School board, radio station scrimmage over fees

The Allegany County School Board and Cumberland Broadcasting Co. came to terms four months ago, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped fighting.

The operator of WCBC-AM sued the board last August, saying it cut access to high school football games in retaliation for critical coverage. After months of hostile out-of-court relations and stop-and-go litigation, the case settled in February. The board even agreed to pay the radio station’s legal fees, as determined by the court.

Then, it saw the $115,000-plus bill from Astrachan Gunst Thomas PC.

The board’s attorneys, Thomas J. Althauser and G. Gary Hanna, challenged the amount in court this month, calling the time entries “remarkably vague” and saying attorneys billed “a substantial amount of time…for what were clearly administrative tasks.” The motion also objected to bills for an amended complaint that was never filed.

The Astrachan firm fired back last week, defending its invoices against what it called “a blunderbuss attack” and demonstrating that there will be no love lost between the parties when this saga is finally over.

“Employing three law firms, defendants walked away from two settlements, and now have the temerity to assert that plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement and Amended Complaint were unnecessary,” the plaintiff’s firm responded. “There is no question — and defendants tacitly concede — that, had plaintiffs not taken such action, this case would not have settled.”

The response notes that the latest bickering has only served to up the board’s bill. “Defendants’ misstatement of plaintiffs’ counsel time records necessitated this Reply, resulting in $11,752.00 of additional attorney time,” it says.

The Astrachan firm is now requesting a total of $129,350 in fees and $3,697 in expenses — plus $3,240 in expert witness fees for Baltimore civil rights attorney C. Christopher Brown, who was hired to confirm the reasonableness of the fees charged.

BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer

Suing ‘Dr. Doe’

The children of a woman who died of cancer in June 2005 filed suit last month against her doctors, alleging they neglected to recommend regular screenings that could have led to an earlier diagnosis and saved her life.

True, lawsuits claiming a doctor missed some early indication of what later became a serious or even fatal condition are fairly common. What struck me about this suit is the lead defendant: John Doe, M.D.

It’s also true that the use of “Doe” defendants is common in malpractice cases. But this complaint says Dr. Doe (and his later-named colleague, Dr. Samuel Croff Jr.), “provided primary care and treatment” to the decedent, Barbara Jameson, for nearly a year before she reported to the emergency room in April 2005 with “a massive intra-abdominal cancer.”

Maybe Dr. Doe was a behind-the-scenes type who read the results of imaging tests — the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, doesn’t say.

In fact, much of what happened here remains unknown as the case is in the early stages of litigation; and there may be a difference between what Jameson knew about the doctors who allegedly treated her for a year and what her children are able to figure out.

Still, if a patient is in the dark about the identity of her primary care physician, might that not foretell more disastrous communication problems down the line?

BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer

Blues are skin deep for indigo man

blue-skin.jpgThe following really has little to do with the law, but it involves the one person who makes her own rules: Oprah.

Fran, our office manager in Towson, told me she saw on Oprah’s talk show Tuesday a man with blue skin. And it wasn’t a member of the Blue Man Group or some dude dressed as a Smurf for Halloween.

The man in question was Paul Karason of California, and he was originally on “Oprah” in February. It turns out he began drinking a tonic called colloidal silver more than 15 years ago in solidarity with a friend diagnosed with petroleum poisoning, according to Oprah’s Web site. Karason said he discovered in a matter of days that the drink cured his acid reflux, according the Web site.

Karason then began applying the colloidal silver to damaged skin on his body. After he had used the potion for several months a friend noticed his skin had changed color from white to blue. (I’d like to think if I started to resemble a ripe blueberry, I would recognize it immediately.)

Silver is known to kill bacteria and was at one point a popular antibiotic (PDF), but one potential side-effect of long-term use is argyria, a condition whereby the skin turns silver or blue. (One law firm refers to it as the “disease of the living dead,” because of the ghostly appearance of those who have it and the fact that any exposure to sunlight darkens the hue.)

So that explains Paul Karason’s blue skin. And why the Food and Drug Administration in 1999 said colloidal silver has no medical benefit (PDF), meaning it can be sold as a dietary supplement without making health claims.

No word from the government as to whether silver-tainted products led to this, however.

DANNY JACOBS, Legal Affairs Writer

ABA Journal: ‘You decide’

In celebration of their recent Web award, the abajournal.com is letting you pick which of three acceptance speeches they’ll give at the June 10 ceremony. The site won the People’s Voice Webby Award in the Law category – an award that’s considered, by some, to be the Internet’s highest honor.

And for all the busy lawyers out there, choosing your fave should take less than 15 seconds. See, the choices are like a Haiku, only shorter — five words, to be exact.

They are:

1. Had we lost, we’d sue.
2. Shakespeare was wrong – lawyers live!
3. We don’t plan to appeal.

From the editor’s note on the achievement:

In addition to the People’s Voice award, the Webby judges also give an award in each category. In the Law category, it was won this year by the IT and e-commerce legal advice site Out-Law.com, which is published by the British law firm Pinsent Masons. Other nominees were the 2007-08 Recruiting Campaign at Shearman & Sterling; the University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s JURIST; and Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp.

….The Webby Awards famously limit acceptance speeches to just five words. In recent years, they’ve included Al Gore (”Please don’t recount this vote”), the Beastie Boys (”Can anyone fix my computer?”), and Prince (”Everything you think is true”).

JACKIE SAUTER, Web Editor 

BMI, Freddies find harmony

freddies.jpgIt looks like Freddies Bel Air finally faced the music.

The Harford County bar and restaurant, which was sued early last month by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) for neglecting to pay annual license fees to the performance rights organization, filed a stipulation of dismissal Thursday, indicating the case in U.S. District Court in Baltimore has been settled.

According to a BMI spokesman, this usually means the establishment has agreed to buy a license and pay damages, attorneys’ fees, and court costs.

BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer

Kids can be cruel — but teachers?

child-hands.jpgA Florida woman says her son’s kindergarten teacher led the class in an exercise where each child got to say what they did not like about the boy. The mother says the teacher then took a vote on whether her son should be allowed to stay in class, which he lost 14-2.

The mother says her son likely has Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism that can cause, among other things, socially awkward behavior. Back at home after the incident, the child kept repeating to himself the words “I’m not special,” the mother alleges.

According to a spokeswoman for the Port St. Lucie, Fla., Police Department, the teacher admitted the incident occurred. No criminal charges were filed because prosecutors determined the incident did not rise to the level of child abuse, the spokeswoman said.

The mother is considering filing a lawsuit.

I’m no professional teacher or child psychologist, but I have taught religious school, including three years with kindergarteners, and I cannot imagine how anyone, teaching degree or no teaching degree, could think this would be a good idea.

Thanks to ABA Journal for the link.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

Judge: Leave ‘the honorable’ at work

A federal judge should never use his or her letterhead stationery — or the courtesy titles “judge” or “the honorable” — when conducting personal business, according to Frank H. Easterbrook, chief judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Easterbrook’s blanket note of prohibition was one of the “relatively few public comments” received on proposed revisions to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

A proposal (PDF) to bar judges from using their “judicial letterhead to gain an advantage in conducting personal business” is not strict enough, Easterbrook stated.

“The phrase ’to gain an advantage in conducting’ should be deleted,” he wrote. “Use of judicial letterhead is never appropriate when conducting personal business. Gaining an advantage may be the goal of this misuse of office, but the rule should be absolute. Trying to determine, case by case, why a judge used the letterhead is a mistake.”

The judicial code of conduct should also bar the use of courtesy titles in personal business, to avoid the appearance of undue influence, Easterbrook added. For example, the title of judge should not be used when the jurist is a party to a lawsuit “unrelated to the judicial office,” he wrote. (PDF)

The current code (PDF) has no express prohibition on the use of letterhead or courtesy titles.

Anyone out there experienced (or committed) a violation of the “Easterbrook prohibition”?

STEVE LASH, Legal Affairs Writer

This week in Maryland Lawyer

tdr052708_17-17_4c.jpgUncertain economy? You wouldn’t know it by looking at what law firms are paying newly minted lawyers.

At least the new J.D.s are generous: See who’s bringing back the class gift and who’s matching that money.

Also:

  • A judge in Baltimore County has awarded Wells Fargo Bank about $750,000 in attorneys’ fees in a dispute over a troubled shopping center;
  • Public defender Paul B. DeWolfe takes the reins of Montgomery County’s bar association;
  • A pro se plaintiff who took his med-mal case all the way to trial gets a settlement while the jury deliberates;
  • Judges Murphy and Krauser look at the biblical roots of jurisprudence;
  • Shannon Avery talks about her first Court of Appeals argument, where Chief Judge Bell stumped her with a question about buffalo farming and opposing counsel Mary Ellen Barbera taught her the value of civility;
  • The Editorial Advisory Board weighs in on the role of lawyers in maintaining judicial independence, Jack L.B. Gohn discusses the ways in which lawyers compromise and are compromised, and  “Judge on the Jury” Dennis M. Sweeney offers suggestions for holding the jurors’ attention.

Plus:

Law blog round-up

Good morning, and welcome back from the long (though not long enough, naturally) holiday weekend.  Here’s what’s new around the Web today:

  • The AmLaw Daily suggests a novel approach to getting more female partners.
  • Above the Law links to Legal Blog Watch, which posts about a survey in Las Vegas in which attorneys rated male judges higher than female judges on “courteousness.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal story says that two-thirds of the survey respondents were males, and that people tend to identify with those who are like them. I would also suggest that men sometimes perceive assertive women (as presumably these judges are, having advanced so far in their legal careers) as rude or domineering. (Ahem, Hillary Clinton.) Also, women in power sometimes have to bend over backwards to be taken seriously, which means that, yes, female judges may smile and joke a little less in the courtroom.
  • Should a law clerk who wants to open a solo practice go first to a big law firm to take advantage of the $50,000 clerkship bonus? Carolyn Elefant offers some advice.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

Law profs rank the top courts

Three law professors have written a paper ranking the top courts of all 50 states based on how many opinions the judges put out, how often those opinions are cited by other states’ high courts, and how non-partisan they are. That last criterion is determined by how often judges vote with colleagues who belong to the opposite political party. It looks like these guys (and/or their students) did a whole mess of work on this.

Anyway, if you give equal weight to all three criteria, Maryland’s Court of Appeals is the 14th-best top court in the country. If you don’t give the criteria equal weight, then… well, maybe someone can tell me what happens then, because I’m not confident that I understand this part of the study. (There’s a reason I became a journalist instead of fulfilling that first-grade dream of being an astronomer: less math.)

When the authors ranked the high courts by citations per judge by out-of-state courts, Maryland placed sixth. The Court of Appeals fell pretty much in the middle on the other two measurements.

Bottom line: there is a “strong case” that California’s top court is the best, the researchers conclude.

Hat tip: How Appealing.

CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer