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WV: Legal Malpractice Immunity for Federal Prosecutors

Mooney v. Frazier, 225 W. Va. 358 (2010)

WV: Criminal Law

Student Contributor: Rachel Vincent

Facts: Plaintiff is suing his attorney for ineffective assistance of counsel. Plaintiff came home form work one night and wife, who was drunk, pulled a gun on him. Plaintiff took the gun from his wife and attempted to call 911 to report the incident. Plaintiff called 911 several times but each time his wife disconnected the call. Plaintiff decided to go to his job and have his boss call the police to turn in the gun. When plaintiff left the house, his wife called 911 and informed them that plaintiff was in possession of her gun and was headed to his job. When plaintiff arrived at his job the police arrested him. Plaintiff was charged for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Although plaintiff insisted he was innocent, he pleaded guilty because his appointed counsel advised him that there was no defense for a felon-in possession charge. Plaintiff tried to withdraw his please but was denied. Plaintiff was sentenced to 180 months in prison. Plaintiff filed a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence based on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. He claimed that he plead guilty because his attorney failed to research the defense of justification to plaintiff’s charge. The district court denied plaintiff’s motion. Plaintiff appealed the denial of his federal habeas petition. The decision was reversed and remanded and the federal government declined to reprosecute. Plaintiff severed five years before being released. Plaintiff filed a malpractice against attorney. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss. Prior to ruling on the motion the court certified three questions to the Supreme Court, one of which was answered.

Issue: Whether an attorney who is court appointed to represent a criminal defendant in a federal criminal prosecution is immune from purely state law claims of legal malpractice stemming from the underlying criminal proceedings?

Ruling: Yes. “Any action for legal malpractice against a federal public defender must be brought directly against the United States, and not the attorney; under federal law, an attorney employed by a federal public defender office who is sued in an individual capacity can convert the action to one against the United States, thereby obtaining indirectly the benefit of the United States’ sovereign immunity.”

Lesson: A federal public defender has immunity even if they did in fact render ineffective assistance of counsel.

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Posted in: Federal