Justia West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The Supreme Court publicly censured the Honorable Louise E. Goldston, a family court judge, for serious misconduct and ordered her to pay a total fine of $1,000, holding that censure was appropriate under the facts and circumstances.Judge Goldson searched a self-represented party's home for marital property, and when the homeowner protested, the judge threatened to jail him for contempt. After an investigation the Judicial Investigation Commission charged Judge Goldson with violating the West Virginia Code of Judicial Misconduct. Under a settlement agreement with Judicial Disciplinary Counsel, the judge admitted to violating the Code of Judicial Conduct, and both parties agreed to recommend that Judge Goldson be censured and fined. The Judicial Hearing Board, however, recommended that Judge Goldson be admonished and fined. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Judicial Hearing Board, holding that the judge exercised executive powers forbidden to her under the West Virginia Constitution and compounded her error by the manner in which she conducted the search and that censure was appropriate. View "In re Honorable Louise E. Goldston" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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The Supreme Court (1) affirmed the judgment of the circuit court in a conversion case granting motions to dismiss on the ground that all pleadings filed on behalf of the Estate of A. Rafael Gomez by a non-attorney executor and all arguments made by him in court proceedings constituted the unlawful practice of law, and (2) found that the appeal in a companion case, a will contest, was improvidently granted.The Estate sought reversal of a circuit court dismissing its lawsuit on the ground that Mark Gomez, as a non-attorney executor, was not authorized to file pleadings or otherwise represent the Estate in judicial proceedings. Mark, together with his brothers, also filed a will contest in which Mark filed pleadings and argued on both his own behalf and on behalf of the Estate. The Supreme Court held (1) as to the conversion case, Mark, a non-attorney executor, was engaged in the unlawful practice of law, and therefore, the circuit court properly dismissed the case; and (2) as to the will contest, the court did not make any rulings that conclusively determined any issue in the case, and therefore, the appeal was improvidently granted. View "Gomez v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court concluded that Respondent, David E. Ferguson, Magistrate of Wayne County, violated several provisions of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct and that a harsher sanction than that recommended by the West Virginia Judicial Hearing Board was appropriate.This case stemmed from Respondent's violation of a state fishing law and the coercive and belligerent behavior that Respondent exhibited when he was issued a citation. The Board concluded that Respondent violated several provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and recommended that Respondent be suspended for thirty days without pay. The Supreme Court adopted the Board's conclusions of law regarding Respondent's rule violations with the modification of concluding that Respondent committed an additional violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Court further found that a harsher sanction than that recommended by the Board was warrant due to Respondent's flagrant attempt to intimidate law enforcement officers. The Court suspended Respondent for ninety days without pay, reprimanded him, and ordered him to pay a total fine of $2,000 and the costs of this disciplinary proceeding. View "In re Honorable David E. Ferguson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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The Supreme Court granted the writ of prohibition sought by Petitioner, the Honorable Margaret L. Workman, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, and halted the impeachment proceedings against her, holding that the prosecution of Petitioner for the allegations set forth in Article IV, Article VI, and Article XIV of the Articles of Impeachment was prohibited.Petitioner was impeached on three of the eleven Articles of Impeachment approved by the House of Delegates. Articles IV and VI alleged that Petitioner improperly authorized the overpayment of senior-status judges, and Article XIV included charges that Petitioner and three other justices failed to implement various administrative policies and procedures. Petitioner filed this proceeding to have the Articles of Impeachment against her dismissed, naming as Respondents the president and president pro tempore of the Senate, the clerk of the Senate, and the West Virginia Senate. The Supreme Court granted a writ of prohibition, holding (1) the prosecution of Petitioner for the allegations at issue violated the separation of powers doctrine; (2) Respondents lacked jurisdiction over the alleged violations in Articles IV and VI and lacked jurisdiction over the alleged violation in Article XIV as drafted; and (3) the failure to set forth findings of fact and to pass a resolution adopting the Articles of Impeachment violated due process principles. View "State ex rel. Workman v. Carmichael" on Justia Law

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This disciplinary proceeding stemmed from allegedly false statements contained in a campaign-issued flyer disseminated while Stephen O. Callaghan, Judge-Elect of the 28th Judicial Circuit was a candidate for Judge of the 28th Judicial Circuit. The West Virginia Judicial Hearing Board recommended that Judge-Elect Callaghan be disciplined for three violations of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct and one violation of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct. The Supreme Court adopted the Board’s recommended discipline, with modification, and found that it was appropriate to suspend Judge-Elect Callaghan from the judicial bench for a total of two years without pay, along with the recommended fine of $15,000, and reprimand as an attorney, holding (1) there was clear and convincing evidence of improper conduct presented in support of each of the violations found by the Board; and (2) Judge-Elect Callaghan’s constitutional arguments were unavailing. View "In re Hon. Stephen O. Judge-Elect Callaghan" on Justia Law

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In 2001, the decedent presented to the Wetzel County Hospital Emergency Room in New Martinsville and came under the care of Dr. Murthy, a surgeon; she slipped into shock and died the next day. Her estate filed a medical negligence action, alleging that Murthy failed to perform exploratory surgery to identify, diagnose and correct the decedent’s “intraabdominal condition.” A jury awarded $4,000,000 in compensatory damages. After the trial, the circuit court allowed amendment of the complaint to add Murthy’s insurance carrier, Woodbrook, alleging that Woodbrook made all relevant decisions for Murthy’s defense and acted vexatiously and in bad faith. Following a remand, Murthy paid a reduced judgment, plus interest, in the total amount of $1,162,741.60 and filed motions in limine to preclude certain matters from consideration on the issue of attorney fees and costs, including an unrelated case that resulted in a $5,764,214.75 verdict against Dr. Murthy in March 2007. The court dismissed Woodbrook as a party-defendant and awarded the estate attorney fees and costs. The precise calculation was to be later determined. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia reversed, concluding that the lower court’s reliance on certain conduct by Murthy did not justify the award. View "Murthy v. Karpacs-Brown" on Justia Law

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Petitioner, an attorney practicing primarily in the Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit (judicial circuit), sought a writ of prohibition to prevent Respondents, the mental hygiene commissioners of the judicial circuit, from appointing legal counsel for alleged protected persons in actions instituted under the West Virginia Guardianship and Conservatorship Act (Act). Specifically, Petitioner asserted that W. Va. Code 44A-2-7(a) mandates that circuit courts, rather than mental hygiene commissioners, make such appointments. The Supreme Court granted the writ, holding that the provisions of section 44A-2-7(a) require the circuit court to appoint legal counsel for the alleged protected persons instituted under the Act, and therefore, Respondents exceeded their legitimate powers by appointing legal counsel for alleged protected persons under section 44A-2-7(a). View "State ex rel. Barrat v. Dalby" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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Petitioner, an attorney, and Respondent, a non-lawyer, entered into a fee-sharing agreement in connection with certain lawsuits. Petitioner later filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment on the issue of whether Respondent was entitled to compensation for services he performed in relation to the litigation, seeking a ruling as to whether a sharing of legal fees with Respondent would violate Rule 5.4 of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct. The federal district court certified the following question to the Supreme Court: “Are the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct statements of public policy with the force of law equal to that given to statutes enacted by the West Virginia State Legislature?” The Supreme Court affirmed the question, as modified, in the affirmative, holding (1) Rule 5.4, which proscribes the sharing of fees between lawyers or law firms and non-lawyers, is an explicit judicial declaration of West Virginia public policy with the force and effect of law; and (2) accordingly, a fee-sharing agreement between a lawyer or law firm and the non-lawyer that violates the provisions of Rule 5.4 is void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable. View "Rich v. Simoni" on Justia Law

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Jaymie Godwin Wilfong, a circuit court judge in Randolph County, admitted to having had a more than two-year-long affair with a local man. The judge deliberately intertwined the affair with her judicial office, and the evidence before the Judicial Hearing Board “established a clearly articulable nexus between the judge’s extrajudicial misconduct and her judicial duties.” The Hearing Board determined that the judge’s conduct constituted eleven separate violations of seven Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct and recommended that she be severely sanctioned. The Supreme Court adopted the Hearing Board’s finding that the judge committed eleven violations of seven Canons and held that the judge must be censured, suspended until the end of her term, and required to pay the costs of investigating and prosecuting these proceedings. View "In re Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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The Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board (collectively, the ODC) issued an informal advisory opinion that determined (1) the Attorney General did not have authority to prosecute criminal cases outside of the limited prosecutorial authority granted by W. Va. Code 5-3-2, and (2) the Rules of Professional Conduct would be violated if the Attorney General prosecuted assisted county prosecutors in certain criminal prosecutions. The Attorney General subsequently filed the instant petition for a writ of prohibition to prevent ODC from enforcing the informal advisory opinion, contending that county prosecutors have authority to request the Attorney General to assist with criminal prosecutions and that the office of the Attorney General has independent common law authority to prosecute criminal cases. The Supreme Court denied the writ, holding (1) county prosecutors do not have statutory authority to appoint the Attorney General as a special prosecutor; and (2) under the state Constitution and statutory law, the common law criminal prosecutorial authority of the Attorney General was abolished. View "State ex rel. Morrisey v. W. Va. Office of Disciplinary Counsel" on Justia Law