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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/h/hyperlux/preview/fldr_2005_05_29/file000516740961.jpgAfter reading about the death of 42-year old prominent, “outspoken” Las Vegas lawyer Jacob Hafter this past week, I thought again of how tough and even unforgiving the legal establishment can be. According to news reports, the Clark County, Nevada coroner’s office ruled Hafter’s death a suicide. See “Suspended Las Vegas lawyer Jacob Hafter dies at age 42.”

Last November, the Nevada Supreme Court handed down a six-month suspension order of Hafter “partly for Facebook comments accusing a judge of religious bias.” For more details concerning his disciplinary case see “Nevada Supreme Court suspends Las Vegas attorney Jacob Hafter.”

Hafter’s sudden unexpected and tragic death has roiled members of the Las Vegas legal community, some going as far as faulting the Nevada Bar for allegedly doing little to help the lawyers it disciplines.

Ironically, in May 2017 the Nevada Supreme Court approved a state bar petition mandating an additional annual hour of continuing legal education in substance abuse, addictive disorders and/or mental health. Also see “Overwrought and over exaggerated but no matter. Over prescribed CLE is always the regulators’ fix.”

Adding to the disquietude caused by Hafter’s death was unrelated news tonight about how Broward County, Florida Circuit Court Judge Merrillee Ehrlich “brutally berate a woman in a wheelchair. The woman died. The judge has quit.” The video is unpleasant to watch, underscoring again how hard the system can be, especially on non-lawyers, too. The Miami Herald story can be found here.

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I wasn’t going to weigh in. But attorney-client confidentiality confusion is back in the news. This time it’s over President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen and Fox News Talk Show Host Sean Hannity and whether there’s an attorney-client relationship between them. So comment I will.

However, in place of comprehensively revisiting the topic again here, I direct you instead to one of this blog’s most highly read posts, “When is a client a client? On what establishes an attorney-client relationship.” It’s on point and why I decided not to let the moment pass, especially since pop culture (see below) and even some lawyers remain muddled about the subject.

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/a/alvimann/preview/fldr_2008_11_07/file0001224520150.jpgLawyer, former judge, and Hannity’s Fox News compadre Andrew Napolitano typifies the misconceptions. Discussing this week’s revelation that Hannity was Cohen’s mystery client on “Outnumbered Overtime” with host Harris Faulkner, Napolitano pushed back on Hannity’s claim he “may have” paid Cohen $10 to get attorney-client privilege. Napolitano told Faulner, “I must tell you that that is a myth. The attorney-client privilege requires a formal relationship reduced to writing for a specific legal purpose.” 

Having someone pay a lawyer a buck or ten-spot to inoculate a conversation as a privileged attorney-client communication is a common contrivance in novels, movies and on shows like “Better Call Saul” and Breaking Bad.”

But the good judge is wrong. You don’t need a writing. In a nutshell, the bright-line test to create an attorney-client relationship is whether or not the person consulting a lawyer does so “with a view to obtaining legal services.” A signed attorney-client contract or the payment of a fee — whether $1, $10 or $10,000 — isn’t relevant to establish that relationship.

Why does this matter? It matters when a client becomes a client because of the protections of the attorney-client privilege upon which clients rely. For an attorney-client privilege to be raised, an attorney-client relationship must exist.

For more about “the myth of the dollar bill as a prerequisite to the formation of a privileged relationship and the myth that all communications with a lawyer are protected,” see “Better Call Saul: Is You Want Discoverable Communications: The Misrepresentation of the Attorney-Client Privilege on Breaking Bad” and “Sean Hannity’s idea of ‘attorney-client privilege’ was right out of Breaking Bad.”

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Credit: Sean Hannity, caricature by Dokey Hotey, at Flickr via Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

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I have to confess. I had no idea that for at least 20 years judges in some U.S. criminal courts have quite literally been shocking defendants with 50,000 volts of electricity when the judge deems the defendant to be out of line. It happens incredibly enough in jurisdictions where the criminally accused can be required to wear battery operated remote-controlled stun cuffs or shock belts to court. At the command of the judge, a bailiff or law enforcement officer presses the stun button.

Unimaginably, this is the stuff of the totalitarian state — an exclamation point putting the banana in banana republic.

It takes but a few online clicks to quickly turn up instances where it’s happened — no aberration for those paying attention. A couple of years ago there was the one caught on tape in Maryland. In that case, though, the judge was disciplined and removed from the bench. See Ex-judge who ordered man to be hit with stun gun pays fine

 

Embracing “savage measures.”

Ironically, it was also 20 years ago that I first read and saved a quote by Cesare Beccaria. He was an 18th century economist, philosopher, and criminologist whose words immediately came to mind when I read last week about another judicially administered electric shock in the courtroom. This time the news concerned the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals throwing out the conviction of Terry Lee Morris on the grounds that the electric shocks ordered by Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher and Morris’s subsequent courtroom removal had violated his constitutional rights. Beccaria declared, “Societies seeking to moderate human conduct should not embrace savage measures.”

Hat tip to my buddy at The Legal Watchdog for emailing me about the Morris case. Also see ‘Barbarism’: Texas judge ordered electric shocks to silence man on trial. Conviction thrown out and Court Throws Out Conviction Of Texas Man Who Was Given Electrical Shocks By A Judge For Failing To “Follow The Rules”

Not having had any experience in the criminal courts, I had no idea some of the black-robed had been given this much power to physically punish the not yet convicted.

Where permitted, it’s left to the subjective discretion of the judge who decides if and when a defendant is being mouthy, difficult or otherwise ‘unmanageable.’ The justification for administering electrical shocks is “security.” But from the reports I’ve read too often the so-called threat to courtroom security falls more on the order of a garrulous defendant who has managed to annoy the judge.

Fortunately, not all jurisdictions allow the use of stun cuffs and shock belts in court. Indeed, four years after the first use of an electric security belt in Los Angeles County, in 2002 the California Supreme Court effectively banned their use during criminal trials. They were likewise barred in Indiana — but not so Texas.

And here I was previously exercised about judges with a penchant for shackling defense lawyers. That sanction pales by comparison to shock treatment. Just the same, let’s hope there’s never a time when handcuffing defense lawyers becomes an insufficient imposition and that instead further discretion is given to hit recalcitrant counsel with 50,000 volts of proper comportment.

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In June I wondered whether the Nevada Bar would be first to impose an unconstitutional speech code on their members. In May, that Bar’s governing board had filed a petition asking the state supreme court to amend a lawyer professional conduct rule, specifically ABA Model Rule 8.4(g).

Purporting to prohibit lawyers from engaging in harassing or discriminatory conduct, the new, vague, and over broad ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) would have chilled free speech; weaponized lawyer discipline; and infringed on lawyers’ free exercise rights.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

As it happens, though, another state beat Nevada to the punch. In August, Vermont surprised a lot of people — not the least being Vermont lawyers — to become the first and so far, the only jurisdiction to adopt the ABA’s suggested model rule.

Noting how there were “zero public comments submitted,” law professor Josh Blackman wrote on his blog, “The bar counsel for the state’s professional responsibility program boasted, “So as you can see, this rule obviously had a lot of support.” 

Opposition in Nevada

As for Nevada, acknowledging that “many comments were filed in opposition . . . that caused the Board to pause,” the Nevada Bar backed off its rule change petition in a letter to the state high court declaring “it prudent to retract.” Just the same, in what seems little more than face-saving, the Board also expressed its “reservation to refile” if and when supposed inconsistent language in other jurisdictions is sorted out. That all this so-called inconsistency in other jurisdictions was already well-known is, of course, unmentioned. Every jurisdiction, after all, is free to adopt its own professional conduct rules.

It’s also worthy of note that though the court twice extended the public comment period, no comments were ever filed in favor of the Bar’s petition. All comments filed were opposed. The Board’s request was granted September 25, 2017.

So Vermont notwithstanding, the proposal has to date continued facing strong opposition not just in Nevada but elsewhere. The key is lawyers being adequately informed about it. What has to be overcome are the preferences of mandatory bar majordomos inclined toward the enactment of onerous initiatives as fait accompli with little preceding notice, detection or commotion. But when lawyers are told and widely noticed the opportunity to comment, legal elites have problems flying their officious meddling under-the-radar.

So far the proposed ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) has been turned back in other states, including Illinois, South Carolina and Louisiana. It has been roundly criticized in Texas and failed to find traction in Montana. See “Montana legislature says ABA model rule on discrimination and harassment violates First Amendment.”

The rule is currently under review in Utah but has encountered powerful headwinds there, too. It is opposed in Idaho. And in Arizona, opponents are galvanized to fight an ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) petition queued up for January 2018.

Yet despite all this, this month the ABA Journal took artistic license to soft pedal the reality of this mounting widespread antagonism to the lawyer speech code, writing, “States split on new ABA Model Rule limiting harassing or discriminatory conduct.”

Vermont, apparently, wasn’t an outlier. “States split,” they say.

And I’m a superhero.

Alternative facts, alas, remain in vogue.

 

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Credits: “Oral Exam,” by Ben Sutherland at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “What,” by Alexander John, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “40+112 Superhero Fail,” by Bark at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

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If you’re like me, at least once in your life you’ve received a mailed “Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement.” In many instances, you aren’t required to do anything to get the so-called ‘benefits’ of the class action settlement.

However, as a bar-card carrying member of the tribe, I read the notice legalese, especially the part about how much the class action lawyers are getting paid.

Let me never be one to begrudge a lawyer’s payday — so long as the plaintiffs get genuine value consistent with the lawyers’ time and risk. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to receive a notice where the proposed remedy has been worth more than John Garner’s “bucket of warm spit.”

The reality is that too often, the class actions aren’t sensible. They don’t fix real client problems. And they don’t provide meaningful value. Indeed, the only ones making out are the lawyers.

Notably, there are exceptions. For example, there’s at least one class action lawyer calling out colleagues for filing what he terms, “lawyer’s cases.”  With unvarnished candor, he declares, “Stupid class action lawsuits filed by feckless lawyers are a disgrace.” See “Why ‘Class Action Attorney Fees’ Are Such Dirty Words.”

The foot-long.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Spitoon1928Women.jpgThe rules judges and lawyers follow are supposed to govern the class action system. These rules say a class action settlement may not be approved unless it’s “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” 

In view of my own spittoon kicking experiences, I was happy to hear those rules were getting enforced thanks to last Friday’s 7th Circuit Appeals Court Opinion torpedoing the class action lawyers in the case of the foot-long Subway sandwich that wasn’t. In the words of Appeals Court Judge Diane Sykes, “Because the settlement yields fees for class counsel and “zero benefits for the class,” the class should not have been certified and the settlement should not have been approved.” The lower court was reversed.

The sub squabble sprang from a 2013 Facebook post by Australian Matt Corby whose tape measure indicated his Subway sandwich fell short of a foot-long. That was enough to get the class action bar interested. Or as the Court put it, “It went viral. Class-action litigation soon followed.”

Judge Sykes added, “In their haste to file suit, however, the lawyers neglected to consider whether the claims had any merit. They did not. Early discovery established that Subway’s unbaked bread sticks are uniform, and the baked rolls rarely fall short of 12 inches.”

For claimants’ counsel, however, no matter if there hadn’t been a compensable injury. They sandwiched in another claim instead — one for injunctive relief. And so they reached a settlement approved by the lower court.

In sum, the settlement required Subway’s 4-year implementation of steps to ensure as much as practicable that its foot-longs be at least a foot-long while at the same time acknowledging that notwithstanding such steps, chances were that natural baking variability would make such uniformity unattainable.

The size of the fees.

For plaintiffs’ lawyers, though, the heart of the hoagie was the parties’ agreement to cap class counsel fees at over half a million simoleons — $525,000.00 to be exact. It wasn’t the size of the sandwich in the fight but the size of the fees in the grinder that mattered. See “Lawsuit over Subway ‘footlong’ subs was a ‘racket’ benefiting only lawyers, judge says.”

Theodore Frank, a member of the class and as director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Class Action Fairness, a “professional objector to hollow class action settlements,” objected to the settlement on grounds it provided no meat to class members and only fed the lawyers.

Frank has a history of objecting to settlements that only benefit the lawyers and not the class, including a case relied on by the Court, In re Walgreen Co. Stockholder Litig., 832 F.3d 718 (7th Cir. 2016).

Citing Walgreen, the Court reversed. “A class action that “seeks only worthless benefits for the class” and “yields [only] fees for class counsel” is “no better than a racket” and “should be dismissed out of hand.” Id. at 724. That’s an apt description of this case.”

In an interview Friday, Theodore Frank declared, “It’s a great win for us and it’s an important principle that lawyers can’t bring class actions just to benefit themselves. They have actual duties to class members and when they structure litigation and settlements without any benefit to the class, courts shouldn’t tolerate that.” See “7th Circuit Says ‘Utterly Worthless’ Subway Footlong Settlement Has No Meat.”

So add the Subway case to the ignoble annals of cases like the too much ice Starbucks class action; the Jimmy Johns missing sprouts class action; the no berries in the Cap’n Crunch Crunchberry complaint and the no fruit in the Froot Loops litigation. And as I wait for the first solar eclipse eyeglass class action, there’s little doubt my expectations for more of the same will be met.

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Credits: Out in Aber, Boxing Day 2009, by David Jones at Flickr; Spitoon1928Women.jpg at Wikimedia Commons, public domain; Matt Corby Facebook post; Guy dressed as a Subway sandwich, 2014 04 03, by booledozer at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; A foot long for lunch, by Gordon Flood at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Subway sandwiches & salads, by Chris Harrison at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Waiting patiently, by Quinn Dombrowski at Creative Commons Attribution.

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b5/Yogi2.JPG/246px-Yogi2.JPGAnticipating Arizona’s 66% solar eclipse tomorrow — sans ISO-approved glasses — I was thinking about Yogi Berra’s, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Unfortunately, I won’t be outside watching. In lieu of eye damage1 or a pinhole camera, instead I’ll observe the path of totality on TV or online.

A week out, I was wrong to believe I could readily pick up a pair of eclipse glasses at my local retailer. What was I thinking? The early bird gets a worm and solar eclipse glasses.

No matter. It’s not like I haven’t seen my share of Hollywood solar eclipses. Apocalypto remains a fave.

 

Known unknowns.

 

While not rising to the level of a Yogi Berra malapropism, this past week also found me reflecting on another almost ‘Yogi-ism.’ It was former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s memorable obviousness:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I thought of Rumsfeld when courtesy of our friendly state bar’s press office, I learned that a young lawyer had just been disbarred. He’d been practicing all of 6 years. What a lot of toil and treasure wasted I thought — hardly time to get an ROI.

I never met the lawyer. But I do know he was active on social media, seemingly the consummate modern-day lawyer marketer. He even officed in his own name-identified building.

There’s no point mentioning his name or discussing his case’s merits. My sole reason in raising the disbarment is that it highlights another of life’s most important truths — besides not staring at the sun. Lawyer, baker or candlestick maker, most of us don’t know as much as we think we do.

It’s an unfortunate truth that tends to be ignored, especially among some of the legal profession’s newest practitioners. Faced with paying down horrendous tuition loans, circumspection becomes an unaffordable luxury. And having survived law school and passed the bar exam, too many lawyers suffer from illusory superiority.

About the same time I read about the disbarment, the article, “Common Mistakes When Starting a Law Practice” arrived in my inbox. Disbarment wasn’t listed as one of the “common mistakes.” Overspending, incompetency and several others were. But since suspension and disbarment are always possible consequences of going it alone, mentioning those sanctions was perhaps deemed superfluous.

However, what I did think deserved mentioning but wasn’t was Rumsfeld’s succinct knowledge-gap admonition, “There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

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1Never ones to disappoint, rest assured there’ll be lawyers geared up to file product liability lawsuits for anyone claiming retinal damage from uncertified eclipse glasses. Others will hope to sign aggrieved employees ready to tag employers for injured eyeball fallout after attending ill-advised company hosted eclipse-viewing parties at work.

Credits: Yogi Berra, by Google Man at Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution.

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/William_Wordsworth.jpg/172px-William_Wordsworth.jpg

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth decried “getting and spending,” calling it “a sordid boon” that lays waste to our self and clouds our wonder of the physical world. “We have given our hearts away” he complains in “The World Is Too Much with Us.”

I memorized that poem in college. And I still find more encouragement in that English Romantic’s bleak sonnet than in the dark comedy I saw last weekend that traipses across similar anti-materialism terrain.

As the credits rolled up at the end of Beatriz at Dinner, I didn’t know whether to run or reach for a razor blade. “Critical praise = a depressing movie,” I once declared. Well this riff on healing vs. destroying called Beatriz at Dinner has been heaped with critical praise. Quick, pass the critics their Prozac.

Led by Salma Hayek, Connie Britton and John Lithgow, the cast is admittedly praiseworthy. Even the minor characters are uniformly excellent although I do tire of the trope of the ethically challenged attorney that always predictably pops up in tales of depraved material excess. This time, the lawyer is Alex played by Jay Duplass who finagles a real estate deal for mega-rich property developer Doug Strutt played by the uber-talented Lithgow.

But the good gal vs. bad guys story with Hayek as the Mexican immigrant and empathetic earth mother massage-therapy-healing Beatriz — contradictorily massages the message right out of you. I doubt that’s what the writer or the director intended.

Indeed, I think Beatriz at Dinner is meant as a sociopolitical commentary on class division and healing not hurting. One commentator even sees it as a take on innocuous questions that he calls a “gateway to casual racism.” While that commentator makes some telling points about hypocrisy, false perceptions, and how “wealth and status don’t overpower racial discrimination,” he’s too overwrought for my taste. See “Why Dark Comedy ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ Is So Cathartic for POC Audiences.” [To my insurance defense lawyers, POC here does not mean proof of claim but people of color. Who knew?]

Years ago, I had a guy try to hand me the keys to his Beemer in front of a tony Ritz-Carlton. Had I not been running late to a meeting in the hotel, I might have simply said thanks and left him with his mouth open when instead of parking the sports car like he mistakenly assumed, I’d have peeled rubber down the Coast Highway on a fast spin. And besides, these days who really thinks wealth and status don’t overpower grace and manners? Money still doesn’t buy class.

No spoiler alert necessary here. But I disagree further with the aforementioned commentator who additionally opines that the film indicts “white supremacy.” At the same time, he also asserts that this implausible sapo-de-otro-pozo [frog from the other well] story is “empowering.” It’s empowering alright — but only if by that you mean knowing how your story is going to end.

This weekend, on the other hand, I saw The Big Sick. It’s also a film about cultural differences. It relates the real life courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily Gordon. But by contrast to Beatriz, it’s indeed a comedy. It’s full of pathos, humor, and romance. There’s terrific acting, too, by Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and the actress that never disappoints, the inimitable Holly Hunter.

And no lawyers or the profession’s reputation were harmed in the making of this movie. In fact, there are no lawyers in it.

The movie is fun, funny and in point of fact empowering of the spirit. Moreover, unlike Beatriz at Dinner, you feel good walking out of the cineplex.

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Credits: William Wordsworth, public domain, at Wikimedia Commons; Beatriz at Dinner poster, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53897899; Montclair Film by “Amy Gallatin / Montclair Film” at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Swallowed in the Sea, by KellyB at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; The Big Sick, By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53943370

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