A California State Bar judge has exonerated two Humboldt County attorneys of allegations 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 Dec. 20, 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 in the case of 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 veteran's life — including his finances and where he lived — over his wife's objections and contrary to his advanced care directive.
A judge subsequently denied the agency's request to place Dick Magney under a permanent conservatorship, returning control of his care to him and his wife. He died five months later. Judy Magney brought a civil rights lawsuit against the county of Humboldt stemming from the APS proceeding, which the county agreed to settle for $1 million in 2019, though it 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 a local hospital Feb. 21, 2015 and was in dire condition by all accounts, suffering from an inflamed heart valve, infected bedsores, chronic pain, sepsis, an inflamed colon 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, with Judy Magney acting as his caretaker. According to Wang's ruling, Dick Magney would quickly become the subject of two separate calls from mandated reporters to Adult Protective Services questioning whether he'd been the victim of neglect.
Over the course of three weeks, Dick Magney was treated by several hospitalists at St. Joseph Hospital who offered differing views on the best course of treatment and his capacity to make medical decisions. Complicating the situation, according to Wang's ruling, Dick Magney also seemed to fluctuate between pursuing a no-treatment option — declining antibiotics that doctors believed necessary to treat his infection and prolong his life — and saying he wanted to take the antibiotics, and at times appeared disoriented and incapable of making his own medical decisions.
Quoting from medical records submitted in the case, Wang notes that Judy Magney repeatedly expressed concerns about her husband being returned to her care, and whether Medicare would cover his placement in a skilled nursing facility or other treatments. According to Wang's ruling, Judy Magney did not want her husband to be treated with antibiotics and other interventions, saying they were counter to his advanced healthcare directive and it was time to "let him go."
APS Public Health Nurse Heather Ringwald was tasked with investigating mandated reporters' calls about Dick Magney and Wang's ruling makes clear it was Ringwald's report upon which Duke and Angus relied when drafting petitions and moving forward with legal actions on behalf of the county. Ringwald's report would prove at best incomplete and, at worst, intentionally misleading. (Ringwald declined to provide information to the State Bar.)
According to Wang's ruling, it relied on unnamed sources who made statements calling into question whether Judy Magney had her husband's best interests at heart and seemingly simplified a very complex situation, including the perspectives of doctors who believed Dick Magney was incompetent to make his own medical decisions, and that antibiotics were an appropriate intervention to prolong his life and omitting those of his treating doctor, who found him of sound mind and felt palliative care was appropriate.
And Ringwald's report stressed the urgency of the situation, warning the attorneys Dick Magney would likely die over the weekend without intervention and treatment.
Based on this, Wang writes that Duke and Angus scrambled over the course of about 24 hours to file a petition seeking to take temporary control of Dick Magney's medical care pending a neglect and abuse investigation against Judy Magney. The court filings omitted potentially important information — failing to include Dick Magney's medical records or any mention of his treating physician and her recommendations — but Wang found there was no evidence the omissions were deliberate and that Duke and Angus had acted in good faith with the information Ringwald provided them.
The State Bar alleged Duke and Angus had a duty to investigate further, but Wang disagreed, saying both that the allegations were "vague and fail to state a disciplinable offense," and also that due to the "exigent and alarming circumstances" presented, the attorneys had an obligation to act without delay. As to allegations that Duke and Angus intentionally withheld information from the court or misrepresented information provided, Wang found "no intentional or reckless act in withholding information" or misrepresenting it.
"Both Angus and Duke testified credibly and consistently, and much of their respective testimony was corroborated by subsequent action or through a document," the ruling states. "The record fully supports Ringwald was the primary source of information who supplied her own declaration ..."
And after both attorneys became aware of the conflicting physician opinions regarding Dick Magney's competence and best course of treatment, Wang found the record supported Duke and Angus' "good faith belief" that valid legal questions existed about his lack of capacity to make his own decisions and a potential "conflict" between he and his wife's interests.
Wang ultimately dismissed each of the eight counts charged against the attorneys, saying they had been "exonerated" and ordering that "reference to these matters" be removed from their State Bar profiles. But in the closing lines of her ruling, the judge made clear her exoneration of the attorneys did not extend to the county's overall handling of Dick Magney's case.
"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. "After careful consideration, the court finds Mary Blair Angus ... and Natalie A. Duke ... not culpable of the charged misconduct."
Find the full ruling at www.northcoastjournal.com.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal’s news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.