Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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In this case, the plaintiff, Laura Mullen, claimed that the defendants, a youth volleyball club and its owners, fraudulently concealed previous sexual abuse allegations. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, but also imposed sanctions against them and their lawyer for improperly interfering with the class notice process. The defendants appealed the sanctions.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion or commit clear error in imposing the sanctions. The court found that the defendants had intentionally interfered with the class notice and opt-out process and that their communications with class members during the notice period were potentially coercive. The court also upheld the decision of the district court to impose monetary sanctions against the defendants, which included the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses, as well as a civil penalty for each defendant.The court also affirmed the non-monetary sanctions imposed against the defendants' lawyer, who had contacted a class member directly and made a false statement to the court. Although the defendants argued that the lawyer had acted in good faith and did not knowingly or intentionally violate the rules of ethics, the court found that she had taken deliberate action to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing.Finally, the court rejected the defendants' argument that the plaintiff should have been sanctioned. The defendants claimed that the plaintiff’s use of the term “rape” was inaccurate and irrelevant, that her actions before and after filing the complaint were inconsistent, that she did not have a proper basis for bringing the suit, and that she misrepresented evidence. The court found no merit in these arguments and affirmed the district court’s decision to deny sanctions against the plaintiff. View "Mullen v. Butler" on Justia Law

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In this case, the defendant, Michael Angelo Tovar, was found guilty of various drug and firearm charges and was sentenced to 101 months in prison. He appealed his sentence, raising three issues: one surrounding his attempts to withdraw his guilty plea for the firearm charges and two concerning the calculation of his sentence.Tovar had sold cocaine to a confidential source twice and was arrested with cocaine and a large amount of cash on his person. A subsequent search of his home found further cash, a firearm, ammunition, and more drugs. Tovar pleaded guilty to all charges but later attempted to withdraw his guilty plea for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, arguing that his counsel had provided ineffective assistance. The district court denied these motions but removed his counsel from the case.Tovar also contested the district court's calculation of his sentence. The court had applied a "controlled substance offense" enhancement based on Tovar's prior Illinois cannabis conviction and had converted the cash found on Tovar's person and in his home to its equivalent marijuana weight as suspected drug proceeds.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. It found no error in the district court's denial of Tovar's motions to withdraw his guilty plea and the calculation of his sentence, including the application of the "controlled substance offense" enhancement and the conversion of the cash to its equivalent marijuana weight. The court also held that the district court did not err in denying Tovar's request for an evidentiary hearing on his motion to withdraw the guilty plea. View "USA v. Tovar" on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit examined the constitutionality of Cook County, Illinois's use of cameras to record holding cell toilets in courthouses throughout the county. The plaintiffs, pretrial detainees, claimed that the cameras infringed upon their Fourth Amendment privacy interests and also constituted an intrusion upon seclusion under Illinois law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Cook County and Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, and the plaintiffs appealed.The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the toilets in courthouse holding cells. While it acknowledged that there are questions around the extent to which detainees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their bodies while in a holding cell, it found that any privacy rights are substantially diminished. The court further held that Cook County's use of cameras in courthouse holding cells was reasonable due to the security risks inherent in the setting. The court also determined that one of the plaintiffs, Alicea, had standing to sue, but the other plaintiffs did not.Furthermore, the court affirmed the district court's decision to grant summary judgment on the plaintiffs' claim for intrusion upon seclusion. It held that the plaintiff had not met his burden on the fourth element of the claim, anguish and suffering.Lastly, the court affirmed the district court's decisions related to discovery and attorneys' fees. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in these decisions. Thus, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. View "Alicea v. County of Cook" on Justia Law

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Pfister and Evans dealt methamphetamine in Illinois. In 2016, they traveled to Colorado approximately 20 times to buy meth from Wright. After Evans sold several ounces to Heavener, officers searched Heavener’s home and recovered over 50 grams of meth. Heavener knew that Evans got the meth from “Monica” in Colorado.Wright was charged with intent to distribute at least 50 grams of meth and at least 500 grams of a mixture containing meth. She retained Garfinkel. In its opening statement, the government previewed testimony from Evans, Pfister, Heavener, and Deherrera, a Colorado-based middleman. Garfinkle also foreshadowed testimony from Deherrera, referring to him as the government’s witness. During trial, the government alerted the court that Deherrera had stated that Garfinkel had encouraged him to change his testimony. The government referenced Deherrera’s potentially exculpatory testimony but stated that it no longer planned to call him as a witness, noting that if Wright called Deherrera and he testified to being pressured to change his testimony, Garfinkel would have to take the stand to impeach him. Garfinkel denied Deherrera’s allegations. The court questioned Wright, who confirmed she agreed with Garfinkel’s strategy to not call Deherrera, understanding the possibility that Garfinkel was personally motivated. Deherrera did not testify. In closing arguments, Garfinkel described Deherrera’s absence as the missing link—a burden the government had to overcome to convict Wright. Wright was convicted and sentenced to 264 months. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding no conflict of interest and sufficient evidence of conspiracy. View "United States v. Wright" on Justia Law

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In 2003, Salem received a license to practice law in New York. He applied for but was denied a license to practice in Illinois, where he resides, but maintained an Illinois practice, from 2004-2019, by obtaining permission to appear pro hac vice. The Illinois Attorney Disciplinary and Registration Commission (IARDC) charged him with falsely representing that he was licensed in Illinois and successfully requested that the Illinois Supreme Court prohibit Illinois courts from allowing him to appear pro hac vice for 90 days. Salem filed suit, 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Salem’s suit and ordered him to show cause why he should not be sanctioned. The court first rejected Salem’s argument that every Illinois district judge should be disqualified and the case transferred to Michigan. The court then held that the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court cannot be collaterally attacked in civil litigation. The court noted that the defendant, the IARDC, did not deprive Salem of liberty or property and that there was a rational basis for the Supreme Court’s decision. The court described the litigation as frivolous and noted Salem’s history of “preposterous” behavior in federal court. View "Salem v. Illinois Attorney Registration and Discipinary Commission" on Justia Law

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C.B., a minor, suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and ADHD. During the 2017-2018 school year, the Brownsburg School Corporation determined that C.B. was eligible for accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act. In 2019, C.B. brought a shotgun shell to school with a device believed capable of discharging the shell. Brownsburg recommended expulsion. Conferences and administrative hearings followed. In April 2020, Brownsburg offered to pay for a new independent education evaluation of C.B. and to revisit C.B.’s eligibility for an individualized education plan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). C.B.’s parents agreed to various compromises if Brownsburg agreed to pay for all attorney’s fees. In July, Brownsburg indicated willingness to pay part of the fees. C.B.’s parents rejected Brownsburg’s offer and reinstated their initial demands. Brownsburg sought dismissal of the proceedings, citing its concessions and “extreme effort” to resolve this case short of an administrative hearing. The parents requested factual findings regarding attorney’s fees and acknowledgment as the “prevailing party.” The hearing officer ultimately adopted the parties’ concession regarding services for C.B. and dismissed the petitions.C.B.’s parents sued for attorney’s fees under the IDEA’, 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(I). The district court granted Brownsburg summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed, concluding that the parents were the “prevailing party” and could be eligible for fees. Brownsburg's agreement to provide every student-related remedy set out in C.B.’s parents’ due process request was not binding until the hearing officer issued a finding. View "A. B. v. Brownsburg Community School Corp." on Justia Law

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Three sets of plaintiffs alleged price fixing in the broiler chicken market, including a class of end users–persons and entities who indirectly purchased certain types of broilers from the defendants or alleged co-conspirators for personal consumption in certain jurisdictions during the class period. This class settled their claims with a subset of the defendants for $181 million. The district court entered judgment (FRCP 54(b)) as to the settling parties. Class counsel was awarded one-third of the settlement—excluding expenses and incentive awards— $57.4 million. Class member Andren argued the court erred in discounting bids made by class counsel in auctions in other cases; in suggesting the Seventh Circuit has rejected the use of declining fee scale award structures; and in crediting expert reports. In setting the fee award, the district court considered actual agreements between the parties and fee agreements reached in the market for legal services, the risk of nonpayment at the outset of the case and class counsel’s performance, and fee awards in comparable cases.The Seventh Circuit vacated the award. Under Seventh Circuit law, the district court’s task was to award fees in accord with a hypothetical “ex-ante bargain.” In doing so, the court did not consider bids made by class counsel in auctions in other cases as well as out-of-circuit fee awards. View "Andren v. Broiler Chicken Antitrust Litigation End User Consumer Plaintiff Class" on Justia Law

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The defendants each licensed computer code from Live Face for $328. Live Face then sued them for copyright infringement, seeking about $483,000 in damages. Live Face has roughly 200 copyright suits pending. After more than five years, with summary judgment pending, Live Face successfully moved to dismiss its suit with prejudice. It argued that a 2021 Supreme Court case (Google) made the defendants’ fair-use defense insurmountable. The defendants sought fees; the district court denied the motion, finding that the defendants did not prevail because of their defenses but rather due to a fortuitous, unforeseen change in the law.The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded. The Copyright Act authorizes prevailing parties to recover costs and fees, 17 U.S.C. 505. Four nonexclusive factors are relevant: the frivolousness of the suit; the losing party’s motivation for bringing or defending against a suit; the objective unreasonableness of the claims advanced by the losing party; and the need to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. The defendants did prevail because of their defenses, including their fair-use defense. No matter which side prevailed in Google, the law would favor one of these parties. It is unclear whether Google changed anything relevant here, without a proper analysis of how Google affected Live Face’s claims. Even if Google did change something fundamental, the defendants raised defenses apart from fair use, which might have defeated Live Face’s claims. View "Live Face on Web, LLC v. Cremation Society of Illinois, Inc." on Justia Law

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Mac Naughton, a New Jersey attorney, represented Harmelech in a lawsuit filed by RMG until Harmelech failed to pay his legal fees. Mac Naughton later purchased from RMG the rights to the unpaid portion of a settlement judgment and filed multiple actions against Harmelech, seeking to collect the Judgment. He sought to set aside Harmelech’s conveyance of his Highland Park home to his son. Harmelech moved to disqualify Mac Naughton under New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9(a): A lawyer who has represented a client “shall not thereafter represent another client in … a substantially related matter in which that client’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.” Judge Holderman barred Mac Naughton from acting as counsel in efforts to collect the RMG Judgment. Mac Naughton continued prosecuting the matter and filed similar actions before different judges. The Highland Park action was dismissed as a sanction for Mac Naughton’s defiance of the Order. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissals of four other cases.Mac Naughton then sued Harmelech, seeking to set aside a purportedly fraudulent stock transfer to collect the RMG Judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the suit's dismissal. This lawsuit was another attempt to circumvent the Holderman Order. Mac Naughton again argued that he did not violate Rule 1.9(a); he expects a New Jersey proceeding to vindicate him. But this dismissal was based on the Holderman Order, not Rule 1.9(a). Whether or not Mac Naughton violated his ethical duties as a New Jersey lawyer, he has a duty to comply with orders issued by Seventh Circuit courts. The appeal was frivolous; sanctions are warranted. View "Mac Naughton v. Asher Ventures, LLC" on Justia Law

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Peraica represented Dordevic in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding and submitted a Statement of Financial Affairs (Rule 2016 disclosure) in which he reported that Dordevic had paid him $5,000. As the Trustee learned during discovery, Dordevic had actually paid Peraica $21,500. The Trustee informed Peraica that he needed to file an updated Rule 2016 fee disclosure. Peraica instead sent the Trustee an informal accounting document listing $21,500 in fees. The Trustee responded: “The Rule 2016 disclosures actually need to be filed with the Court” by submitting “an official form.” Peraica repeatedly ignored the Trustee’s reminders. The Trustee filed a motion, 11 U.S.C. 329, to examine the fees. Peraica failed to respond; the Trustee then requested that all fees be forfeited. The bankruptcy court granted the motion.The district court and Seventh Circuit affirmed. Beyond Peraica’s brazen disregard of the Trustee’s advice, Peraica’s proffered explanation for not updating his fee disclosure lacking, if not false. Peraica had been involved in more than 350 bankruptcy cases in the Northern District of Illinois alone. The bankruptcy court ordered Peraica to disgorge all past fees as a penalty for his blatant lack of compliance with his obligations. There is no leeway for partial or incomplete disclosure. View "Peraica v. Layng" on Justia Law