In re Justice, 20-5479

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
PartiesIn re: LORING EDWIN JUSTICE, Petitioner.
Docket Number20-5479
Decision Date26 August 2021

In re: LORING EDWIN JUSTICE, Petitioner.

No. 20-5479

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 26, 2021






The trial court described this case as "an unusual matter of reciprocal attorney discipline." Loring Justice practiced law in Tennessee. During a case that Justice was litigating in federal district court in the Eastern District of Tennessee, the court became suspicious of a fee petition that Justice had submitted. After conducting a hearing and finding discrepancies in a fee petition, the court suspended him. Justice then faced disciplinary proceedings in Tennessee arising out of that same conduct. The Tennessee Chancery Court, however, determined that Justice's earlier conduct combined with recalcitrant behavior during the state process warranted a stiffer sanction, and it disbarred him. The federal court then reciprocally disbarred him. The court noted, among other things, that Justice had made "repeated numerous misrepresentations" in the state disciplinary proceedings about his previous conduct in federal court-despite specific admonitions against doing so from the federal court.

Justice now appeals. He alleges that deficiencies in the Tennessee disbarment proceedings mean that the district court could not rely on them in its decision to disbar him. Because we find that no deficiency of due process, infirmity of proof, or other grave issue with the Tennessee proceeding requires reversal, and because the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing reciprocal disbarment, we AFFIRM.


In 2000, Justice founded Loring Justice PLLC in Knoxville. Bd. of Pro. Resp. v. Justice, 577 S.W.3d 908, 911-12 (Tenn. 2019). In 2009, he represented Scotty Thomas in a personal injury lawsuit against Lowe's in the Eastern District of Tennessee ("the district court"). Id. at 912. During discovery, his firm located a human resource manager at Lowe's who had witnessed Thomas's injury. Lowe's had failed to disclose the manager to Justice. Id. Because of this failure, the district court held that Lowe's had failed to meet its discovery obligations, ordered it to pay Thomas "all reasonable attorney's fees and expenses incurred in locating and deposing [the witness]," and ordered Justice to provide an itemization and fee petition. Id.

Justice submitted both documents to the district court. Id. at 913. His itemization listed 371.5 billable hours worth more than $103, 000 in attorney's fees. Id. Justice submitted a sworn declaration that he had worked 325.5 of the hours, while his paralegal-Benjamin Kerschberg- had worked eleven hours. Id.

A tip from Kerschberg's attorney raised the district court's suspicions about the billing. In re Justice, No. 1:11-3-mc-3, 2012 WL 2374677, at *3 (E.D. Tenn. June 22, 2012). Seventeen of the time entries for hours Justice submitted strongly resembled time entries for hours that Kerschberg had billed Loring Justice PLLC. The district court held a show cause hearing at which Justice testified that he had made no false statements in the fee petition. Unconvinced, the court concluded that Justice had falsified multiple time entries and suspended his law license for six months.

The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility ("the Board") then petitioned for discipline against Justice based on the same misconduct. A Hearing Panel heard the case. Justice told the Board that he intended not to testify, and the Board filed a motion to compel his deposition. Justice moved to dismiss on the grounds that being compelled to give a deposition in an attorney discipline proceeding violated his rights under both the Tennessee and federal constitutions. The Hearing Panel denied Justice's motion. At the deposition, Justice exercised his Fifth Amendment right, declining to answer certain questions. Justice, 577 S.W.3d at 925. The Hearing Panel held that it could draw adverse inferences from Justice's silence but only if the Board presented evidence corroborating the inferred facts. Eventually, however, the Hearing Panel drew no adverse inferences.

The Panel reviewed evidence and heard testimony about Justice's conduct in federal court. Besides questioning Justice's candor in front of the Panel itself, it found that Justice knowingly made false statements to the federal court. The Panel determined that Justice had violated several ethical rules. And the Panel found six aggravating factors, including a pattern of misconduct, the refusal to acknowledge the wrongful conduct, and the submission of false statements and evidence during the disciplinary process. The Panel also found two mitigating factors, including that the federal court had imposed its own sanction for Justice's conduct. It imposed a one-year suspension from practice and additional continuing legal education in ethics.

Both Justice and the Board appealed to the Knox County Chancery Court. The Board challenged the penalty imposed by the Panel as too lenient. Justice raised several issues related to the proceeding, including a Fifth Amendment challenge. That court affirmed the imposition of discipline but found that the Panel erred in not considering the presumptive sanctions that American Bar Association Standard 5.11 imposes. Disbarment, rather than a suspension, was appropriate.

Justice moved to alter or amend the judgment. The Chancery Court rejected his arguments about its first order's sufficiency and added:

[A]ny lingering doubt as to the disbarment of Mr. Justice has been obliterated by his motion to alter or amend. Justice blames everyone and everything for his predicament, other than his own misconduct . . . [H]is pleadings demonstrate a complete lack of respect and distain [sic] for the Court and this disciplinary proceeding

(R. 90-3, Ch. Final Order, PageID # 5887-88.)

Justice then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed. Justice, 577 S.W.3d at 933. So he pressed on to the United States Supreme Court, which denied his petition for certiorari. Justice v. Bd. of Pro. Resp., 140 S.Ct. 1212 (2020) (mem.).

After the Supreme Court rejected his petition, the district court issued a Show Cause Order directing Justice to explain why it should not disbar him under Eastern District of Tennessee Local Rule 83.7. Justice moved for the court to consider the Show Cause Order satisfied or in the alternative for a full evidentiary hearing. The court referred the matter to a magistrate judge, who recommended the district court disbar Justice and deny his motion for an evidentiary hearing. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation and disbarred Justice. Justice now appeals that disbarment.


Justice presents several challenges to the Tennessee disbarment proceedings. We hold that none of them so infected the district court's determination as to require reversal.


To start, we note the limited scope of our review. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, federal appellate courts lack jurisdiction to hear appeals from state judicial proceedings.[1]"The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is based on the negative inference that, if appellate court review of such state judgments is vested in the Supreme Court, then it follows that such review may not be had in the lower federal courts." Lawrence v. Welch, 531 F.3d 364, 368 (6th Cir. 2008). Additionally, the doctrine recognizes that "the district courts are courts 'of original jurisdiction,' and they are not authorized by statute 'to exercise appellate jurisdiction over state-court judgments.'" RLR Invs., LLC v. City of Pigeon Forge, 4 F.4th 380, 395 (6th Cir. 2021) (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 292 (2005)); see Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482 n.16 ("[L]ower federal courts possess no power whatever to sit in direct review of state court decisions.") (quoting Atl. Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Eng'rs, 398 U.S. 281, 269 (1970)); Rooker, 263 U.S. at 416 ("The jurisdiction possessed by the District Courts is strictly original."). We have no power of collateral review over Justice's state disbarment proceeding, and he properly pursued his direct challenge before the United States Supreme Court. See In re Cook, 551 F.3d 542, 548 (6th Cir. 2009).

Federal courts may begin disciplinary proceedings based on a state-court disbarment, id. at 549, but the requirements for legal practice in federal and state courts are distinct. So federal courts "are not conclusively bound by state disbarment orders." Id.; see Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278, 282 (1957). And where a federal court relies on state disciplinary proceedings in reaching its decision, we can review whether alleged defects in the state proceeding "so infected [the] federal proceeding that justice requires reversal of the federal determination." Cook, 551 F.3d at 548 (footnote omitted) (quoting In re Ruffalo, 390 U.S. 544, 553 (1968) (White, J., concurring)). But even though state disciplinary orders are not "conclusively" binding on federal courts, Ruffalo, 390 U.S. at 547, they are entitled to "due respect," Cook, 551 F.3d at 549.

Thus, we "proceed on the presumption that federal courts 'should recognize the condition created by the judgment of the state court.'" Id. at 549 (quoting Selling v. Radford, 243 U.S. 46, 51 (1917)). An attorney can only rebut this presumption by showing one of three things:

1. That the state procedure from want of notice or opportunity to be heard was wanting in due process 2, that there was such an infirmity of proof as to facts found to have established the want of fair private and professional character as to give rise to a clear conviction on our part that we could not consistently with our duty

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