Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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Pro se plaintiff George Farmer, a resident of Colorado and a licensed attorney, sued defendant Banco Popular under federal and state law to challenge Banco’s demand that he pay off the full amount owed under a $150,000 Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) his deceased father obtained in 2001. In 2012, the parties informed the district court they had reached a settlement: Banco was to pay Farmer $30,000 and forgive some principal, unpaid interest, and attorney’s fees. Farmer would pay $137,380.94 in satisfaction of the HELOC, due later that year. Farmer “began to negotiate a number of the . . . terms of the draft agreement.” Banco “sent Farmer the completed settlement agreement, but Farmer sought changes to the exhibits.” These exhibits included a deed in lieu of foreclosure and a satisfaction of mortgage. After Farmer received the revised exhibits he still would not sign the settlement agreement, but “again sought more changes, including the amount, timing, and structure of the payment.” Banco ultimately filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. Notwithstanding his prior representations to the court, Farmer sought to reduce his net payment of $107,380.34 under the terms of the agreement to $100,000, but pay it by October 1 rather than by October 15. The court held another hearing on September 10 at which Farmer again told the court the settlement was fine: “‘[W]e are all in agreement to enforce the settlement,’ and ‘the only thing that remains is the date that my payment is due.’” The parties then agreed that Banco would not pay Farmer $30,000 as previously agreed, but instead, Farmer would pay Banco $107,380.34 by November 15, 2012. “Banco Popular sent Farmer an agreement reflecting the new amount and due date, but instead of signing, Farmer asked for changes and additions. Banco Popular refused most of those changes and asked Farmer to sign the revised agreement, which he never did.” A prior Tenth Circuit decision recited, in detail, Farmer’s ongoing conduct that led the district judge to “warn that he would impose the most severe sanctions and penalties if the parties did not comply with his order” enforcing the settlement. "Now here we are again:" Farmer appealed the district court order imposing fees and costs on him as a punitive sanction. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's order, as modified: sanctions imposed on Farmer in the form of fees and costs due and payable to Banco totaled $50,824.53; Farmer was admonished that further prolongation of this appeal absent good cause would result in the Court imposing its own monetary sanctions on him pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 38. The Clerk of Court was directed to initiate a formal attorney disciplinary proceeding for the Court to consider further whether additional discipline is appropriate. View "Farmer v. Banco Popular" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant George David Gordon was a former securities attorney convicted of multiple criminal charges relating to his alleged participation in a "pump-and-dump" scheme where he (along with others) violated the federal securities laws by artificially inflating the value of various stocks, then turning around and selling them for a substantial profit. The government restrained some of his property before the indictment was handed down and ultimately obtained criminal forfeiture of that property. On appeal, Defendant raised multiple issues relating to the validity of his conviction and sentence, and the propriety of the government’s conduct (both before and after trial) related to the forfeiture of his assets. In the end, the Tenth Circuit found no reversible error and affirmed Defendant's conviction and sentence, as well as the district court’s forfeiture orders. View "United States v. Gordon" on Justia Law

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"By all appearances, Defendant Howard Kieffer had a successful nationwide criminal law practice." Defendant managed to gain admission to multiple federal trial and appellate courts across the country where he appeared on behalf of numerous criminal defendants. Defendant never attended law school, sat for a bar exam, nor receive a license to practice law. A North Dakota jury convicted Defendant of mail fraud and for making false statements. The jury found Defendant gained admission to the District of North Dakota by submitting a materially false application to the court, then relied on that admission to gain admission to the District of Minnesota, District of Colorado, and Western District of Missouri. The district court sentenced Defendant to 51 months' imprisonment and ordered him to pay restitution to six victims of his scheme. A jury in Colorado also convicted him of making false statements, wire fraud and contempt of court. The district court sentenced Defendant to 57 months' imprisonment to run consecutively to the 51 month sentence previously imposed on him in North Dakota. The court further ordered him to pay restitution to seven victims of his scheme unaccounted for in North Dakota, and directed him as a special condition of supervised release to obtain the probation office's preapproval of any proposed employment or business ventures. Defendant appealed his most recent convictions and sentence from Colorado, each based on his Sixth Amendment right to have the Government prove, and a jury find, all elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, Defendant presented five challenges to his sentence, three of which bore directly upon the district court’s application of the Sentencing Guidelines. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit found that the record reflected that by the time of Defendant's actual sentencing, the district court had decided to sentence him within the advisory guideline range. The court then proceeded to calculate Defendant’s guideline range incorrectly on the basis of numerous procedural errors, both factual and legal. As a result, the court selected a sentence from the wrong guideline range. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit vacated Defendant's sentence on Counts I and II of the superceding indictment and remanded the case for resentencing. The Court affirmed the district court in all other respects. View "United States v. Kieffer" on Justia Law

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Trinity Mortgage Companies, Inc. (Trinity) appealed the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of David Dryer and Dryer and Associates, P.C. (Dryer). Trinity, formerly a mortgage brokerage company owned by Shawn Cremeen, entered into a franchise agreement with 1st Class Lending, Inc., which was owned by Dennis Junker and Richard Gheisar. In April 2007, Junker sued Gheisar and Trinity in Oklahoma state court for breach of contract, fraud, defamation, and conversion, all concerning his alleged wrongful termination. Between May 2007 and April 2008, Dryer represented Trinity, without a written contract. In October 2007, while the lawsuit was pending, Trinity entered into an agreement to sell most of its assets and to stop originating loans. Meanwhile, after Trinity failed to file an answer in the pending lawsuit, Junker moved for a default judgment against Trinity. Because Dryer failed to object to entry of default judgment against Trinity, the state court granted the motion against Trinity in January 2008. The another firm replaced Dryer as Trinity’s counsel, who unsuccessfully sought to vacate the default judgment against Trinity. Cremeen and Junker eventually entered into a settlement agreement concerning the lawsuit. Trinity confessed a final judgment in favor of Junker but the only recovery of this amount would be through his ownership interest in Trinity, which was the action against Dryer. Trinity moved for partial summary judgment on its malpractice and breach of contract claims. Dryer moved for summary judgment, contending that all claims were barred as a matter of law because Trinity unlawfully assigned them to Junker. In response, Trinity argued that there had not been an assignment of tort causes of action; there was never any collusion between Trinity and Junker; and that the malpractice case was not contingent upon disproving the merits of the underlying suit against Trinity. The district court granted Dryer’s motion for summary judgment and denied Trinity’s motion for partial summary judgment. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Dryer.

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Plaintiff-Appellant Susan Rose, a Utah lawyer, initiated the underlying federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of state disciplinary proceedings brought against her by the Utah bar. She also sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin those proceedings. The district court denied the injunction, and while this appeal from the injunction decision was pending, it dismissed the underlying action. The Bar moved to dismiss the appeal, claiming it was mooted by the dismissal of the underlying action. Upon review, the Tenth Circuit agreed this appeal was moot, and granted the Bar's motion to dismiss.

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In 2001, a company calling itself âComputer Geeks, a California corporation,â sued Plaintiff Jason Wright in Utah state court for failing to assign a domain name. Mr. Wright did not respond to the companyâs motion for summary judgment, and in 2006, the state court granted the motion and entered judgment against him. Mr. Wright hired Appellant-Attorney Russell Cline to have the judgment set aside or modified. In 2008, Appellant filed a motion to set the judgment aside. As it turns out, âComputer Geeks, a California corporationâ is not related to the company that held the Utah state judgment. Appellant was made aware of the mistaken identity soon after Appellant served âComputer Geeks, a California corporation.â Appellant represented to the clerk of the district court that he had properly served âComputer Geeks, a California corporation.â The clerk entered a default, and Appellant moved for a default judgment. Within a few weeks, Defendant CompGeeks.com moved to vacate the default judgment. At the hearing, Appellant acknowledged he knew the difference between the two companies, but that he served the correct holder of the Utah judgment. The district court found that Appellant had filed a frivolous action in violation of state law, and dismissed the case. The court referred Appellant to the state attorney disciplinary committee, and awarded attorneyâs fees to CompGeeks.com, making Mr. Wright and Appellant jointly and severally liable for the award. Appellant moved to vacate the award of attorneyâs fees, alleging the district court abused its discretion in its decision. On review, the Tenth Circuit âsympathize[d] with the district courtâs frustration with [Appellantâs] conduct,â but held that â Rule 11 does not allow a sua sponte award of attorney fees.â Accordingly the monetary sanctions order was vacated, and the Court remanded the case for further proceedings.