Appeals,  Ethics,  Sanctions

A Disregard for Fiduciary Duties that is “Without Precedent”

Picture this:

You represent the defendant in a lawsuit.  You don’t have time to handle his case — indeed, you admit as much on the record — and the court imposes terminating sanctions against your client for failing to respond to discovery.  Because of your admission, your client is allowed to obtain new counsel, but new counsel is unsuccessful in getting the sanctions order vacated, and a default judgment of $730,000 is entered against your client, who then promptly sues you for malpractice and, while that suit is pending, appeals the default judgment.  What do you do, besides give notice to your malpractice carrier?

If you’re the defendant’s first attorney in Styles v. Mumbert, case no, H029767 (6th Dist. July 15, 2009), you get the plaintiff in the original case (Styles) to assign her default judgment to you (for some undisclosed consideration), then, represented by another lawyer in your firm, you move the court of appeal to substitute you in as respondent in your former client’s (Mumbert’s) appeal from that judgment.  The court of appeal resists the invitation, concluding the opening paragraph of its opinion thus: “Finding that the proposed substitution violates multiple rules of Professional Conduct as well as the Business and Professions Code, we will deny the motion.”

The absurdity of the possible outcomes!  The court says it much better than I could:

If we allowed [attorney] Pagkas to substitute himself as respondent, in place of Styles, on appeal Pagkas would have to argue that the default judgment, for which he may be professionally responsible, should be reversed. He would argue that the appeal should fail, so that he could collect on the default judgment. This is directly contrary to Mumbert’s interest. While a reversal here would be to Pagkas’s absolute benefit in the legal malpractice action, reducing any potential damages for professional negligence owed to Mumbert, Pagkas appears to prefer the prospect of collecting the large default judgment from Mumbert. In fact, if the substitution were allowed, it is conceivable that Pagkas could prevail in both the malpractice action and in this appeal, leaving him with huge windfall at the expense of his former client. Pagkas’s disregard for his ongoing fiduciary duties to his former client in favor of his own personal gain is without precedent.

Unsurprisingly, Mumbert asked for sanctions for having to oppose the motion, and got them.  On sanctions:

Pagkas’s actions make a mockery of the Rules of Professional Conduct. We cannot conceive of, and the case law is devoid of, a scenario which could do more violence to the attorney-client relationship and the public trust in the legal system, than what Pagkas and his firm have done and seeks to do.  Despite the well founded opposition to the motion, citing to the relevant Rules of Professional Conduct and supporting case law, Pagkas and his attorney continue to urge that we grant the motion without cogent argument or cite to relevant supporting authority. Under these circumstances, sanctions are appropriate.

What of the original plaintiff?

Respondent Delia Styles, having sold her interest in this action, and having failed to file a respondent’s brief, is ordered to show cause within 15 days from the date of this opinion why her default should not be entered and the appeal proceed without opposition.

I think Ben Shatz might have had to create a new category just for this case if it had been decided before Whittier Law Review published his study of appellate sanctions.

UPDATE (7/16/08): Tulane University Law School professor Alan Childress at Legal Profession Blog offers his thoughts, as well as a clever follow-up post.

One Comment

  • Steve

    Mr. Pagkas could have made this a brilliant strategy rather than making himself a footnote in legal history and blackening his name forever with one simple change. After buying the right to the default judgment, go to Ed Mumbert and offer to file a notice of satisfaction in exchange for dropping the malpractice action and the appeal. The client is then undamaged by the alleged failures, no one owes anyone anything, and the attorney is out the money he paid for the rights to the damage award. But how much money would it be worth not to have his name forever associated with an unprecedented breach of professional ethics? Poor guy. This is a wooden stake in the heart.