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Posts Tagged ‘supreme court’

In California Lawyer-Client Sex Will Soon Be A No-No

Posted on: May 14th, 2018

By: Greg Fayard

In California, lawyers can have consensual sex with their clients as long as it is not based on coercion or in exchange for legal services. That will change this Fall.  On May 10, 2018, the California Supreme Court approved comprehensive changes to the lawyer Rules of Professional Conduct—the first major change in 29 years.  Under the new rules, California lawyers cannot have consensual sex with their clients—except in one of two situations: 1) the client is the lawyer’s spouse or domestic partner; or 2) a sexual relationship existed prior to the lawyer-client relationship.  This means California lawyers can be disciplined by the State Bar for having consensual sex with clients.

The sex ban has been divisive even though at least 17 other states have adopted a similar ban. Supporters of the lawyer-client sex ban argue the relationship between a lawyer and client is inherently unequal, so any sexual relationship is potentially coercive. Others claim the blanket ban is an unjustified invasion of privacy.

The new Rule is 1.8.10 and goes into effect November 1, 2018.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

DOJ Fails to Challenge 5th Circuit Ruling Striking Fiduciary Rule

Posted on: May 3rd, 2018

By: Theodore C. Peters

On March 15, 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal stuck down the “fiduciary rule” proposed by the Department of Labor (DOL), which required brokers to act in the best interests of their clients in retirement accounts.  Subsequently, there was much speculation as to whether the Department of Justice (DOJ), acting on behalf of the DOL, would appeal that decision.  The April 30, 2018 deadline for the DOJ to appeal came and went, but …. nothing.  The Fifth Circuit’s ruling, therefore, is slotted to take effect on May 7, 2018.

In late April, AARP and several state attorneys general (including California, New York and Oregon) joined forces in seeking the court’s permission to intervene as defendants in the case, and also sought an en banc hearing before the entire 17-judge circuit. AARP contends that the court’s decision striking down the DOL rule puts Americans’ retirement security at substantial risk, resulting in an “issue of exceptional importance.”  The plaintiffs in the case, opponents of the DOL rule, formally opposed the motions to intervene on April 30.  Counsel for the plaintiffs charged that the “last-minute motions do not come close to justifying their unprecedented bid to intervene…”

On May 2, the Fifth Circuit denied the intervenors’ motions.  The court’s decision looks to be the final nail in the coffin holding the DOL’s fiduciary rule.  Despite this ruling, however, the DOL still has one more card it could play – it can file a petition by June 13 to have the Supreme Court hear the case. Even if the DOL stands quietly by and does nothing, the Supreme Court could conceivably take the case up on its own.

Ultimately, this legal brouhaha focuses attention on the SEC, which is currently taking public comment on newly proposed standards of conduct for brokers and advisors.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].

Circuits Now Split Three Ways Over False Claims Act Limitations Period

Posted on: April 26th, 2018

By: Robyn Flegal

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (governing Georgia, Alabama, and Florida), recently held that the three-year statute of limitations for the False Claims Act (FCA) begins when the government learns of alleged violations of the FCA, rather than when a whistleblower/relator learns of alleged violations.  As we previously explained in the FMGBlogLine, the FCA allows whistleblowers to bring claims for violations on behalf of the government in return for a share any recovery.  In United States of America ex rel. Billy Joe Hunt v. Cochise Consultancy, Inc. d/b/a The Parsons Corporation, a former employee alleged that certain contractors defrauded the Department of Defense out of millions of dollars for work performed pursuant to a wartime contract in Iraq.  According to the Complaint, an Army Corps of Engineer officer forged contract documents after accepting bribes and gifts.  The United States declined to intervene in the lawsuit.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama dismissed the suit on the basis that Billy Joe Hunt (the employee) was outside of the three-year limitations period for FCA claims.  FCA claims must be filed (1) within six years after the violation occurred, or (2) within three years of the time the appropriate government body is made aware of the violation and within ten years of when the fraud occurred.  The Eleventh Circuit determined that this second, three-year limitations period applies even where the United States declines to intervene in a qui tam action.  Indeed, although the employee knew of the fraud more than three years before he filed suit—his claim was timely because he filed the suit within three years of disclosing the underlying facts to the United States officials.  Simply put, in the Eleventh Circuit, the limitations period begins to run when the relevant federal government official learns of the facts; when the whistleblower learns of the fraud is simply immaterial to the statute of limitations.

There is now a three-way circuit split in the Federal Courts of Appeals regarding the tolling deadlines for FCA claims.  In contrast to the Eleventh Circuit’s holding above, the Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits have ruled that the three-year limitations period does not apply to whistleblowers at all.  The Third and Ninth Circuits have held that the three-year period begins when the whistleblower learns of the fraud.  As there is a split in the circuits, this particular action could be ripe for a decision by the Supreme Court if the defendants petition for a writ of certiorari.

As such, we will continue to monitor developments in this area.  For questions please contact Michael Bruyere at [email protected], Robyn Flegal at [email protected], or Ali Sabzevari at [email protected]

Ordinarily, Is It Professional Negligence? Georgia Supreme Court Thinks So In $22 Million Reversal

Posted on: April 17th, 2018

By: Shaun Daugherty

The Georgia appellate courts have addressed the issues between claims of ordinary and professional negligence in medical malpractice cases for a number of years.  The standards for liability are distinctly different, but in certain factual scenarios there may be a fine line drawn between the two.  The Georgia Supreme Court made a clear distinction on the issue last month in reversing a $22 million dollar compensatory verdict awarded in Southeastern Pain Specialists v. Brown.  This was after the same verdict had been affirmed by the Court of Appeals that found no error in the trial court charging the jury on both ordinary and professional negligence.

The Georgia Supreme Court had some clear leanings regarding the quality of care that was provided in the underlying lawsuit according to the evidence presented at trial.  The case involved an epidural steroid injection procedure where a pulse oximeter and blood pressure cuff were placed on the patient for monitoring while she was administered anesthesia face down.  During the procedure, the evidence was that the pulse oximeter read 0% and the blood pressure cuff registered no reading for a significant amount of time.  The evidence was that the defendant doctor, with knowledge of the readings, continued the procedure insisting that everything was fine.  After the 18-minute procedure, the patient was repositioned on her back and did not recover as expected.  She was taken to the local ER for further care and the defendant doctor indicated to the medical personnel that the patient was having complications from the anesthesia.  He failed to provide any information regarding the intra-procedure pulse oximeter or blood pressure readings. The patient was found to have suffered brain damage and ultimately died from the same.

At trial, the court charged the jury on both ordinary negligence, over objection by the defense, and professional negligence.  The plaintiff argued that the ordinary negligence charge was warranted due to the obvious obligation to save someone if they are not breathing and the misrepresentations made by the defendant doctor to the other healthcare providers.  The court provided no guidance as to which facts and circumstances in the case may apply to which theory of negligence. Further, the plaintiff appears to have argued in closing that the ordinary negligence standard was to be applicable generally to the defendants.

The Georgia Supreme Court made it clear that even “a very strong case of medical malpractice does not become a case of ordinary negligence simply due to the egregiousness of the medical malpractice.”  It was recognized that medical providers could be held to the ordinary negligence standard under the right circumstances, but primarily only in those cases where there was no need to exercise medical judgment.  Multiple times in the Court’s reversing opinion, it was highlighted that the facts of the case involved medical data provided by medical equipment during a medical procedure and the proper response to the same.  It was found that this required the exercise of medical judgment.

In cases involving claims of medical malpractice, the defendant is provided a presumption of due care which must be overcome by expert testimony by the plaintiff.  In cases involving ordinary negligence, no such presumption is given.  The Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in finding that a lay person would not need expert testimony to understand the meaning of the data provided from the medical machines and the proper method of response during the medical procedure.  The “trust” of the plaintiff’s argument was that the defendant doctor failed to properly respond to the data that was being provided by the machines.  This was information that required expert judgment and decision making which was outside the scope of ordinary negligence.

The Court determined that providing the jury with an ordinary negligence instruction, without clarification as to which facts and claims it may apply, invited them to decide the medical liability outside the boundaries for claims of professional negligence.  Primarily the need for expert testimony to overcome the presumption of due care.  This was compounded by the plaintiff’s counsel’s arguments in closing which made no distinction and appeared to encourage the ordinary negligence standard to all claims.  The jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff was a general form and did not allow the Court to determine whether the verdict was based on the application of the appropriate standard.  Because it was error to provide the ordinary negligence charge without further clarification or instruction, the Court reversed and remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals with a direction to send it back to the trial court for a full retrial as to the appealing parties, including the issue of punitive damages to which the plaintiff had previously been awarded $0.

So what does this opinion tell us?  It tells us that ordinary and professional negligence claims can live in the same case, but it is essential that they be clearly defined for the jury.  The trial court’s vague instruction, coupled with the plaintiff’s counsel’s closing argument, invited the reversal in this instance.  As the Court indicated many times, medical data from medical machines during a medical procedure require the exercise of expert medical judgment in determining the proper response.  The failure of the trial court and attorney to set this apart from any ordinary duty of care in defendant’s communications to other medical providers was harmful error which required the retrial.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Shaun Daugherty at [email protected].

Has Fiduciary Rule Suffered a Fatal Blow?

Posted on: April 4th, 2018

By: Theodore C. Peters

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) defined a “fiduciary” as someone who provides investment advice for a fee.  The following year, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) promulgated regulations that provided a five-part test for assessing whether someone was a fiduciary as defined by ERISA.  Seeking to implement a uniform fiduciary rule for all retail investment accounts, the DOL issued the Fiduciary Rule on April 6, 2016.  The Fiduciary Rule re-defined who is an “investment advice fiduciary” under ERISA and heightened the fiduciary duty to a “best interest” standard for those clients with ERISA plans and IRAs.  Previously, brokers were bound only to make “suitable” recommendations.  The Fiduciary Rule also created a “Best Interest Contract Exemption” that permitted financial advisors to avoid penalties stemming from prohibited transactions so long as they contractually affirmed their fiduciary status.

Several industry groups brought suit against the DOL, opposing implementation of the Fiduciary Rule.  In 2017, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in an 81-page ruling, ruled in favor of the DOL.  Chief Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn concluded that the DOL had not exceeded its authority and had not created a private right of action for clients. On March 15, 2018, in Chamber of Commerce v. United States Department of Labor, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit invalidated the Fiduciary Rule in a 2-1 decision.

In reversing the lower court, the Court addressed a simple but critical issue: whether the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority by expanding the definition of “investment advice fiduciary.” The Court concluded that the new definition was in conflict with ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code because it was inconsistent with the common meaning of “fiduciary.”  The Court noted that the DOL arbitrarily and improperly sought to broaden the scope of its authority through the concept of investment “advice,” that included products sold by financial salespersons and even insurance agents. Further, the Court criticized the best interest contract exemption, which permitted brokers to receive compensation for investment products they recommend (thereby creating potential conflicts), provided they agree by contract to act in the investor’s “best interests.”

By vacating the Fiduciary Rule under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Fifth Circuit effectively voided the entire rule nationwide.  The DOL could possibly request a hearing en banc before the entire Fifth Circuit, or alternatively, petition for a writ of certiorari to the United State Supreme Court.  Or perhaps, the DOL will take no action at all, in which case the Fiduciary Rule will presumably die on the vine, and the five-step test enunciated in 1975 would be resurrected. Of note, however, mere days before the Fifth Circuit’s decision, the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the DOL in the context of a more limited challenge to the Fiduciary Rule highlighting a split between federal circuits – which may in turn spur the DOL to seek Supreme Court review.

Regardless of what action the DOL takes, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) is likely to seek to implement its own rules.  Commencing in October 2017, the SEC began reviewing the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule with a goal of introducing its own new rule governing investment advice.   SEC Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate Banking Committee that the drafting of an SEC rule that harmonizes with the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule was a priority.  Despite the Fifth Circuit ruling, the SEC’s resolve appears to remain steadfast.  During a Q&A session at the SIFMA compliance conference just days after the ruling, Jay Clayton said “I’m not sitting on this… [and] as far as I’m concerned, we’re moving forward.”

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].