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Judge sides with Alaska attorney who alleged wrongful firing
Lawyer Blog News | 2022/01/21 18:13
A U.S. judge sided Thursday with an attorney who alleged she was wrongly fired by the state of Alaska over political opinions expressed on a personal blog.

U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick ruled that Elizabeth Bakalar’s December 2018 firing violated her free speech and associational rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.

According to Sedwick’s decision, Bakalar was an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law who handled election-related cases and was assigned to advise or represent state agencies in high-profile or complex matters. She began a blog in 2014 that focused on issues such as lifestyle, parenting and politics but began blogging more about politics and then-President Donald Trump after his 2016 election. She also commented about Trump on Twitter, with her name listed as the Twitter handle, the order says.

Shortly after Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s election in 2018, the chair of his transition team and later his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, sent a memo to a broad swath of state employees requesting they submit their resignations along with a statement of interest in continuing to work for the new administration. The request was derided by attorneys for Bakalar and others as a demand for a “loyalty pledge.”

“To keep their jobs employees had to actually offer up a resignation with an accompanying statement of interest in continuing with the new administration and then hope that the incoming administration would reject the resignation,” Sedwick wrote.

Babcock said he fired Bakalar because he considered the tone of her resignation letter to be unprofessional, the order says. But Sedwick said Babcock did not accept the resignation of an assistant attorney general who used the same wording he had found objectionable when used by Bakalar.

While every lawyer in the Department of Law received the memo, just two — Bakalar and another attorney who had been critical of Trump on social media — had their resignation letters accepted, according to Sedwick’s decision.


Judges send Tyson workers’ virus lawsuit back to state court
Lawyer Blog News | 2022/01/03 23:59
A federal appeals court has ruled that Tyson Foods can’t claim it was operating under the direction of the federal government when it tried to keep its processing plants open as the coronavirus spread rapidly within them during the early days of the pandemic.

So the Des Moines Register reports that a lawsuit filed by several families of four workers who died after contracting COVID-19 while working at Tyson’s pork processing plant in Waterloo will be heard in state court. The families allege that Tyson’s actions contributed to the deaths.

Tyson had sought to move the case to federal court because it said federal officials wanted it to keep its plants running. The company cited an executive order former President Donald Trump signed that designated meat processors as essential infrastructure.

“The fact that an entity — such as a meat processor — is subject to pervasive federal regulation alone is not sufficient to confer federal jurisdiction,” Judge Jane Kelly wrote in the decision.

The court also noted that Trump’s order was signed in late April 2020 after many of its workers were infected. More than 1,000 Tyson workers at the Waterloo plant tested positive for the virus that spring and at least six died.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the Springdale, Arkansas-based company is disappointed in the court ruling, but he defended the steps Tyson took to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

“We’re saddened by the loss of any of our team members to COVID-19 and are committed to protecting the health and safety of our people,” Mickelson said. “We’ve implemented a host of protective measures in our facilities and in 2021 required all of our U.S. team members to be vaccinated.”


Supreme Court rejects appeal over press access in Wisconsin
Lawyer Blog News | 2021/12/13 21:48
The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a conservative think tank over Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to exclude the group’s writers from press briefings.

The justices acted without comment Monday, leaving in place lower court rulings that said the decision is legal.

The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy filed the lawsuit in 2019 alleging that Evers, a Democrat, violated its staffers’ constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of the press and equal access.

Former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, had joined in the institute’s bid for high-court review. Evers defeated Walker in 2018.

Last year, a federal judge rejected the group’s arguments, saying MacIver can still report on Evers without being invited to his press briefings or being on his email distribution list. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld that ruling in April.

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker had urged the Supreme Court to take the case, arguing that the ruling in favor of Evers allows censorship because it permits picking and choosing which reporters attend press events that have long been open to reporters but closed to the general public.

The appeals court ruled that Evers’ media-access criteria was reasonable and he was under no obligation to grant access for every news outlet to every news conference.

MacIver had argued that Evers was excluding its staffers and violating their free speech rights because they are conservatives. Evers said they were excluded because they are not principally a news gathering operation and they are not neutral.

Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback did not immediately return a message Monday seeking comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. MacIver’s attorney Dan Suhr also did not immediately return a message.

MacIver covers legislative meetings and other events at the Capitol as well as some Evers news conferences. But the institute sued after being excluded from a media briefing Evers gave for reporters on his state budget proposal in 2019. Evers wasn’t present, but members of his administration provided information to reporters on embargo ahead of his budget speech to the Legislature that evening.

The appeals court noted that a limited number of reporters were allowed into the event. Reporters from The Associated Press, along with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal, were among those present for that briefing.

Former governors, including Walker, also limited the number of reporters and news outlets that could attend budget briefings and other events.


Italy frees man convicted of 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher
Lawyer Blog News | 2021/11/29 06:48
The only person convicted in the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher was freed Tuesday after serving most of his 16-year prison sentence, his lawyer said.

Attorney Fabrizio Ballarini said Rudy Guede’s planned Jan. 4 release had been moved up a few weeks by a judge and he was freed on Tuesday. He will continue to work in the library at the Viterbo-based Center for Criminology Studies, Ballarini said in an email.

Guede had already been granted permission to leave prison during the day to work at the center while he served his sentence for the 2007 murder of 21-year-old Kercher.

The case in the university city of Perugia gained international notoriety after Kercher’s American roommate, Amanda Knox, and Knox’s then-boyfriend were placed under suspicion. Both were initially convicted, but Italy’s highest court threw out the convictions in 2015 after a series of flip-flop decisions.

Guede was originally convicted in a fast-track trial procedure. He has denied killing Kercher.


Washington seeks over $38 billion from opioid distributors
Lawyer Blog News | 2021/11/17 03:06
After rejecting a half-billion-dollar settlement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday took the state’s case against the nation’s three biggest drug distributors to trial, saying they must be held accountable for their role in the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The Democrat delivered part of the opening statement in King County Superior Court himself, calling the case possibly the most significant public health lawsuit his agency had ever filed.

“These companies knew what would happen if they failed to meet their duties,” Ferguson told Judge Michael Ramsey Scott. “We know they were aware of the harms flowing from their conduct because in private correspondence, company executives mocked individuals suffering the painful effects of opioid dependence. ... They displayed a callous disregard for the communities and people who bear the impact of their greed.”

But Ferguson’s legal strategy isn’t without risk, as a loss by three California counties in a similar case this month — and an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision overturning a $465 million judgment against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson — demonstrates.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued a tentative ruling Nov. 1 that the counties, plus the city of Oakland, had not proven the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance. The Oklahoma ruling said a lower court wrongly interpreted the state’s public nuisance law.

In an email, Ferguson stressed that the relevant Washington laws differ and called the cases “apples and oranges.”

Public nuisance claims are at the heart of some 3,000 lawsuits brought by state and local governments against drug makers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Washington’s is the first by a state against drug distribution companies to go to trial. Ferguson is claiming public nuisance and violations of state consumer protection law.


Trials delayed for mother, son in Mississippi fraud cases
Lawyer Blog News | 2021/11/13 13:45
Judges have delayed the state and federal trials of a mother and son charged in one of Mississippi’s largest public corruption cases.

State Auditor Shad White has said Nancy New and Zachary New were responsible for misspending millions of dollars of welfare money that was intended for needy people in one of the poorest states in the U.S.

Their trials were scheduled to begin this week — Monday in Hinds County Circuit Court and Wednesday in federal court. Attorneys have made clear that both trials were unlikely to happen during the same week because of the complexity of the cases.

In late October, judges issued orders setting new trial dates of Jan. 3 in federal court and Feb. 7 in Hinds County Circuit Court.

State court records show Nancy New and Zachary New are both charged with conspiracy, embezzlement, fraud and making false statements to defraud the government, for alleged crimes from September 2018. They were indicted in early 2020.

Federal court records show the mother and son both face several charges, including wire fraud; conspiracy to commit wire fraud; aggravated identity theft; money laundering; and money laundering conspiracy.


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