West Virginia Supreme Court Finds That Court-Appointed Attorney in Federal Court Is Immune from a State Lawsuit

lawbks.jpegIn the criminal justice system, all criminal suspects are entitled to competent representation by counsel. In fact, it is in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which states: “[T]he accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

When a criminal suspect cannot afford to hire a West Virginia criminal defense attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to provide representation. This applies not only in situations involving a criminal trial, but also criminal appeals. Under the landmark case United States Supreme Court case, Douglas v. California (1963), it was determined that low-income people could be represented by court-appointed attorneys on appeal as long as it was one time, for an appeal by right. However, court-appointed attorneys are frequently overworked and may end up making mistakes in their representation. Court-appointed attorneys and their clients may also have a lot of the same tensions as hired attorneys and their clients so often do.

Recently, a case came before the West Virginia Supreme Court regarding whether a court-appointed attorney in an appeal could be sued by a convicted credit union robber. Back in 2001, David Schles was appointed to represent Matthew Dulaney in his post-conviction appeal. Schles filed several post-trial motions and made a timely appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition, Schles sent Dulaney a letter informing him that his representation was concluded. Dulaney could continue to appeal, but would need to do so with other counsel.

In 2008, Dulaney filed a lawsuit against Schles for committing legal malpractice. He claimed that Schles never told him the deadline for filing a petition under 28 U.S.C. ยง 2255 and sought $11 million in damages. His lawsuit was dismissed by the circuit court, which cited a West Virginia case, Mooney v. Frazier (2010), which stated that an attorney appointed by the federal court to represent a criminal defendant in a federal prosecution has absolute immunity from state law claims of legal malpractice stemming from the attorney’s conduct during the legal process. Dulaney then appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that his complaint should have been “liberally construed” to find an action for fraud. He claimed that the attorney had no business petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court and should not have charged the federal government. Also, since Mooney v. Frazier had been decided after Dulaney filed his lawsuit, it should not be applied retroactively to his case.

However, the West Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. They agreed with the circuit court that an attorney in Schles position had immunity, in order to protect such attorneys from “baseless claims.” The decision to dismiss Dulaney’s case was unanimous.

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