Tales from the US of A . . . Quarter 3 2021

By Summaries by Patrick Bracher, Published in International

Law firm can sue competitor for case-runners poaching clients

A New York Appeals Court is allowing a personal injury law firm to pursue a delictual interference claim against competitors who allegedly used case-runners to poach its clients. The $30 million lawsuit claims that its clients were lured away with promises of payments of about $2 000 or $3 000 which were paid from a briefcase full of cash. The competitors are alleged to have sent case-runners to a pain clinic, where they enticed patients to switch firms. The appeals court said solicitation of legal business is a misdemeanour, which would support a delictual interference claim. The competitors claim it is a publicity stunt lawsuit.

Debra Cassens Weiss May 5, 2021


Lawyer known as 'DWI Dude' gets prison time for swindling drug traffickers

A Texas criminal defence lawyer who marketed himself as the "DWI Dude" has been sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for a scheme to swindle Colombian drug-trafficking clients. He was ordered to forfeit his law office building and to pay a $1.5 million judgment. He told trafficking clients that if they paid inflated attorneys' fees, he could use the money to bribe US officials to reduce or toss their charges. In reality, there were no bribes paid to compromise government officials. The money was paid into his personal bank account in cash and included a payment delivered in a shopping bag in a mall parking lot.

Debra Cassens Weiss May 6, 2021


Supreme Court rules against warrantless seizure of guns from man on suicide evaluation

In a unanimous opinion, the US Supreme Court ruled against police who seized a man's guns without a warrant while he was in hospital for suicide evaluation. Police cannot justify the warrantless search and seizure based on the "community caretaking" exception in the Fourth Amendment. After asking his wife to shoot him with his gun to "get me out of my misery", he agreed to go to hospital, and whilst he was there, the police entered his home and took two guns.

Debra Cassens Weiss May 17, 2021


Lawyer blames mother's COVID-19 death for poor filing

An Ohio lawyer sanctioned $1 500 for filing a substandard appellate brief told the court that his failure stemmed from the COVID-19 death of his 96 year old mother. The court had cited the "striking legal emptiness" of the lawyer's brief in an action against a hospital for negligent destruction of medical records. The sanction was partly to compensate the hospital for time lost to the appeal. The court said that the 15 pages of argument had no bearing whatsoever on what the lawyer said was the main issue. Previously, in 2011, the lawyer was suspended for failing to keep client funds separate from his own money, which he blamed on being a "bad bookkeeper".

Debra Cassens Weiss May 25, 2021


Lawyers sued for leaking woman's personal information in public court filing

A fashion model has filed a lawsuit alleging that an opposing law firm exposed her social security number and other personal information in a court filing. The attorneys filed a model management agreement that included the social security number, date of birth, a photo depiction of her passport, her residential address, her email address and her phone numbers. The agreement was filed in support of a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against a modelling agency. The document was sealed the following day and subsequently filed in redacted form. The lawsuit claims that the model has been "placed at an imminent, immediate and continuing increased risk of harm from fraud and identity theft".

Debra Cassens Weiss May 26, 2021


Lawyer fined for rude gesture during Zoom oral arguments

A Michigan lawyer has been fined $3 000 for raising his middle finger during oral arguments in a Zoom hearing. He claimed that he had done so in frustration at a malfunctioning computer screen and had no idea he could be seen. He admitted that he could imagine that it appeared to others that he was gesturing at the court or his opponent but said, "I would never do so". He wasn't participating in the arguments but watching them and claimed that his computer screen went blank.

Debra Cassens Weiss June 1, 2021


Woman's conviction for low speed chase on mobility scooter has conviction reversed

A woman who led police on a low-speed chase on her electric mobility scooter was not operating a motor vehicle and should not have been convicted for fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, an Oregon appeals court has ruled. She used the scooter because of a degenerative eye disease and a pulmonary disease. She was stopped by police and cited for operating her scooter on a sidewalk and crosswalk and for failing to wear a helmet. When told she could not ride home without a helmet and would go to jail if she did so, she drove her scooter home anyway with the officers trailing behind her with their lights and siren on a low-speed pursuit for two or three minutes. They then arrested her.

Debra Cassens Weiss June 10, 2021


Legal malpractice payouts are the highest on record

Payouts for US legal malpractice claims are at an all-time high, according to a new survey by an insurance broking company. Nine of the 11 insurers participating in the survey had been involved in legal malpractice claim payouts of more than $50 million. Two of the 11 had paid a claim between $150 million and $300 million, and four of them had paid a claim of over $300 million. The 11 insurers surveyed provide insurance to 80% of the top-grossing law firms in the US. The largest number of claims stem from three practice areas: trusts and estates, business transactions, and corporate securities.

Debra Cassens Weiss May 18, 2021


Several minutes into hearing, lawyer realises he is arguing the wrong case

Five minutes and 10 seconds into a video appeal, a social security claimant's lawyer realised he was arguing the wrong case. He was talking about fibromyalgia symptoms when judges said they were looking at a case concerning diabetes, manic-depressive disorder and social phobia. He explained that he was scheduled to argue two cases and his "scheduler" had put down the wrong case to be argued. He was given a ten minute break to prepare for the other case.

Debra Cassens Weiss June 14, 2021


Supreme Court rules for Catholic foster agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the state of Philadelphia violated the free exercise clause when it refused to contract with a Catholic foster care agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples. The court said that Catholic Social Services "seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else". After hearing of the policy, the state stopped referring children to the agency. The court said that the refusal "cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the First Amendment".

Debra Cassens Weiss June 17, 2021


Forfeited Land Rover was excessive fine on drug dealer

An Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that a convicted drug dealer who challenged the forfeiture of his Land Rover should get his vehicle back, because it amounted to an excessive fine. The forfeiture was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the drug dealing crime. He used the Land Rover to transport heroin which he sold to undercover officers for $225. A second drug sale was made on foot for $160. The Land Rover, which he purchased with life insurance proceeds he received after his father died, was worth at least $35 000. He spent the rest of the inherited money, about $30 000, on heroin. As a result of the drug dealing, he spent one year in home detention and five years on probation. The vehicle forfeiture sanction was held to be punitive rather than remedial. The court said, "taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing do not reflect equal punishments".

Debra Cassens Weiss June 14


Spy plane surveillance violates Fourth Amendment

A Virginia federal appeals court ruled that a warrantless aerial surveillance programme run by the police department violated the Fourth Amendment. According to a ruling by eight judges to seven, the planes conducted surveillance in Baltimore using high-tech cameras to record the movements of the city. Aerial photography was used to track movements of people and vehicles in connection with serious crimes. The court held that the surveillance was a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Debra Cassens Weiss June 24, 2021


Court permits sex-trafficking victims to sue Facebook for facilitating recruitment

A federal law protecting websites that publish third-party content does not insulate Facebook from sex trafficking lawsuits that are based on a state statute, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled. The state supreme court allowed the statutory claim by three Houston women who alleged that their abusers recruited them as teenagers through Facebook. Texas law creates a civil cause of action for intentionally or knowingly benefitting from participation in sex trafficking. The lawsuit alleges overt acts by Facebook encouraging the use of its platforms for sex trafficking. Two of the plaintiffs were aged 14 and the third aged 15 years when they were contacted by users of Facebook and Instagram. The men flattered the girls and made promises of a better life and then advertised them as prostitutes. The suit alleges Facebook creates a breeding ground for sex traffickers, earned advertising revenue by extending its user base to include sex traffickers, increased profits by not using its advertising space for announcements to warn of the dangers, and increased profit margins by failing to implement safeguards regarding verification of user identities. Facebook said that sex trafficking is abhorrent and will not be allowed on Facebook, and that they will continue to fight against the spread of this content and against predators who engage in it.

Debra Cassens Weiss June 30, 2021


Defamation claim by attorney for exposed ties to white supremacist group dismissed

A Virginia appeals court dismissed a claim by an attorney against a Law Center for exposing his ties to a white supremacist group, which were held to be protected by the First Amendment. The court rejected the argument that the membership was not a "matter of public concern". The information was the subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public. The information related to his connections with a neo-Nazi group and attendance at a Holocaust revisionist conference, as well as a history of racism and anti-Semitism. Because the statement was protected by the First Amendment, it could not support a defamation claim.

Amanda Robert July 13, 2021


All these stories are summaries by Patrick Bracher of Norton Rose Fulbright (South Africa) of articles in the ABA Journal eReport.