Judge Exonerates HumCo Attorneys in Right-to-die Case

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A California State Bar judge has exonerated two Humboldt County attorneys of charges that they committed serious ethics violations during their handling of a local right-to-die case that resulted in a $1 million settlement.

In a 45-page written ruling filed yesterday, Judge Phong Wang found that Deputy County Counsel Natalie Duke and Blair Angus, who retired in 2019 as assistant county counsel, acted in good faith with the information they had and did not intentionally mislead the court when handling matters related to a Carlotta man’s end-of-life care. Specifically, Wang found Angus and Duke’s actions did not rise to the level of “professional misconduct” in their handling of legal actions on behalf of Humboldt County Adult Protective Services and the Public Guardian’s Office against Dick and Judy Magney, which enabled the agencies to temporarily seize control over Dick Magney’s medical treatment and later all aspects of the Navy veterans’ life — including his finances and where he lived — over his wife’s objections and contrary to his advanced care directive.

The couple prevailed in those actions and the county ultimately paid $1 million in 2019 to settle a civil rights lawsuit stemming from the APS proceeding, though the county did not admit any wrongdoing.

The California State Bar filed disciplinary charges against Blair and Angus in November of 2020, alleging they filed a misleading petition in the case, failed to uphold the law and engaged in acts of moral turpitude. The case went to trial in August and was held over 11 nonconsecutive days. In her ruling, Wang found that the state bar’s allegations simply did “not support a violation” of applicable professional codes, while evidence entered at trial indicated the attorneys had acted in good faith under exigent circumstances and “there was no design to mislead the court.”

Dick Magney, 73, was admitted to the hospital in 2015 and was in dire condition by all accounts, suffering from an infected heart valve, chronic pain and desperately poor hygiene. The Magneys had been pursuing a course of palliative care in consultation with his doctor and in line with his advanced health care directive before APS, concerned that Dick Magney was incapable of making his own medical decisions and that Judy Magney might not have been acting in his best interests, intervened and had him put back on antibiotics in a bid to keep him alive while investigating a possible neglect case against his wife of 23 years.

The APS case was later withdrawn and the Public Guardian’s Office stepped in to obtain temporary control over Dick Magney’s affairs for about a month before a judge denied the agency’s request to place him in a permanent conservatorship. He died five months later.

“Though this court recognizes the harm suffered by [Judy Magney] and [Dick Magney] by APS’ actions, this court is called upon to determine whether Angus and Duke’s respective acts rose to professional misconduct — not APS’ civil liability,” Wang wrote in her ruling. “After careful consideration, the court finds Mary Blair Angus … and Natalie A. Duke … not culpable of the charged misconduct.”

Look for a more thorough report on Wang’s ruling in next week’s Journal.

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