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

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Spiegel served as a homeowners’ association directed until the members voted him out. The association sued Spiegel in Illinois state court, alleging that he falsely held himself out as president, attempted to unilaterally terminate another board member, froze the association’s bank accounts, sent unapproved budgets to unit owners, and filed unwarranted lawsuits on behalf of the association. The association sought to enjoin Spiegel from interfering with board decisions or holding himself out as a director and to recover damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees. A declaration that Spiegel signed when he bought his unit provided that owners who violated the board’s rules or obligations would pay any damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees that the association incurred as a result. Spiegel filed complaints and motions against the association, its lawyers, and other residents. The state court dismissed his claims and enjoined him from interfering with the board’s activities, characterizing Spiegel’s filings as “a pattern of abuse, committed for an improper purpose to harass, delay and increase the cost of litigation.” The court ordered Spiegel to pay $700,000 in fees and sanctions. Spiegel filed this federal suit against the association’s counsel, citing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. 1692a(5). The district court dismissed, concluding that the attorneys’ fees Kim requested were not a “debt” within the meaning of the FDCPA. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. An award of attorneys' fees does not constitute a “debt” under the FDCPA’s limited, consumer-protection-focused definition. View "Spiegel v. Kim" on Justia Law

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Alvarez-Espino, born in Mexico in 1970, entered the U.S. in 1996 without permission. Since then he and his wife have had four children, and he supports his family by running an upholstery business. In 2002, two men robbed him at gunpoint at a Chicago gas station. Five years later, he was arrested for drunk driving and, following a probation violation, ended up with a one-year prison term. In removal proceedings, 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(6)(A)(i), his lawyer failed to realize that Alvarez-Espino had a chance at receiving a U visa for his assistance in solving the 2002 robbery. Alvarez-Espino changed lawyers, but after protracted proceedings, the Board of Immigration Appeals denied multiple requests for relief, leaving Alvarez-Espino at risk of removal and having to await a decision on his U visa application from Mexico. The Seventh Circuit denied his petition for review. In denying relief, the Board held Alvarez-Espino to an unduly demanding burden on his allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel but the law is equally clear that Alvarez-Espino’s ability to continue pursuing a U visa means that he cannot show prejudice from his attorney’s performance. View "Alvarez-Espino v. Barr" on Justia Law

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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a). The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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In a 2007 RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs under a contingent fee agreement. The Illinois attorneys withdrew; Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. They eventually settled the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. The attorneys also disagreed over the division of the fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the district court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle, ultimately following the written fee agreement. The Seventh Circuit affirmed an award of attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, with Needle 60 receiving percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. During the dispute, Needle was without counsel and was on the verge of a default judgment, when three partners from the O’Connor law firm stepped in to represent Needle P.C. Less than three months after appearing as counsel, O’Connor “understandably” withdrew due to irreconcilable differences and a total breakdown of the attorney-client relationship. O’Connor sought compensation under a quantum meruit theory and perfected an attorney’s lien. The district court granted O’Connor’s petition to adjudicate and enforce the lien. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. O’Connor is entitled to recover in quantum meruit and the district court properly concluded that the petitioned fees were reasonable. View "Michael Needle, P.C. v. Cozen O'Connor" on Justia Law

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In the underlying 2007 civil RICO action, Needle (a Pennsylvania sole practitioner) and two Illinois attorneys represented the plaintiffs. The attorneys executed a contingent fee agreement with their clients. The Illinois attorneys later withdrew from the representation, so Needle recruited Illinois attorney Royce as local counsel. Needle and Royce agreed to split half of any fee equally and the other half proportional to the time each spent on the matter. Needle and Royce litigated the suit for several years before successfully settling the case for $4.2 million. The settlement agreement did not address attorney’s fees, costs, or expenses. All payments were made to Royce as escrow agent. Needle wanted $2.5 million, leaving the plaintiffs with $1.7 million. Needle and Royce also disagreed over the division of the attorney’s fee between themselves. Royce filed an interpleader action. The Seventh Circuit described what followed as “a long, tortured history” based on an “objectively frivolous" position; Needle “routinely and unapologetically tested the court’s patience, disregarded court orders, and caused unnecessary delays.” The court repeatedly sanctioned Needle for “obstructionist and vexatious” tactics. The district court followed the written fee agreement and awarded attorneys’ fees of one-third of the settlement, then awarded Needle 60 percent and Royce 40 percent of the aggregate. The Seventh Circuit affirmed: The district court’s rulings were correct, the sanctions were appropriate, and Needle’s other arguments are baseless. View "Royce v. Needle" on Justia Law

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Caviedes-Zuniga pleaded guilty to distributing 140 grams of heroin. 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B). He was sentenced to 111 months’ imprisonment, 77 months below the 188 -235 months recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines. After filing a notice of appeal, he told his lawyer that he wants a trial. He also told his attorney that he does not wish to contest his sentence if the conviction remains in place. Counsel asked to withdraw, representing that he deems the appeal frivolous; he argued that a successful appeal could upset the sentence and harm the defendant. The Seventh Circuit agreed and dismissed the appeal as frivolous, allowing counsel to withdraw. A judge might well reconsider the sentencing discount for acceptance of responsibility on learning that on appeal Caviedes-Zuniga tried to have the plea vacated, even if the attempt failed. View "United States v. Caviedes-Zuniga" on Justia Law

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While shopping at a Wal-Mart store, Waldon believes she slipped on a plastic hanger and fell causing her injuries. Under Indiana premises-liability law, a defendant must have actual or constructive knowledge of a condition on the premises that involves an unreasonable risk of harm to an invitee. Wal-Mart offered the testimony of employees that they had not been aware of a dangerous condition. After discovery, the district court concluded there was no evidence Wal-Mart knew of such a condition and granted it summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and, because Waldons’ counsel had deleted date stamps on photographs submitted to the court, ordered counsel to show cause why he should not be sanctioned under Rule 46 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure for misrepresenting the record to the court. View "Waldon v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

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Insurance executive Menzies sold over $64 million in his company’s stock but did not report any capital gains on his 2006 federal income tax return. He alleges that his underpayment of capital gains taxes (and related penalties and interest imposed by the IRS) was because of a fraudulent tax shelter peddled to him and others by a lawyer, law firm, and financial services firms. Menzies brought claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Illinois law. The district court dismissed all claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part. Menzies’s RICO claim falls short on the statute’s pattern-of-racketeering element. Menzies failed to plead not only the particulars of how the defendants marketed the same or a similar tax shelter to other taxpayers, but also facts to support a finding that the alleged racketeering activity would continue. A fraudulent tax shelter scheme can violate RICO; the shortcoming here is one of pleading and it occurred after the district court authorized discovery to allow Menzies to develop his claims. Menzies’s Illinois state law claims were untimely as to the lawyer and law firm defendants. The claims against the remaining financial services defendants can proceed. View "Menzies v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP" on Justia Law

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LHO's Chicago hotel underwent a branding change in February 2014 when the establishment became “Hotel Chicago,” a signature Marriott venue. Around May 2016, Perillo and his associated entities opened their own “Hotel Chicago” three miles from LHO’s site. LHO sued for trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and for trademark infringement and deceptive trade practices under Illinois law. After more than a year, LHO moved to voluntarily dismiss its claims, with prejudice. Defendants made a post‐judgment request for attorney fees, 15 U.S.C. 1117(a), for the prevailing party in “exceptional cases.” The parties identified two distinct standards for exceptionality: the Seventh Circuit’s standard, that a case is exceptional under section 1117(a) if the decision to bring the claim constitutes an “abuse of process” and the more relaxed totality‐of‐the‐circumstances approach under the Patent Act that the Supreme Court announced in Octane Fitness (2014). Other circuits have extended Octane to the Lanham Act. The district judge acknowledged Octane but adhered to the “abuse‐of‐process” standard and declined to award fees. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that Octane’s “exceptional case” standard controls. The court noted the legislative history, the Patent Act’s identical language, and the Supreme Court’s use of trademark law in Oc‐ tane View "LHO Chicago River, L.L.C. v. Perillo" on Justia Law

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McCurry worked at an Illinois warehouse owned by Mars, the candy maker, and operated by Kenco, a management firm. In 2015 Kenco lost its contract with Mars and laid off its Mars employees, including McCurry. A year later, she filed two “rambling” pro se complaints accusing Kenco, Mars, and several of her supervisors of discriminating against her based on her race, sex, age, and disability and claiming that Kenco and Mars conspired to violate her civil rights. The district court dismissed some of the claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the rest. McCurry’s response violated Local Rule 7.1(D)(2)(b)(6), under which the failure to properly respond to a numbered fact in an opponent’s statement of facts “will be deemed an admission of the fact.” Where McCurry did respond, she frequently simply stated that she “objected” to the statement without stating a basis for her objection. The judge accepted the defendants’ factual submissions as admitted and entered judgment in their favor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. McCurry did not challenge the judge’s decision to enforce the local summary-judgment rule. As a result, the uncontested record contains no evidence to support a viable discrimination or conspiracy claim. The court called the appeal “utterly frivolous and McCurry’s monstrosity of an appellate brief” incoherent, and ordered her appellate lawyer to show cause why he should not be sanctioned or otherwise disciplined. View "McCurry v. Kenco Logistic Services, LLC" on Justia Law