Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Supreme Court to hear toxic mold case

After a judge took away a $760,000 jury verdict from a family allegedly injured by toxic mold, plaintiffs’ attorney David S. Bailey remained optimistic.

“It just means I’ve got to wait another year” for the Supreme Court of Virginia to overrule the judge and reinstate the verdict, he said in February after the decision by Richmond Circuit Judge Melvin R. Hughes Jr. Bailey is a little behind schedule but at least the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal in an order entered Dec. 18.

Defense attorney Raymond J. Sinnott III won the case by first getting the testimony of Bailey’s expert on toxic mold excluded because his theories on mold exposure and treatment were not accepted by the medical community. Sinnott then argued, and Hughes agreed, that Bailey needed expert medical testimony to prove the connection between mold and the plaintiffs’ injuries.

Bailey contended in his petition for appeal that his expert should have been allowed to testify and that the testimony of the plaintiffs and a toxicologist supported the verdict even in the absence of such testimony.

He contended that his clients suffered coughing, headache, runny nose and fatigue from the effects of the mold for almost three years after they were exposed to it in a Norfolk apartment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

SCC seat becomes hot topic on hill

Suddenly a seat on the State Corporation Commission is a hot item of discussion on Capitol Hill. Two potential candidates have backed out and names of four others are being floated, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Gov. Tim Kaine announced last week he won’t fill the opening to be created by the Dec. 31 retirement of Judge Theodore V. Morrison. Both Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, and lawyer/lobbyist Bernard L. McNamee II had been mentioned as possible judges; they both since have withdrawn from consideration.

Four other names now are on the table: Former Del. Ralph L. “Bill” Axselle Jr. and David W. Clarke, both lawyer/lobbyists; Chief Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims, who recently was on some lists for a seat on the Supreme Court of Virginia; and former Del. Jean W. Cunningham, D-Richmond, now chair of the State Board of Elections.

Beware of EDGAR

Junior Johnson ran a software company called PurchasePro that was based in Las Vegas.

In 2001, PurchasePro, a publicly traded company, filed a Form 10-Q with the Securities & Exchange Commission, reporting its financial results for the first quarter of that year. The feds thought that the documents were false and misleading and contained inflated revenue figures, so they sought to indict Johnson for securities fraud.

Where did they seek venue? The Eastern District of Virginia, where the servers for the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system are located.

Johnson wanted out of the Eastern District, conceding that venue might be proper in, say, the District of Columbia, where the SEC is located. But he wanted no part of the Eastern District, where they have the “rocket docket,” among other things.

A district judge bought the venue argument, but the 4th Circuit says that use of EDGAR makes venue permissible.

Although Johnson predicted direly that any defendant anywhere in the U.S. using EDGAR could be hauled to court in Alexandria, the 4th Circuit essentially said “Piff” to that argument: Venue might be permissible in the E.D., but not every prosecution will proceed there. And there are change-of-venue rules in the FRCrP that could help, too.

Despite those assurances, every SEC filer using EDGAR might want to be aware of U.S. v. Johnson.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Supreme Court to hear challenges to transportation plan

The Supreme Court of Virginia has granted expedited review and will hear arguments Jan. 8 on the constitutionality of regional transportation the General Assembly adopted for Northern Virginia.

That means the court will hear two related cases, Marshall v. Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Record No. 071959 and Board of Supervisors of Loudoun County v. Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Record No. 01979, barely four months after Arlington County Circuit Judge Benjamin N.A. Kendrick rejected the challenges.

The opponents contend, among other things, that the Virginia Constitution bars an unelected body such as the authority from imposing the taxes proposed to finance the revenue bonds specified for transportation improvements.

The Supreme Court session beginning Jan. 7 has several other cases of note, including the death penalty of a man convicted of killing a Norfolk policeman in October 2005, whether foundations at the state’s teaching hospitals have charitable immunity, and whether submission of scientific reports from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science without testimony from a technician violates the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kaine proposes mental health improvements

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposed today to spend almost $42 million to improve the state’s mental health system.

Kaine made it clear that the proposals are a direct response to the massacre at Virginia Tech in April and to the recommendations of a review panel he appointed to study the incident.

“The tragedy at Virginia Tech in April of this year has drawn attention to our mental health care system in an unprecedented way,” he said at a press conference while flanked by legislators from both parties. “Now is the time for us to work together to make the changes and to provide the funding and the accountability our mental health system needs.”

A press release from the governor’s office has the details of the proposal.

New Albemarle prosecutor fires deputy

Denise Lunsford was elected Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney last month, beating four-term incumbent Jim Camblos. As she prepares to take office, she has fired the county deputy commonwealth’s attorney, Richard Moore.

The Daily Progress reports that Moore, who held the job for four years after serving in similar post in Charlottesville for more than eight years, has been given his walking papers. Moore had supported his old boss for reelection.

Lunsford said she will promote one of the other three assistant commonwealth’s attorneys in the office to deputy and hire a replacement for that position.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Deeds announces run for governor

Creigh Deeds, the Democratic senator from Bath County who lost a tight race for Attorney General in 2005, announced this afternoon that he will run for governor in 2009, reports the Roanoke Times.

Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria also has voiced interest in heading the Democratic ticket.

Deeds potentially could have a rematch with Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who won that 2005 race by a margin of 360 votes. McDonnell has announced he will seek the GOP nod. Former Gov. and Sen. George Allen's name is in the mix on the Republican side, as is that of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

Kaine won’t make SCC appointment...for now

Gov. Tim Kaine says he won't appoint a new judge to the State Corporation Commission, leaving the choice to the 2008 General Assembly, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Judge Theodore V. Morrison is retiring at the end of this month, giving Kaine an opportunity to fill the seat, since the Assembly won’t convene until Jan. 9.

Speculation had been that the governor would name Sen. William Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, to the position. But Wampler’s hope of being the first non-lawyer to sit on the SCC will have to wait. Kaine said he did not want to aggravate legislators by naming a judge just days before the legislature met.

But if the divided Assembly can’t agree on anyone, he stands ready to make the appointment, he said.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Executive’s defamation claim tossed

A former executive who said she was defamed by her job performance review has come up empty-handed, after winning one of the largest verdicts in 2005.

Cynthia Hyland had been with defense contractor Raytheon Corporation for 21 years and served as a senior vice president prior to being fired in 2003 after the business unit she led lost money. In 2005, a Fairfax County jury awarded Hyland $3.5 million in a suit alleging the company president made defamatory remarks in Hyland’s performance evaluation.

Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Arthur Vieregg reduced the $2 million punitive damage award to the statutory cap of $350,000, and the case went up on appeal.

In March 2007, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed Hyland’s $1.85 million award, saying that only two of the five allegedly defamatory statements cited by Hyland could support the jury verdict. The justices sent the case back for another look at the factual accuracy of statements relating to Hyland’s role in the bidding process for two government contacts and her team’s being “off plan” on their financial targets.

Last month, Vieregg granted summary judgment for Raytheon and its president in Hyland v. Raytheon Technical Services, saying Hyland admitted that she oversaw or was the project manager for the two government contracts at issue and was responsible for identified financial losses.

Neither statement identified by the Supreme Court was defamatory, the circuit court said.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Commission allows sentence reduction for crack

The U.S. Sentencing Commission decided this afternoon to make its reduction in the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine retroactive.

That typically would mean a reduction of about five years for a 20-year sentence and about two years for a 10-year term, according to Rob Wagner, an assistant federal public defender in Richmond.

It also would have a greater impact on prisoners sentenced in the Eastern District of Virginia than anywhere else, he said. “We’ve consistently had the most crack cocaine cases of any district in the country.”

That is largely because many cases that typically would have been prosecuted in state court were handled in federal court under a program called Project Exile because of the harsher punishment available under federal law.

Under the old sentencing guidelines, a drug trafficker dealing crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence as one dealing in 100 times more powder cocaine. The commission lowered that disparity under regulations that took effect Nov. 1 by reducing the base offense level associated with each quantity of crack by two levels.

Congress could have intervened to maintain the disparity but did not do so.

Each of 19,500 defendants convicted of a crack cocaine offense would have to appear before a federal judge for a possible sentence reduction. The burden of so many hearings was one reason the U.S. Justice Department opposed retroactivity.

Opponents of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine long have pointed to its harsher effect on black defendants. Eighty-six percent of crack defendants are black, compared with just over a quarter of defendants convicted of powder cocaine.

The commission’s decision came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge properly considered the disparity in sentencing a crack defendant to a term below the guidelines.

Supreme Court: Sentencing guidelines on crack advisory

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruled that federal judges are note required to follow sentencing guidelines that permit harsher penalties for crack cocaine crimes than powder cocaine. In a case from Norfolk, the court, 7-2, reinforced the view that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory rather than mandatory. Lawyers USA has the story.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Vick gets 23 months

Michael Vick could play professional football in 2009, but he would have to shake off two years of rust and miss much of the pre-season training for whatever team is willing to accept bad publicity and uncertain performance.

U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson sentenced Vick today to 23 months in prison on a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge. Because Vick began serving his sentence early on Nov. 19 and federal prisoners serve 85 percent of their nominal sentence, he probably will be released in mid-July 2009.

Vick appeared in black-and-white-striped prison garb and apologized to the judge, his family and his children. Hudson responded, “I think you should have apologized also to the millions of young people who look up to you.”

The sentence was above the 12- to 18-month term that defense attorneys and prosecutors mentioned when Vick pleaded guilty, but Hudson said Vick’s initial lack of candor in acknowledging that he participated in the hanging of two dogs and in the circumstances that he smoked marijuana while awaiting trial were factors in the higher term.

Court documents suggested that Vick bought property in Surry County and built a house and outbuildings on it largely for dogfighting. Those documents said that Vick paid for the “Bad Newz Kennels” operation and divided all his winnings from gambling on the fights among his colleagues without keeping any of the money himself.

One of three people arrested with Vick was sentenced to 18 months, another to 21 and the third will be sentenced Friday.

The Washington Post has the details of the court proceedings.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A thing without feathers

Hope, Emily Dickinson famously once wrote, is a thing with feathers.

The new logo for the College of William and Mary is a thing without feathers. The NCAA decided the two feathers on the school's previous logo were "hostile and abusive" to Native Americans.

But the new logo is pretty hopeless. It's dull. W&M is a school rich in tradition and history, and this is the best they can do? The school was founded in 1693, for crying out loud. When I was at W&M back during the Bicentennial, we were known as "The Alma Mater of a Nation." Thomas Jefferson went here. So did James Monroe. It's in Williamsburg, home of pineapples and scrolly colonial writing and tricorner hats and little horsedrawn carriages.

Pictured above, it's the letters "W" and "M" as mirror images of each other. Take a look. Tell me when you wake up.

The Daily Press has a report on the new logo, and three new "secondary" logos.

The paper says that the school paid $7,000 to a New York design firm for the privilege.

The NCAA may be happy that the feathers are toast. But the early reviews of the new look aren't complimentary. An online poll about the new logo conducted by The Daily Press is running 81% hate it, 7% love it. Some 12 percent could care less.

Anita Poston, a Norfolk lawyer, former VBA president and W&M board member, may have put it best. She asked if the new logos would infringe upon the logo of Waste Management Inc., which has a side-by-side green W and gold M.

Great question. When your school logo could be confused with something on a garbage truck, it's time to punt and start all over again.

So you're 18...

There are 18, count 'em, 18 candidates seeking two soon-to-be-available circuit judgeships in Chesapeake.

One seat is open now, following the appointment of Judge S. Bernard Goodwyn to the Supreme Court of Virginia last month. Judge Frederick Creekmore will be retiring.

State lawmakers representing Chesapeake recently interviewed all 18 candidates, reports The Virginian-Pilot. The list includes local lawyers and lower-court judges. The Pilot did not name the 18 names.

With both Republicans and Democrats representing parts of the city, and with the House in GOP hands and the Senate now controlled by the Dems, local lawmakers said they expect some give and take in deciding just who gets the two jobs.

Chief justice’s son sentenced to 16 months

Leroy R. Hassell Jr. not only failed to complete the 200 hours of community service imposed as part of convictions for embezzlement, unlawful entry and trespassing, he forged documents saying that he had.

As a result, Henrico Circuit Judge L.A. Harris jr. sentenced him yesterday to 16 months in jail, part of it for forging community service time sheets and the rest for violating the terms of probation on the petit larceny and unlawful entry counts.

Those charges were reduced from burglary and grand larceny in an incident at a Henrico home that involved two other young men. He was charged later with embezzling from a Target store where he worked during the 2005 Christmas season.

He was assigned to perform community service work at the Henrico landfill but worked only five hours there before he forged documents reporting that he had put in substantially more time.

He turned himself on Sept. 14 after he was indicted on the forgery charges and chose to remain in jail to begin serving the expected jail time rather than post bond.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has more details.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Disciplinary charges against prosecutor dismissed

A Virginia State Bar disciplinary subcommittee has dismissed a complaint by Virginia Beach circuit judges that Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III violated legal ethics.

Bryant announced the dismissal Saturday at the same event that led to the complaint—a Republican prayer breakfast.

Ethical proceedings typically remain confidential unless and until the VSB’s disciplinary apparatus finds misconduct serious enough to at least warrant a public reprimand.

Bryant and his attorney, Rodney G. Leffler of Fairfax, said the investigation ended well short of that point. An attorney in the VSB’s disciplinary office summarized the case for a subcommittee composed of two lawyers and a layman, who decided that it did not warrant further attention, Leffler said.

Leffler said the investigator interviewed 26 people, only one of whom recalled that Bryant had used the phrase “illegal conduct” at the February breakfast to describe the practice of taking cases under advisement without explicit legislative authority to do so.

The case was somewhat unusual in that The Virginian-Pilot obtained a copy of the complaint signed by all nine circuit judges and Bryant made public his written response to it.

Bryant said he responded to a question about drunken driving cases by noting that he believed that judges at times exceeded their authority by deferring judgment and dismissing or reducing the charge if a defendant had no further legal difficulty over the next few months of a year. He added that he kept a record of such instances in case members of the city legislative delegation might be interested in them when judges come up for reappointment.

“It is not against the rules to say something true about a judge,” Leffler said.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Supreme Court tightens up on documents

Enough of that squished-together Times New Roman typeface already.

That’s one possible reading of the thinking of the Supreme Court of Virginia in amending its rules on “Forms of Briefs and Other Papers.”

Or it may be that they just want to read less.

The practical effect of the amendments, which will take effect Feb. 1, is that lawyers will be able to write only five-sixths as much in most instances—and substantially less than that if they had been writing their briefs in Times New Roman.

Rule 5:6 requires the submission of briefs in 14-point type, rather than 12-point type, and limits the fonts lawyers can use to Courier, Arial and Verdana. The page limits remain the same. The amount of space available for petitions for rehearing, now 7,500 words, is reduced to 3,000 words.

The attorneys have to file fewer copies of briefs, 12 rather than 20, but they also must file an electronic copy on a disc or by e-mail. Documents in Word format are preferred, but those in Word Perfect or PDF format are acceptable.

The court also wants to know more about the attorneys. The amendments require them to include name, Virginia State Bar number, telephone number, facsimile number and e-mail address on the front covers of their briefs