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“Dance Moms” Star Indicted For Bankruptcy Fraud

When a Pennsylvania bankruptcy judge channel-surfed one night, reality star Abby Lee Miller’s fame translated into possible prison time. For those who don’t know Miller, she’s a dance instructor who appeared on a reality show called “Dance Moms.” The show debuted in 2011 on Lifetime and followed young dancers as Miller taught them dance. Many people watched for the nasty things she said and the conflicts between her and mothers of dancers.

Bankruptcy Fraud is Abuse of the U.S. Bankruptcy Law

On December 3rd, 2010, Miller filed bankruptcy in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Pittsburgh. According to her petition, she owed more than $350,000 to creditors. Bankruptcy is a legal process which allows a person or business, called a debtor, to obtain a fresh start. There are many different types of bankruptcy. The most common ones are Chapter 7, where debtors agree to an elimination of debts in exchange for the sales of their assets. It also could involve a repayment of debtors over time, also known as Chapter 13. Abby Miller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where parts of a business are severed in order to save the rest of the company.

Regardless of the type of bankruptcy a debtor files, the first rule is honesty. In her reorganization plan, Miller honesty listed four businesses she owned:

  • Abby Lee Dance Co.
  • The Dressing Room
  • Maryen Lorraine Dance Studio
  • The Tight Spot

Her liabilities included the more than $350,000 mentioned above, a dance studio mortgage, home mortgage, taxes owed to school district and county where she resided. According to bankruptcy documents, her income was about $8,000 per month and assets totaled slightly more than $320,000. She claimed she did receive some money from her reality show, but didn’t have a contract with Collins Avenue Entertainment. Dance Mom

Approximately two years later, Judge Thomas Agresti was set to approve her bankruptcy. However, the judge saw her performance on a national television show and commercials for another show. He determined Miller may have lied to the court.

Unfortunately, Miller may have forgotten bankruptcy isn’t a “scripted” reality show. She eventually came clean about the more than $280,000 she didn’t include in the bankruptcy petition.

Federal agents claim she actually opened a separate account to hide her income. The agents also claim she advised others to keep her income quiet and hide more than $700,000 from the bankruptcy court. In October, Miller was indicted on 20 criminal counts of bankruptcy fraud. If found guilty, Miller faces five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine for each of the 20 counts.

What Is Bankruptcy Fraud?

Bankruptcy fraud is the act or attempt to delay, hinder, or defraud either the bankruptcy court and/or creditors. Sometimes this type of fraud can turn into a criminal case like the situation Miller is involved in now. Debtors like Miller don’t realize that they can’t conceal assets from the court. The court isn’t being nosey when it wants an honest list of assets. Disclosing assets is vital for the bankruptcy court to determine what it needs to collect from the debtor and sell any of the debtor’s property to pay creditors. If the court can’t adequately determine how much money the debtor has, it can’t pay creditors and/ or eliminate debts.

Elements of Bankruptcy Fraud

Will Miller be convicted of bankruptcy fraud? She’s innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution will have to prove the following to prove her guilt:

1. The debtor made a misrepresentation

The prosecutor will have to show Miller made a misrepresentation about her assets. Allegedly Miller told the Court she did make some money from her reality show and appearances, but she received mainly publicity from them. Federal agents supposedly discovered more than $700,000 in undisclosed income. The undisclosed income carries a lot of weight when trying to prove she made misrepresentation.

2. The debtor knew the statements were false when she made them

This element points to the intent of the debtor to commit fraud. If Miller is proven guilty, prosecutors will have to show she knew she was lying at the time she claimed not to make money from the television shows. This can be proven in different ways according to the evidence. For example, she said she didn’t make money from the shows, but set up a separate bank account and had checks withheld would show she made false statements.

3. The debtor made the misrepresentation with the purpose and intent of deceiving the court or creditors

This element requires showing Miller intentionally made misleading statements to the court with the intent to deceive. In the indictment, Miller supposedly wrote an email to her accountant talking about making money so she could stay out of jail. This would point to the intent to deceive creditors. Therefore, prosecutors could prove she claimed not to make money from the reality shows and appearances to deceive creditors into believing she was paid via publicity.

4. The creditor or the court relied on the misstatements

The best way to describe this element is that creditors believed the debtor’s claim of not having money or assets. Miller allegedly told creditors she made about $8,000 per month. In reality she actually had more than $280,000 in additional income at the time she was caught by the channel-surfing bankruptcy judge. Creditors can easily claim they believed Miller and prosecutors would prove the element.

5. The creditor sustained some damage or loss because of the alleged fraud

The creditor would have been paid some or more money if told of the hidden assets. Miller’s creditors may have received money or additional property if she’d allegedly told the truth. This may be a tough one since her bankruptcy attorney claims there was no loss to her creditors because of the undisclosed funds.

Bankruptcy is Not a Scripted Reality Show

Miller isn’t the first to be accused of bankruptcy fraud. She won’t be the last. Many people want the financial freedom bankruptcy gives, but not the possibility of having assets taken. It’s certainly understandable. Creditors are looked at as greedy. Debtors are too broke to be giving property a trustee for sale. Unfortunately, there has to be give and take in bankruptcy law for the debtor to receive a fresh start.

If Miller is convicted, she can look at the bright side. There’s the possibility of a new reality series once she’s released from prison.

Top 5 TV Shows That Got The Law Wrong

1. Suits

The entire premise of the show Suits is a resounding legal ethical issue. The show follows Mike Ross, a brilliant college dropout with photographic memory who works for Harvey Specter, an attorney. Together, Harvey and Mike take on various legal issues all while keeping their well-kept secret that Mike is not actually a barred attorney. Later on in the show, this secret is leaked out to another attorney at their firm, who also decides to keep mum on the situation.  Suits

In the real world, no law-abiding attorney would ever take the risk of covering up such a huge legal ethic and criminal violation for a non-attorney just because he’s really smart. The consequences would be far too immense for all involved, including the law firm. Harvey would likely be disbarred, face criminal fraud charges, and face potential malpractice suites. Mike could definitely face criminal fraud charges as well as charges for unauthorized practice of law, forgery, and tampering with records. The firm would suffer a shattered reputation and likely be subject to investigation. The repercussions would be tremendous and all the while, genius Mike could have just gone to law school like everyone else.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a reach after all—just look at Kimberly M. Kitchen. She managed to pose as an attorney for ten years, make firm partner, and become the president of her county bar association before getting caught.

2. Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars is far from a legal drama but a lot of mysterious murders go down throughout the show and various members of the cast end up finding themselves behind bars framed as the killer. In one particular instance, main character Alison DiLaurentis finds herself in such a situation. While Alison is preparing for trial, she laments to a visiting friend that her attorney refuses to let her take the stand to testify on her own behalf and that she’s being forced to take a guilty pleaPretty Little Liars

In reality, Alison’s attorney would not be able to force Alison to do anything, including keeping her off the stand in her own criminal trial. In criminal cases, the accused have a constitutional right to take the stand and testify if they so choose. Further, legal ethics mandate attorneys to place their client’s interests first and to diligently and competently represent those interests. Thus, if Alison wanted to take the stand, the most her attorney could lawfully do is advise against it. Similarly, if Alison didn’t want to take the guilty plea, her attorney could not do anything to force her to take it. Someone ought to inform Alison of her rights!

3. The Good Wife

The Good Wife makes for great dramatic television, but might not be the best source for legal ethics lessons. The show has had a number of ethical hiccups throughout the course of its lifetime, but season 3, episode 17, “The Long Way Home,” is one of the most memorable.

In that episode, attorney Alicia Florrick is direct examining her client Colin Sweeney as to whether he had sexually harassed a former employee. Colin testifies he never had sex with the former employee, but once off the stand, he quickly changes his story. Colin admits to Alicia he was lying the whole time and brags about his sexual exploits with the employee.  The Good Wife

Alicia is at a loss as to what to do and turns to her mentor who in turn gives her terrible, horribly unethical advice. Alicia’s mentor assures her she will be immune to any repercussions because she was not aware Colin was lying when he committed perjury. Her mentor further advises her to not tell the judge Colin was lying because she is obligated to protect her client’s interests, and because of this she may still continue to use Colin’s lies in her arguments to the court.

In real life, this is entirely wrong! Lying under oath to a judge is perjury and punishable by law. Any barred attorney knows that continuing to aid a client who you know has committed perjury and who plans to continue committing perjury is a grave ethical breach and could easily get you into trouble with the state bar and the court. An attorney in that situation should have quickly consulted their state’s legal ethics code to ensure they took the proper steps, which could amount to telling the judge and/or withdrawing representation entirely.

4. How To Get Away With Murder

How To Get Away With Murder focuses on defense attorney Annalise Keating who moonlights as a criminal law professor. Throughout the show, Keating is constantly intertwining her students with her clients and teaching them real-life legal lessons. In several instances, Keating brings her students to her firm to interact with clients where the clients will often divulge their entire story.  How To Get Away With Murder

In reality, no defense attorney currently working a case would ever allow for a client to breach the ever-precious attorney-client privilege. Throughout representation, communications between a client and his or her attorney are protected and confidential, but that protection can be broken if such communications are made to third parties who are not serving as agents of the attorney and who are not receiving those communication for the purpose of furnishing legal services.

If an attorney like Keating were to allow her clients to discuss confidential matters with her students, that information would then be considered wide open for the opposing party to interrogate through discovery. In other words, it would be a huge mistake and the client could very well turn around and sue the attorney for malpractice and incompetent representation.

5. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit


Law & Order SVU is a hugely popular crime and legal drama set in New York City. The show follows detectives investigating crimes within the special victims unit and oftentimes the detectives will find incriminating forensic evidence, get the evidence tested, get the bad guy in court, and get the defense attorney to take him down all in the same week. Law & Order

Police departments, courts, and lawyers only dream about criminal cases being rolled out that fast. In reality, it could be years before a criminal case is finally heard before a jury. Attorneys often are not handling a single case at a time and must work with opposing counsel and the court to manage the case and calendar various litigation procedures. So if you’re planning on being involved in a lawsuit, ignore Law & Order timelines and be prepared to do a fair bit of waiting throughout the process.

A Murdered Wife’s Letter is Not Harmless to a Jury Verdict

Late last year, a Wisconsin murder trial made its way up to the state Supreme Court over a single piece of evidence. Mark Jensen was on trial for the murder of his wife Julie and the jury returned a verdict finding him guilty and charging him with framing the murder as a suicide. During the trial, the court allowed the prosecution to enter into evidence a handwritten letter by Julie dated just two weeks prior to her death. In that letter, Julie states she would never take her own life and if she were to be found dead, her husband would be the main culprit. The Jensens

Wisconsin Court of Appeals: Admitting Letter was a Harmless Error

The case moved up to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to determine whether that evidence should have been admitted at all. Jensen argued the evidence violated his constitutional right to confrontation, which grants all accused the right to face adverse witnesses. In this case, Julie’s letter was admitted into evidence but Mark clearly could not face her in court and have her cross-examined. Although the Court of Appeals agreed that the letter should not have been admitted into evidence, it maintained that the letter was a “harmless error” because the verdict would have come back as guilty regardless of whether the letter was admitted or not. The Court of Appeals stated because there was enough evidence admitted by the prosecution to return a guilty verdict, allowing the letter as admissible evidence was a “harmless error” in retrospect.

Wisconsin Supreme Court: Court of Appeals has it all Wrong

The State Supreme Court felt differently and held the Court of Appeals was unreasonable in their application of the “harmless error” standard. The Supreme Court stated the lower court had applied the standard completely wrong and that it should not have been looking to whether the prosecution had admitted sufficient evidence beyond the letter to return a guilty verdict regardless. Rather, the harmless error standard considers whether the letter had a substantial and prejudicial effect on the jury verdict. The Supreme Court held in this case, it clearly could have.

Whether Julie’s letter was true or false, the contents without a doubt influence the jury to believe that Mark was her murderer because of its decisive tone and the fact it was written by the victim herself. However, there’s also a chance the contents were a lie written in anger and impulse, or even a really bad joke. Regardless of whether the statement was true or false at the time it was written, the fact of the matter is Julie could not be around to testify as to the contents and Mark could not have asked her questions about the nature of the letter as he would with any other adverse witness during cross-examination. Therefore, the jury was naturally tipped toward returning a guilty verdict for Mark and Mark could not fully defend himself as to that particular piece of evidence.

Because of these issues, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held allowing the letter as evidence was in fact not “harmless” at all and reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision.

Jail Security Gone Wrong

Take your bra off if you want to visit your client. That was the order to at least two female attorneys who went to visit their clients in a Cumberland County Jail in Maine. The attorneys refused to remove their bras and left the jail. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said it was important to prohibit breaches in jail security. Jail security was tightened after several security breaches. These breaches included drug smuggling and inmates leaving maximum security cells for sexual trysts.  Security Checkpoint

However, Sheriff Joyce did admit jail staff did go a little too far when ordering the female attorneys to remove their bras. The rule was that no individual entering the jail could set off the jail metal detectors. It was never jail security policy to prohibit attorneys from speaking with their clients.

The sheriff did apologize to the attorneys. It was later discovered that at least 20 other female attorneys complained about having to remove their bras before going through the metal detector in the same jail.

What happened to the female attorneys raises issues for both them and their clients. Did the county jail violate the attorneys’ 14TH Amendment of equal protection? Was there a violation of defendant’s rights to counsel?

Male Attorneys Weren’t Ordered to Remove an Article of Clothing

The 14TH Amendment contains many clauses focused on the rights of citizens in relation to both the local and state governments. The 14TH Amendment also includes the equal protection clause. The clause prevents an individual from being discriminated against because of characteristics such as disability, nationality, or sex.

Sex discrimination is treating a class of people differently based on their gender. The case that struck down sex discrimination pertaining to women is Reed v. Reed. It made an Idaho law, which automatically gave a mandatory preference to men over women when there was two individuals relatives competing to become an administrator over an estate, illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law because it gave preference to men over women. The same can be said for what happened at the Cumberland County Jail.

Jail security wanted to prevent illegal activities such as drug smuggling and inmate escapes. That’s fine. The problem is how the staffers went about trying to prevent security breaches. They singled out female attorneys by telling them to remove their bras prior to entering the metal detector.

The female attorneys are supposed to be treated like their male counterparts by the county jail when they went into security. Male attorneys weren’t asked to remove an article of clothing prior to entering the county jail. They were allowed to go through the metal detectors and visit with their clients.

The fact that female attorneys were singled out goes against the 14TH Amendment. Requesting the women remove their bras violated the equal protection clause. The country jail created an environment where female attorneys were treated unfairly. If they didn’t remove their bras, they couldn’t visit their clients. By treating the women differently for no important reason, they were no longer equal to male attorneys who didn’t have to remove any article of clothing.

Clear Case of Prohibiting Attorney-Client Interaction

Criminal defendants have many constitutional rights. You may already know many of them like the right to:

  • Remain silent
  • Have a jury trial
  • Confront witnesses
  • Have a speedy trial

A defendant also has a right to legal representation. This means the defendant must also have access to his attorney. By requiring female attorneys remove their bras to enter the jail, the county jail violated the defendant’s rights. On those days, defendants with female attorneys weren’t allowed to meet with their lawyers or talk about defense strategy. It was possible that the jail staff could have delayed or endangered their cases.

You may think it one day not meeting with an attorney doesn’t matter. It does. Any time a defendant does access to his attorney, rights are violated. In addition, think about the attorney. Attorneys must prove adequate representation to clients. That legal representation shouldn’t be hindered by whether the attorney wears a bra or not.

The Cumberland County Jail in Maine Clearly Violated Constitutional Rights

Maybe you think the county jail violated inmates’ rights more than the female attorneys’ rights. Maybe you think the county jail had to do whatever it had to do to prevent inmate escapes and drug smuggling. Whatever side of the issue you’re on, you have to agree with one thing. The Cumberland County Jail was clearly wrong. It violated the Constitutional rights of female attorneys and their clients.

Hate Crime Laws: Helpful or Harmful?

The first hate crime laws were enacted in 1969, and this area of law has grown exponentially over the years. A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator of a crime selects their victim based on membership or affiliation with a group, religious belief, creed, lifestyle or immutable characteristics such as race and gender. Whether a crime is designated a hate crime or not is important for sentencing, because if a criminal act is classified as a hate-crime the accused will face an enhanced sentence. For example, if someone punches someone on the street for no reason, they will be charged with battery.Hate Crime

However, if someone punches someone on the street because they are Jewish, the attacker will be charged with battery and face a hate crime enhancement. This is significant, because a battery charge may only carry a sentence of 6 months, but the actions are classified as a hate-crime the sentence could be two years.

Hate crime laws are enacted with the best of intentions, because when situations like Matthew Shepard are brought to light, communities are infuriated. The tragic incident of Matthew Shepard, being tortured and murdered for no other reason than his sexual orientation, was a heart wrenching story. As details of what horrible people the murderers were, the nation became even more infuriated with the story.   These horrific acts eventually resulted in President Obama signing The Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009. This legislation increased the number of what groups protected by hate-crime laws, which include the addition of sexual orientation as a protected class.

Pros and Cons of Hate Crimes

Although, this legislation was passed with the best of intentions, there is controversy surrounding it. Three primary points of contention are:

1. Do hate crime laws prefer different groups of victims over others? Critics of hate-crime laws argue that the purpose of legislation is to treat everyone equally. Therefore, when someone is victimized by a crime they suffer harm, i.e. if someone is stabbed and robbed they have been injured and lost money. This harm is the same whether a white male robs a white male, a white male robs a black male, or a white gay male robs a black straight male, so on and so on. In summary, being the victim of a robbery is a horrific event in any victim’s life, and critics of the law ask why one victim is entitled to sympathy and protection than another?

The counterargument is that if an individual was victimized for nothing other than their race, the perpetrators conduct is even more reprehensible and should be punished more harshly. The controversy however, has been clearly decided by the legislature and hate-crime laws are in effect across the United States.

2. What groups are entitled to more protection under hate crime laws? If it is applied too liberally, will unfair sentences occur? The original hate-crime laws enacted in 1969 only applied to federally protected activity, such as voting. Furthermore, these laws were primarily enacted to protect African-Americans discrimination. However, as time progressed, more groups were included and protection applied to non-federally protected activity. The controversial aspect with these enactments are twofold:

(A) By identifying certain groups, others are excluded. Clearly, individuals belonging to the major religions such as Islam, Judaism and the like are protected. However, what about a Scientologist? Do these laws promote favoritism towards certain beliefs over others?

(B) Criminal activity happens and often involves people with different beliefs, but should all these be classified as hate-crimes?

Furthermore, something innocuous may be turned into a life-changing event, depending on whether it is labeled as a hate-crime or not. A hypothetical could be two college kids fighting over a girl at a bar. This would not be a good decision, but many college-aged kids make poor decisions. However, in that hypothetical if one of the parties is a Black-Christian and the other a Muslim, both could be charged with a hate-crime. Fighting over a girl at a bar is not a federally protected activity, which was the original intent of the law, but should that incident be considered a hate crime?

3. Do hate crime laws impact a Defendant’s right to fair trial? Does allowing the prosecution to introduce the inflammatory topics of race, religion and sexual orientation allow a criminal defendant to receive a fair trial? Another argument is that a prosecutor can impact an accused’s right to a fair trial. It is up to the prosecutor whether to charge someone with a hate-crime or not, and brining up difficult topics like race, religion, and sexual orientation would not typically be relevant to a whether someone committed a crime. However, hate-crime legislation allows these topics to be discussed at trial. Therefore, in the hypothetical bar fight between the Black Christian and Muslim, the incident could be a routine battery and self-defense case. Or it could be classified as a hate crime, resulting in the discussion of racial and religious biases. This could result in a number of unnecessary stones being overturned and impacting both parties right to a fair trial. However, proponents of hate-crime law can argue that if someone is vandalizing mosques based on an ignorant fear of Muslims, they might only be charged with vandalism. The sentence for vandalism may only be a few months. However, the prosecutor can add a Hate-Crime enhancement, which could result in a more appropriate sentence for that perpetrator.

Hate-crime laws present difficult questions, which have strong arguments on both sides. For now the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act have been enacted, which has resulted in the legislature indicating a desire to increase the prosecution of hate-crimes. For now only time can answer the question of whether hate-crime laws are helpful or harmful.