments were rejected, a reasonable person could have believed them to be correct. View "Wireman v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law
IN RE: Request of the Trustees of the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection for an Advisory Opinion
The trustees of the Delaware Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection (the “LFCP”) requested an advisory opinion from the Delaware Supreme Court regarding whether the trustees had discretion to consider paying claims involving misconduct by attorneys who were not members of the Delaware bar, but who were admitted pro hac vice or who had in the past received limited permission to practice. The question arose from the language of Supreme Court Rule 66(a)(ii), which stated that the purpose of the trust fund was to address “losses caused to the public by defalcations of members of the Bar;” subsections 1 and 2 of Rule 4(1) of the LFCP Rules, which provide that the Trustees will consider for reimbursement from the fund certain claims involving “a member of the Delaware Bar;” and subsection 3 of Rule 4(1) of the LFCP Rules, which provides that the trustees will consider for reimbursement certain claims involving a “member of the Bar.” The Supreme Court held that the trustees’ discretion was not limited to paying claims for reimbursement involving an attorney who was a member of the Delaware bar at the time of the defalcation that gave rise to the claim. View "IN RE: Request of the Trustees of the Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection for an Advisory Opinion" on Justia Law
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC
On remand from the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed the district court's order granting CFPB's petition to enforce the law firm's compliance with the Bureau's civil investigative demand (CID) requiring the firm to produce documents and answer interrogatories. The Supreme Court held that the statute establishing the CFPB violated the Constitution's separation of powers by placing leadership of the agency in the hands of a single Director who could be removed only for cause. The Court concluded, however, that the for-cause removal provision could be severed from the rest of the statute and thus did not require invalidation of the agency itself.The panel concluded that the CID was validly ratified, but the panel need not decide whether that occurred through the actions of Acting Director Mulvaney. After the Supreme Court's ruling, the CFPB's current Director expressly ratified the agency's earlier decisions to issue the civil investigative demand to the law firm, to deny the firm's request to modify or set aside the CID, and to file a petition requesting that the district court enforce the CID. The new Director knew that the President could remove her with or without cause, and nonetheless ratified the agency's issuance of the CID. Therefore, this ratification remedies any constitutional injury that the law firm may have suffered due to the manner in which the CFPB was originally structured. The panel explained that the law firm's only cognizable injury arose from the fact that the agency issued the CID and pursued its enforcement while headed by a Director who was improperly insulated from the President's removal authority. The panel concluded that any concerns that the law firm might have had about being subjected to investigation without adequate presidential oversight and control have now been resolved. The panel rejected the law firm's remaining contentions. View "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC" on Justia Law
Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor.
In September 2014, prior to the request for the records at issue in this case, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report which alleged a causal connection between the ill health of inmates at SCI-Fayette, and the facility’s proximity to a fly ash dumpsite. In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) coordinated with the Department of Health (DOH) to investigate the allegations (the No Escape Investigation). Reporter Christine Haines of The Herald Standard (Appellees) sent an e-mail Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL) request to the DOC seeking documentation of inmate illnesses. The DOC denied Appellees' request in its entirety, citing several exceptions under Section 708(b) of the RTKL, as well as attorney-client privilege and deliberative process privilege grounds. Then in December 2014, in-house counsel for the DOC disclosed fifteen pages of records to Appellees. Appellees asked DOC to verify that its December disclosure was a complete response. Several additional records were subsequently released, but implicitly, the records released were the DOC's response. In February 2015, Appellees filed a petition for enforcement with the Commonwealth Court, seeking statutory sanctions and attorney fees alleging DOC demonstrated bad faith in responding to the request for records. The court identified records that the DOC should have provided. But because the panel could not discern the full extent of any non-compliance by DOC, the panel directed the parties to file a stipulation as to the disclosure status of court-identified five classes of records. Appellees' motion was thus denied without prejudice, and the court reserved judgment on the issue of bad faith sanctions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted appeal in this matter to consider the assessment of sanctions and fees based on the Commonwealth Court's finding of bad faith and willful and wanton behavior. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, finding that Section 1304(a0(1) of the RTKL “permit[s] recovery of attorney fees when the receiving agency determination is reversed, and it deprived a requester of access to records in bad faith.” View "Uniontown Newspaper, et al v. PA Dept of Cor." on Justia Law