News

Report: More Ethics Charges Filed Against Weirich

The Board of Professional Responsibility has filed additional disciplinary charges against Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich in the prosecution of Noura Jackson, the Commercial Appeal reports. The charges filed Friday relate to a statement by a witness that was not turned over to the defense until after Jackson’s trial. Weirich was the lead prosecutor in the 2009 trial of Jackson, who was convicted of killing her mother. However, the conviction was “reversed and remanded by the Tennessee Supreme Court based, in part, on the failure of the prosecution to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense,” the BPR argues in the filing. The paper has several filings in the case.

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Board Reprimands Judge Anderson

The Board of Judicial Conduct issued a public reprimand on Oct. 26 for Shelby County General Sessions Judge Bill Anderson Jr. after he intervened in the bond-setting process for an acquaintance. When Anderson discovered that an acquaintance had been arrested and placed in the Bartlett jail, he made several calls to the jail and then went there in person to inquire about the bond. While there, he discovered that bond had not yet been set. Citing his position, Anderson directed the jail employee to release the individual on his own recognizance. The employee declined to do so. Anderson later spoke with the Barlett judge, who had since set bond at $10,000. Anderson questioned the judge’s actions, claiming he had already released the individual. The board found that Anderson violated Canon 1, 2 and 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

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ABA Releases Latest Data on Malpractice Claims

The ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability has issued its latest in a series of studies on the state of legal malpractice claims in the United States and Canada. “Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims” has tracked legal malpractice trends for 30 years. This one-of-a-kind data analysis provides attorneys and insurance analysts an in-depth look at current trends as well as comparisons to historical data. The committee chair said this year’s report shows a reduction in real estate claims (which likely stemmed from the economic crisis) but a growth in estate, trust and probate claims, which she attributes to rising numbers of retiring baby boomers.

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Judge Sammons Wins Dismissal of 2 Charges

Campbell County General Sessions Court Judge Amanda Sammons may have lied under oath and abused her authority in a contempt case, but she did not commit the crime of which she is accused, Senior Judge Paul G. Summers ruled today. Summers dismissed two of the four counts filed against Sammons after hearing arguments from her defense that she had the authority to issue a contempt petition even if others did not ask her to do so as she claimed. That means she will not face charges for the petition she filed against Campbell County attorney Kristie Anderson. The two remaining charges relate to her handling of the case of Krista Leigh Smith, who alleges that Sammons caused her spend almost 48 hours in jail for a crime for which she was not accused. The Knoxnews has more on the story.

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Ethics Opinion Addresses Settlement Agreements that Require Release of Work Product

The Board of Professional Responsibility recently issued Formal Ethics Opinion F-161 regarding the ethical propriety of a settlement agreement that requires the release of lawyer work product. To the extent settlement provisions require attorneys to turn over documents protected by the lawyer work product doctrine, the provisions may be prohibited by Tennessee Rule of Professional Conduct 5.6(b). That is, a lawyer may not propose or agree to a settlement agreement that requires a lawyer to turn over any work product materials as part of the settlement if that action will restrict the representation of other clients.

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October TBJ: Alimony, Pro Bono and Fred Gray

Even when income changes dramatically at retirement, alimony in futuro does not change without asking the court for a modification. This may be a shock to your clients, but Memphis lawyer Miles Mason Sr. explains it in this new Tennessee Bar Journal. October is “Celebrate Pro Bono Month” and Chattanooga lawyer Russell Fowler looks at President James A. Garfield’s good example as a lawyer doing pro bono. The Journal also highlights civil rights icon Fred D. Gray upon the opening of an institute named in his honor. TBA President Jason Long examines the core values and principles that define us as lawyers and the profession. Read the October issue.

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Scott County Judge Ends Use of Electronic Monitoring

Scott County General Sessions Court Judge James L. Cotton Jr. has stopped using electronic monitoring devices in the wake of a newspaper investigation into the practice, Knoxnews reports. Cotton said he ended the program and terminated the services of Howard Barnett, who had been providing the electronic monitoring devices. He said he had no financial stake in Barnett’s firm and used the service as an alternative to bonds and jail for the poor. He expressed regret for any misuse and said he “self-reported” the newspaper's findings to the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.

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CLE SKI Set for Jan. 22-27 in Snowmass

Mark your calendar for the 32nd Annual TBA CLE SKI, being held Jan. 22-27, 2017, at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, Colorado. Participants will be able to attend CLE sessions each morning and afternoon with plenty of time to hit the slopes in between programs. Topics will cover entertainment law, social security disability, updates on labor and employment law, ethics and a U.S. Supreme Court case review.

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Kingsport Lawyer Gets Probation for SSI Scheme

Kingsport attorney Everett Mechem, who was convicted earlier on 30 counts of fraud in connection to a Social Security payment scheme, has been sentenced to four years of probation, the Times Free Press reports. He also must pay $34,280 in restitution and a $3,300 fine, and perform 200 hours of community service. According to evidence presented at trial, Mechem, acting as the attorney and representative payee for his wife, schemed to defraud the government of nearly $37,000 in SSI payments for which she was not entitled. He previously was suspended from the practice of law by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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Case to Continue Against Memphis Prosecutor

Disciplinary proceedings will continue against Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Stephen P. Jones on two charges he violated rules of professional conduct in the prosecution of Noura Jackson, according to an order released yesterday. The disciplinary hearing panel did grant summary judgment on a third charge involving fairness to the opposing party, the Commercial Appeal reports. The Board of Professional Responsibility accuses Jones of failing to provide a witness statement to the defense. Jones argues he made an inadvertent mistake and did not knowingly withhold the document. The panel will now conduct an investigation.

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Lawyer Calls ADA’s Oversight ‘Inadvertent Mistake’

Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Stephen P. Jones is facing misconduct charges before the Board of Professional Responsibility, with the board alleging that as co-counsel in the prosecution of Noura Jackson he failed to disclose to the defense a third statement from one of the prosecution witnesses. The board is also pursuing a separate proceeding alleging that lead counsel and District Attorney Amy Weirich improperly commented on Jackson’s right to remain silent. The Tennessee Supreme Court threw out Jackson’s murder conviction. After Jones did not agree to a public censure, the board filed a petition for discipline against him. Jones’ lawyer argued this week that Jones is entitled to summary judgment because the record demonstrates only an inadvertent mistake and no ethical misconduct, The Commercial Appeal reports.

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Ethics Opinion: Judges Must Hear Cases to Sign Orders

The chair of the Judicial Ethics Committee says that conduct rules do not allow judges to retroactively sign orders without hearing evidence, and that such practices could violate a person’s right to be heard in court and could appear to be an impropriety. Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Alan Glenn issued the informal opinion in response to a request from Nashville General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland, who sought the guidance after news broke that General Sessions Judge Rachel Bell retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions without hearing the cases herself. Glenn said he will not write a formal ethics opinion, which would require approval of the other judges on the committee, the Tennessean reports. He did not address the specific case involving Bell.

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Court Seeking Comments on Proposed Amendments

The Tennessee Supreme Court is considering amending Rule 7, section 16.01, and Rule 9, section 30.3, which deal with reinstatement of a law license after a disciplinary or administrative suspension, disbarment or inactive status designation. The court also is seeking comments on proposed amendments to Rule 19 that are designed to eliminate a potential conflict between Rule 7, section 5.01(g)(8) and Rule 19, which deals with pro hac vice appearances before Tennessee courts and agencies. Comments on both proposals are due by Oct. 10.

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Moreland Seeks Ethics Opinion on Bell’s Conduct

Nashville General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland has asked the Judicial Ethics Committee to weigh in on whether it is ethical for judges to sign orders in cases they do not hear. The move from the court's presiding judge comes after reports that Judge Rachel Bell signed orders committing 53 individuals to mental health facilities after their cases were heard by a substitute judge. Moreland took over as presiding judge from Bell this week. Asking for the ethics opinion was one of his first acts, the Tennessean reports.

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ABA Seeks Professional Responsibility Center Director

The American Bar Association is seeking a director for its Center for Professional Responsibility. Responsibilities include strategic planning, policy development, financial management and personnel administration. Candidates should have 15 years of professional legal experience with executive responsibilities, 10 years of legal experience in the field of professional responsibility or legal/judicial regulation, five years of experience leading an organization and supervising a team, and an active law degree.

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Court Square Series: Sept. 8 in Kingsport

The 2016 Court Square series is heading to Kingsport. On Sept. 8, the course will be presented at the Higher Education Center. Mark Fulks, Parke Morris and Donald J. Farinato will address ethics in legal writing, privilege law in Tennessee and the revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.

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Court Seeks Comments on 2 Proposals, Sets Legal Aid Funding Ratios

The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued three orders. The first amends Rule 11 Section VI(a)(1), which sets out the amounts that the state’s four legal aid organizations receive from the Civil Legal Representation of Indigents Fund. The order, which will take effect Sept. 1, changes the percentage of funding each organization receives based on the percent of poverty in their service areas. The second order seeks comments by Sept. 19 on a proposal by the Board of Professional Responsibility and Tennessee Bar Foundation to amend Rules 8 and 43 to allow attorneys to deposit trust funds in federally insured credit unions. The third order seeks comments by Nov. 17 on a proposal by theTBA to amend Rule 8 to make a number of changes recommended by the ABA's Commission on Ethics 20/20.

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Nashville Lawyer Gets Jail Time, 10 Years Probation

Nashville personal injury lawyer John L. Lowery will stay in jail until late October and then serve 10 years on probation for stealing more than $330,000 from his clients, the Tennessean reports. Prosecutors also said Lowery settled nine cases without his clients’ knowledge or consent, signed their names to settlement checks without their permission, misappropriated settlement funds, and made them think their cases were progressing. In imposing the sentence, Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier said Lowery’s “deceit strikes at the very heart of our legal system, a system wherein a lawyer should be a guiding light steering clients through the process in pursuit of justice rather than a dark force deceiving those who have rightfully placed in the lawyer their trust..."

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Fee-Sharing Opinion May Signal Bad News for Avvo

A South Carolina ethics opinion on fee-sharing highlights a potential obstacle for services like Avvo, which match lawyers willing to provide defined legal services with clients who pay a fee up front. The July 14 advisory opinion targets variable marketing fees, saying such arrangements amount to a “contingency advertising fee” rather than a “cost that can be assessed for reasonableness.” Such services might also violate rules that ban lawyers from sharing fees with non-lawyers or paying for a referral, the opinion suggests. The ABA Journal looks at the issue.

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Bristol Lawyer Charged with Stealing from Estate

Bristol lawyer Don W. Cooper has been charged with stealing from an estate for which he was serving as executor, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The agency said it began investigating the 70-year-old in November 2015 and found that he stole more than $10,000 from an estate in which the beneficiary was supposed to be St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Cooper, who was indicted in April for stealing from another estate, turned himself in and was released on a $15,000 bond, the Greeneville Sun reports.

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New TBJ Looks at Clemency, Medical Battery

Nashville lawyer Ben Raybin researched recent clemency statistics in Tennessee and found some interesting trends. Read his article, “How Executive Clemency Works (and How It Doesn’t)” in the August Tennessee Bar Journal. Also in this issue, Hendersonville lawyer Clint Kelly details the rise of medical battery and informed consent and Tennessee Bar Association President Jason Long explains how meeting up with fellow lawyers helps with overall civil discourse and civility in the profession. Read the August TBJ.

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Law School Externships, Misconduct Rules on ABA Annual Meeting Agenda

The ABA House of Delegates will meet Aug. 8-9 in San Francisco for its annual meeting. Items on the agenda include a proposal that would permit law school students to earn academic credit and compensation for externships at the same time; an amendment to the model rules of conduct to add anti-discrimination and anti-harassment provisions; a proposal urging states to abolish probation systems supervised by private, for-profit firms; and initiatives that expand ABA efforts to diversify the legal profession and the judiciary.

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CBA Seeks Receiver to Handle Arrested Lawyer’s Cases

The Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA) has asked the local Circuit Court to appoint a receiver to close out the pending cases of Matthew Jack Fitzharris, a Chattanooga attorney who was shot and arrested in Catoosa County, Georgia, on July 12. The CBA says that Fitzharris is disabled and unable to practice law and has been unable to make arrangements for another attorney to handle his cases. Police reports say that Fitzharris was shot in the arm after breaking into a home, threatening a couple and refusing to leave. He was charged with aggravated assault, terroristic threats, entering an automobile or other motor vehicle with intent to commit theft or felony, burglary, simple assault and criminal damage to property. Chattanoogan.com has more.

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Court Seeks Comments on Proposed Amendments

The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued two orders soliciting comments on proposed amendments to its rules. The first order seeks comments now through July 25 on amendments to Rule 8.3(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct and Rule 10, RJC 2.15 and 2.16(A) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which deal with the disclosure of information about a judge's conduct. The second order seeks comments now through Sept. 21 on Rule 10B of the Tennessee Supreme Court Rules, which deals with disqualification or recusal of a judge.

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New Jersey Attorneys Given Direction on Accolade Advertising

The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Lawyer Advertising has reminded state attorneys to check the credibility of awards like “Super Lawyers” and “Rising Stars” before referring to them in advertisements. The committee said lawyers may mention the awards in their advertising “only when the basis for comparison can be verified” and the group bestowing the accolade “has made adequate inquiry into the fitness of the individual lawyer.” Read more from the ABA Journal.

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