Justia Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“the Commission”) recommended to discipline Judge Jerry L. Denton, Jr., City Court Judge of Denham Springs, Louisiana. A complaint against Judge Denton was filed by attorney Maria Finley to the Office of Special Counsel (the “OSC”). Finley was retained by Stephanie Bardeau-Marse to file a petition to intervene in a Child in Need of Care proceeding (“CINC proceeding”) in which Judge Denton presided. While the case was pending before Judge Denton, he responded and initiated improper ex parte communications with Bardeau-Marse. These improper ex parte communications precipitated other misconduct, which led to the complaint, a Notice of Hearing from the OSC to Judge Denton, and an investigation by OSC. The Louisiana Supreme Court found Judge Denton violated Canons 1, 2A, 3A(6), and specified portions of 3A(4) and 3C of the Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct (1996), and specified portions of La. Const. art. V, section 25(C)(1974). The Court found a suspension from office without pay for four months and payment of costs incurred by the Commission for $4,676.25 was an appropriate sanction. View "In re Judge Jerry Denton, Jr." on Justia Law

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This matter arose from the recommendation of the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana (“the Commission”) that Judge Johnell M. Matthews of Baton Rouge City Court be removed from office because she was constitutionally barred from remaining in judicial office having reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy prior to the commencement of her term. On January 8, 2020, Judge Matthews qualified for the special election to fill the vacancy of Division “C” of the Baton Rouge City Court. The primary election was scheduled for April 4, 2020 with a runoff election on May 9, 2020, if necessary. Due to the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic and the rising cases within the State of Louisiana, the governor declared a State of Emergency and issued two proclamations that postponed the special election twice.On June 7, 2020, Judge Matthews turned seventy years old. In the primary election, Whitney Higgenbotham Greene received 32% of the vote and Judge Matthews received 29% of the vote. Prior to the runoff election, a suit was filed against the Louisiana Secretary of State, the Louisiana Attorney General, and Judge Matthews, requesting that Judge Matthews’ name be removed from the ballot because she had attained the age of seventy before the primary election. The district court dismissed this suit on procedural grounds. Judge Matthews won the runoff election, having received 63% of the vote. Her opponent filed suit challenging the results of the election due to Judge Matthews’ age. The district court dismissed the suit. During the pendency of the appeal, Judge Matthews received her commission from the governor and took her oath of office. After considering the facts, circumstances, and applicable law, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the recommendation of the Commission and imposed no discipline. View "In re: Judge Johnell Matthews" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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The State of Louisiana alleged that in July 2015, defendant Walter Johnson, JaQuendas Octave, Jay Lyons, and Casey Johnson took jewelry, cell phones, wallets, money, and credit cards at gunpoint from Roussel’s Antiques on Airline Highway in Gonzales and from the store’s employees. In September 2015, the State charged defendant and the others with four counts of armed robbery committed with the use of a firearm. The State also charged defendant with possession of a firearm by a person convicted of certain felonies. Defendant’s trial was set for June 21, 2017, with a status hearing scheduled for April 17, 2017. However, defendant was not transported to court on April 17. The trial court reset trial for the week of January 22, 2018, and advised the parties that this was a special setting and no further continuances would be granted. For various reasons, such as witness unavailability, scheduling conflicts and other issues, none of which were attributable to the defense, trial was set for September 2019. After argument, the trial court granted defendant's motion to quash, finding the State had flaunted its authority to dismiss and reinstitute to, in effect, grant itself the continuance the trial court had denied, and that the State had done so as a dilatory tactic at defendant’s expense. While acknowledging that the unavailability of a material witness might ordinarily justify granting a continuance, the trial court determined that the witness unavailability was used a pretext and the State was simply unprepared for trial. The court of appeal reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded for further proceedings. The court of appeal found that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting the motion to quash because defendant was not prejudiced by the delay. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal, finding the appellate court erred in determining that the trial court abused its discretion in granting defendant’s motion to quash. "Under the unusual circumstances presented, we can find no abuse of discretion when the record supports the trial court’s determination that the absence of the witness was a pretext and that the State was simply unprepared for trial." View "Louisiana v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Judge F. Stanton Hardee, III was elected judge for the Kaplan City Court in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, and took office in 2015. In January 2017, Judge Hardee attended a bachelor party in Park City, Utah celebrating his upcoming wedding. He visited a local bar and consumed excessive amounts of alcohol, becoming extremely intoxicated. It was undisputed that he grabbed the buttocks of a waitress without her consent. Park City Police were called, he did not immediately produce identification, and he failed to cooperate with police at the scene. Judge Hardee was charged with multiple misdemeanors under Utah law: (1) Sexual Battery; (2) Failure to Disclose Identity; (3) Interference with Arresting Officer; and (4) Intoxication. He pled no contest to these charges and fully satisfied all terms and conditions of the plea. As a part-time city court judge, Judge Hardee was allowed to practice law. Consequently, he was subject to the jurisdiction of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC), which regulated attorneys. In November 2018, a joint petition for consent discipline was filed by Judge Hardee and the ODC. The court approved the requested consent discipline, which included a five-year JLAP monitoring agreement that began December 5, 2017. The consent discipline resulted in Judge Hardee being suspended from the practice of law for one year with all but six months deferred, followed by probation coinciding with the remainder of his JLAP monitoring agreement. If successfully completed, JLAP monitoring would end December 5, 2022. The Louisiana Supreme Court adopted the Commission’s recommendation, except for the length of monitoring by the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP): the Court required Judge Hardee to successfully complete the five-year JLAP monitoring agreement executed on December 5, 2017. View "In re: F. Stanton Hardee, III" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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In consolidated cases, Michael Mitchell, Chief Indigent Defender for the Office of Public Defender for East Baton Rouge Parish, filed a “Motion to Withdraw from Current Appointments and to Decline Future Appointments” in 2018 in each of these Nineteenth Judicial District Court (“19th JDC”), Section VI cases. Mitchell alleged that long term chronic underfunding of the public defender’s office had necessitated the implementation of “service restriction protocols,” pursuant to La. Administrative Code, Title 22, Section 1701 et seq., and led to the elimination of a number of attorney and support staff positions. Mitchell asserted that the consequent increase in the workloads of the remaining attorneys could potentially create conflicts of interest, as counsel might have to allot more time to one case over another, and could potentially cause ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct. In response (which were confined to 19th JDC, Section VI cases), the State filed motions for dismissal of the motions for withdrawal and Daubert objections to expert testimony relative to the La. Project since it was based on the “Delphi Method,” contending, inter alia, that the Delphi Method produced unreliable generalized conclusions about the Louisiana public defender system and, further, that Louisiana v. Peart, 621 So.2d 780 (La. 1993), required individualized findings as to whether there has been ineffective assistance of counsel in each specific case. The district court ruled in favor of the State, implicitly finding that any remedy related to chronic underfunding of the public defender system was within the exclusive purview of the Louisiana Legislature and was outside the parameters of what the court had the authority to fashion; however, the court stated that it would consider any individual motions to withdraw from, or to decline, representation on a case-by-case basis. Thereafter, the appellate court granted the district public defender’s writ application, in part, to reverse the district court’s denial of the motions to withdraw, to vacate the district court orders appointing the public defender in the remaining ongoing consolidated cases, and to grant the request to allow the named public defenders to withdraw from future representation of indigent defendants “until the caseloads are no greater than 100% of his or her annual capacity.” The Louisiana Supreme Court found the appellate court's conclusion was reached without evidence of the specific factual details surrounding the work performance of the individual assistant public defenders: "the question of whether assistance of counsel has been constitutionally ineffective cannot be answered without a detailed examination of the specific facts and circumstances of the representation provided by counsel to the individual defendant. Therefore, the appellate court erred in reversing the district court and ruling in favor of Mr. Mitchell." The district court's rulings were reinstated. View "Louisiana v. Covington" on Justia Law

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The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana filed a disciplinary proceeding against respondent, Justice of the Peace Cody King on one count that alleged respondent violated Canons 1, 2, 2A, 3A(1), 3A(7), and 3B(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct (1996) and La. Const. Art. V, section 25(C). In 2018, the Attorney General's Office filed the first of three complaints against Respondent with the Office of Special Counsel of the Commission, asserting that Respondent failed to respond to constituents in his district, and likewise failed to respond to letters or calls from the Attorney General's office. In 2019, Hannah Zaunbrecher filed a complaint, asserting: (1) Respondent was difficult to reach; (2) he overcharged Ms. Zaunbrecher for an eviction she filed; (3) he did not set a court date in the eviction matter despite repeated requests from Ms. Zaunbrecher after the eviction was filed; and (4) Respondent failed to refund the unearned filing fee. The OSC sent letters to Respondent notifying him of each complaint. Respondent did not reply despite later acknowledging that he received them. After a hearing on these charges, the Commission filed a recommendation with the Louisiana Supreme Court concluding that the above violations had been proven. To this, the Supreme Court agreed with the Commission’s recommendation, and ordered the removal of Respondent from office, that he reimburse the Commission the costs incurred in the investigation and prosecution of the case, and further, that he pay restitution for an unearned filing fee he failed to return to Parish Leasing Company, LLC. View "In re: Justice of the Peace Cody King, Ward 6, Morehouse Parish" on Justia Law

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The Louisiana Supreme Court granted this writ application to determine whether “collectibility” was a relevant consideration in a legal malpractice action. Specifically, the issue presented was whether plaintiff’s damages in this legal malpractice action were limited to the amount she could have actually collected on a judgment against the tortfeasor in the underlying lawsuit. Elaine Ewing was injured in an automobile accident in 2015, when her vehicle was hit by a vehicle driven by Marc Melancon. Her counsel failed to forward the original petition for damages within seven days as required by La. R.S. 13:850. The original petition was filed on April 22, 2016, after the one-year prescriptive period had passed. Ms. Ewing’s suit was dismissed on an exception of prescription. Ms. Ewing subsequently filed a legal malpractice action against her attorney and Westport Insurance Corporation, counsel's malpractice insurer. Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment asserting the court should apply the “collectibility rule.” Defendants alleged Ms. Ewing’s recovery could be no greater than her potential recovery in the underlying personal injury lawsuit, and recovery in this case should have been capped at Mr. Melancon’s insurance policy limits. The Supreme Court held that proof of collectibility of an underlying judgment was not an element necessary for a plaintiff to establish a claim for legal malpractice, nor could collectibility be asserted by an attorney as an affirmative defense in a legal malpractice action. View "Ewing v. Westport Ins. Co., et al." on Justia Law

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In consolidated actions, the common issue presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a writ of mandamus should issue to the clerk of an appellate court for the purpose of directing the clerk to comply with certain rules for the random assignment of panels and cases at that court. In a three-page per curiam, the First Circuit explained its allotment procedures were changed in 2019 after the 2018 amendment to La. R.S. 13:319. The First Circuit stated it adopted rules requiring a procedure for random allotment by the Clerk’s office of both appeals (Internal Rule 2.3(d)(l)(c)) and writ applications (Internal Rules 3.9(a)),4 with consideration for recusals and emergencies. In a supplemental per curiam, the First Circuit discussed composition of judicial panels, each regular panel comprising of one member randomly chosen through mechanical means from the four members of each of the Court's three election districts. The random composition of the initial three-judge panels was adopted pursuant to a five-year plan of rotation of members among the panels. To further ensure random composition of the panels, panel members of particular panels did not sit as an intact panel in the following year. The four randomly drawn regular panels also sat on writ duty throughout the Court's six appeal cycles. Petitioner Texas Brine’s petition alleged the First Circuit’s composition of judicial panels “dramatically limits the number of unique panels that can hear writs, appeals, and contested motions before the First Circuit from 220 unique combinations to 64 unique combinations - a reduction of approximately 70.9%.” It concluded this policy was an “affront to the requirement of randomness.” The Solomon plaintiffs’ mandamus petition was premised on the First Circuit’s practice, used between 2006-2018, of assigning subsequent appeals or applications for writs to a panel which included a judge who sat on the original panel and may have taken the lead or authored the first opinion/ruling in the case. The Supreme Court determined the First Circuit’s assignment system was reasonably designed “to select judges for panels in a random fashion which does not permit intentional manipulation by either the judges or the litigants.” The Court therefore denied Texas Brine’s mandamus petition, and dismissed the Solomon plaintiffs’ application as moot. View "Texas Brine Co., LLC v. Naquin" on Justia Law

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In 2016, a grand jury indicted defendant Fred Reimonenq on charges of first degree rape, attempted first degree rape, and sexual battery of a victim under the age of 13. Trial was scheduled to begin on September 25, 2018. On the Sunday before this trial date, the state presented defense counsel with a curriculum vitae, but apparently nothing more, of Anne Troy, Ph.D., a sexual assault nurse examiner, who it intended to call as an expert witness at trial. On the morning of trial, the state provided defense counsel with formal notice of its intent to use Dr. Troy’s testimony. Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude any expert testimony that had not been properly noticed under La.C.Cr.P. art. 719, including Dr. Troy’s testimony. The trial court granted the defense’s motion in limine and excluded Dr. Troy’s testimony. The court disallowed any attempt at supplementation based upon its finding there was “a timing issue” that still made the late notice “prejudicial to the [d]efense and [did] not afford the [d]efense the opportunity to conduct whatever defensive positions it might otherwise be able to take had it had more time . . . .” The state noted its intent to apply for supervisory writs, but did not do so, and, instead, opted to enter a nolle prosequi. Two days later, on September 27, 2018, the state filed a new indictment on the same charges. On October 18, defendant appeared for arraignment and orally moved to adopt all previous filings and motions from the original case. Trial was then set for December 3, 2018. On November 27, 2018, the state filed its supplemental notice pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 719 with respect to Dr. Troy’s testimony. On the morning of trial, defense counsel filed a supplemental motion in limine regarding Dr. Troy’s testimony and a related motion to quash. The issue this case presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court's review centered on the authority of the district attorney to dismiss and reinstitute criminal prosecutions. Because the actions of the state in this matter "so undermine the authority of the trial court that it offends bedrock principles of fundamental fairness and due process," the Court reversed. View "Louisiana vs. Reimonenq" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against certain judges of the Fourth Judicial District Court (Louisiana) as well as a law clerk employed by that court. Essentially, plaintiffs alleged the law clerk “spoliated, concealed, removed, destroyed, shredded, withheld, and/or improperly ‘handled’ court documents” in earlier litigation involving plaintiffs, and that the judges either aided or concealed these actions. The judges and law clerk filed motions to strike certain allegations from plaintiff’s petition and also filed exceptions of no cause of action. The district court granted the motions to strike and granted the exceptions of no cause of action. On appeal, a divided en banc panel of the court of appeal reversed the motions to strike in part. The court also reversed the granting of the exception of no cause of action as to the law clerk, but affirmed the granting of the exception of no cause of action as to the judges, finding they were entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Considering the "highly unusual and specific facts" of this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded the court of appeal erred in finding the judges were entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Accepting the facts as alleged in the petition as true for purposes of the exception of no cause of action, the Supreme Court found plaintiff’s allegations regarding the judges’ supervision and investigation of the law clerk’s activities arose in the context of the judges’ administrative functions, rather than in the course of their judicial or adjudicative capacities. Therefore, accepting on the well-pleaded allegations of plaintiff’s petition, the Supreme Court found absolute judicial immunity would not apply, and plaintiff was able to state a cause of action against the judges. View "Palowsky v. Campbell et al." on Justia Law