You take the good, you take the bad…

You take them both and there you have … the news about Tenn. Formal Ethics Opinion 2019-F-167 (draft).

First, the good. I cannot give sincere and strong enough kudos to the Tennessee BPR for implementing a new policy to release draft Formal Ethics Opinions to the public for comment before deciding to actually adopt and issue them. That is a wonderful development for Tennessee lawyers and should ultimately lead to Tennessee having some of the best and most helpful ethics opinions of any state in the nation.

Now, the bad. 2019-F-167 in draft form ain’t one. This proposed FEO is yet another one seeking to weigh in on the topic of what kinds of provisions in settlement agreements might run afoul of a lawyer’s obligations under RPC 5.6 not to agree to restrictions on their practice as part of resolving a client matter. This time the underlying question is a provision in the settlement of an automobile products liability case that would require destruction of the allegedly defective vehicle.

The summary of the BPR’s conclusion is: “It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement, in a products liability case, that requires destruction of the subject vehicle alleged to be defective if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.”

Working from high-level problems first all the way down to problems at the level of details, here (for what it is worth) is what is wrong with this draft opinion:

  • The original intention of the rule, RPC 5.6, is to prevent an attorney from being put in a position where they have to agree that they will never again be adverse to someone as a condition for settling a particular client’s case. That is a policy decision made to try to protect the public’s general right to counsel despite the fact that the ethics rules (RPC 1.2) expressly provide that whether or not to settle a case is, and has to be, the ultimate decision of the client and not the lawyer. Every step down paths that are more remote from the original purpose of the restriction is one more step to making the rule tilt in the wrong direction of putting the lawyer’s future interests ahead of the current client’s right to settle their case.
  • Opinions that interpret a rule that says ” don’t do X” but that offer a conclusion of this other thing Y is wrong if Y also manages to “do X” aren’t all that helpful unless you provide really insightful guidance about when something would or would not also manage to “do X.” If you cannot articulate what things would or would not in a way that is, as a practical matter, helpful, then maybe you shouldn’t be issuing an opinion on the question.
  • The opinion goes to great lengths to explain how important the future possession of an arguably defective automobile is for the lawyer/firm making the inquiry and, in so doing, makes the following assertion as if it was the gospel truth: “The most compelling evidence when establishing the existence of a defect in a vehicle is the existence of other similar incidents.” But, it’s not. I’m not an expert in products liability litigation, though I have handled some cases over the years (admittedly, always on the defense side). If I need to prove that a particular vehicle that caused some particular person harm, then I need to prove that particular vehicle was defective. I don’t have to prove that any other vehicle at any other time was defective. Just that one. But also… that one. If I prove that other vehicles in other situations were defective and caused harm to other people, that isn’t actually going to correlate in any direct fashion to whether this particular vehicle that caused this particular harm was defective.
  • After doing that, the opinion explains a lot about the ways that the firm goes about purchasing the vehicle to have possession of it and talks about how “[i]t is the firm’s practice at the end of the case to request from the client that the firm be allowed to retain ownership and possession of the vehicle.” It does not, at any point in the opinion, provide any guidance on whether the firm has to comply with RPC 1.8(a) – business transaction with a client – in doing so; nor does it discuss whether such a policy on that firm’s part is a problem under RPC 1.8(i) – not acquiring a proprietary interest in a cause of action or subject matter of litigation that the lawyer is handling for a client.
  • The opinion does contain a discussion of RPC 3.4(a) and concerns of spoliation but makes another statement as if it were gospel truth that is actually simply not even close to 100% correct: “Clearly, in the context of a product liability case, the alleged defective product is key evidence in other current or subsequent cases of a similar defect.” It is bordering on irresponsible to put the imprimatur of the BPR on a position that the destruction of a particular physical piece of evidence at the conclusion of a particular piece of litigation would clearly put a lawyer at risk of being accused of spoliation of evidence in some future piece of litigation that does not yet even exist.
  • The opinion includes a discussion about the firm’s right to retain file materials and how that is important in terms of the ability to defend themselves in a subsequent legal malpractice action. That is a good issue to address. However, the sentence: “Without the ability to review the most important piece of evidence in the underlying products liability suit, the law firm would be left essentially defenseless if a former client brought a professional malpractice claim.” is another one of those bridge-too-far moments. The firm will have and retain copies of its expert reports from inspections of the vehicle and can even have and retain copious photographic and video evidence of the vehicle. There are many ways that it can satisfy its need to protect itself without having to have possession of the actual vehicle.
  • The opinion then ends with the BPR taking it upon itself to declare that the “ability for plaintiffs’ firms to act as industry watchdogs is both good public policy and was specifically addressed as a vested responsibility during Congress’s enactment of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It doesn’t seem wise to me for the BPR to be in the business of taking positions on public policy issues that are not absolutely necessary in order to provide guidance under the ethics rules. This doesn’t seem like that kind of situation, but, as the opinion cross-references, the BPR already did that with this exact same language in Formal Ethics Op. 2018-F-166, so the horse is already out of that particular barn.

So, I would say that this one needs to go back into the shop for some much needed repairs if not taken off the street altogether.

Speaking of which, the opinion’s reference to the firm’s willingness to assure the settling defendant that the vehicle will not be placed back on the road is actually the key point of all of this. The only real reason – to my knowledge – that a defendant ever seeks to include a destruction provision in settlement is a matter of safety in terms of making certain that the same vehicle does not go back in use to put anyone else at risk of harm and, of course, to put the defendant at risk of not having to get sued again over the same defective item injuring a different person. If the assurance that is offered to be provided by the firm can be done in a manner that is actually enforceable, then that should always likely suffice to resolve the situation. An re-drafted opinion that puts more emphasis on that and that spots other issues that could create problems with an eye toward getting to the right practical result would certainly seem more like helpful guidance than this draft.

The deadline for submitting public comments to the BPR on this opinion, should you be so inclined, is April 10, 2019. The document immediately below provides instructions on how you can do that.

Withdrawing a guilty plea is notary-ly easy thing to do.

The pun was, of course, inevitable.  It was also fully intended.  In fact, it is, at least for me, repetitive as back in 2013 I was asked to do a seminar on the ethics of being a notary public — they have their own ethics code — and I called it “Notary-ly Common Topic: The Intersection of Lawyer and Notary Public Ethics.”

I’m writing today about a relatively straightforward criminal case arising out of federal court in the Northern Mariana Islands but that has at least four interesting lawyer ethics percolating under the surface of it.  The decision also has one of the most elegant and timeless statements penned by the district judge authoring the opinion that I’ve read in a federal court opinion.  It is either one of the most useful statements of insight into the human condition or one of the best pieces of universal (but indirect) advice to offer to anyone – including lawyers — or possibly both.

In case you want to stop reading at this point, I’ll just share with you the district judge’s statement which, for many reasons (no matter when you manage to read this) will be timely:

Probably every adult feels that there is some important decision she has made that she wishes she could do over.  But that does not mean she did not make that decision voluntarily and did not know what she was doing at the time.

To be exceedingly candid, I’m also writing this post about this case because an incredible lawyer, and a giant in the field of legal ethics issues, Bill Freivogel, brought the case to my attention and encouraged to me to think I might have something to say about it that would be worth reading.

The case is U.S. v. Li and you can grab the PDF of it here: United States v. Li (D. N.Mariana Is., 2018).  In sum, Li was a notary public.  He managed to mess up a document he was notarizing for a passport application for a minor child, and the application was rejected for that discrepancy.  When folks reassembled to try to fix it and reapply, the father had already flown back home to China.  Despite the fact that it was contrary to the ethics code for a notary public, and despite the fact that the form was requiring him to speak under oath, Li signed the form misrepresenting under oath that the father was physically present the second time when he was not.

It seems clear that Li did this thinking that it was his own mistake that created the problem and that this would fix the error.  How the falsehood came to light is much less clear, but it did and Li was charged with two federal criminal counts related to false statements on a passport application.

A week before the case was set for trial, the parties submitted a plea agreement and proceeded to a change of plea hearing.  At that hearing, Li’s attorney – Holmes – was present as was a more senior attorney from Holmes’ law firm.  The opinion walks through the fairly detailed line of questioning the federal judge presented to Li designed to ensure that the record was crystal clear about the voluntariness of the guilty plea.  These questions solicited many clear answers demonstrating voluntary and knowing decision-making, including Li’s statements that he was fully satisfied with his attorney’s advice and legal representation.

Two months after the guilty plea was entered and about two months before the date set for sentencing, a new lawyer for Li filed a notice of appearance.  About 45 days later, Holmes moved to withdraw from representing Li citing “professional reasons.”  That motion was denied without prejudice based on failure to demonstrate good cause.

Two things then occurred right about a week before sentencing: Li, through the new counsel, filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea and Holmes renewed the motion to withdraw now pointing to statements in a pre-sentence report that were alleged to create a conflict between her firm and Li.  This renewed motion to withdraw was granted.  (The opinion does not provide a ready explanation or insight into what the nugget was in that pre-sentence report that Holmes was forced to surface in order to be let out of the case.)

The order then details what Li argued as his grounds for seeking now to withdraw his guilty plea – it largely involved accusations that his attorneys would not listen to him and coerced him – through time pressures, denigrating his chances at trial, and hammering the potential of a prison sentence of more than a year, even allegedly going so far as to tell Li that he would be sexually assaulted if he had to do prison time.

The district court, however, was entirely unconvinced by Li’s allegations and walked through an objective view of what the attorney time records, and other underlying documents, showed about the events that occurred surrounding the plea negotiations.

Three of ethics issues here are, I think, readily recognizable.

The case is at least an indirect reminder for attorneys that RPC 1.2 doesn’t provide crystal clear guidance on all decision-making as between clients and attorneys but leaves no room for doubt that the decision whether to plead guilty in a criminal matter is always the client’s to make.

The case also is a good, indirect reminder to attorneys who have support staff who are notaries that your obligations under RPC 5.3 can be considered to include having some measures in place to provide reasonable assurance that they know how important complying with the law and their own code of ethics as to notarizing documents can be.  (For the record, there was no indication in the opinion itself that Li had any employment situation where he was working for an attorney.)

Also, the case reveals how sometimes – despite the best efforts of the drafters of the rules – the guidance given to attorneys seeking to withdraw from representation doesn’t always work as designed.  ABA Model Rule 1.16 cmt. [3] tries to provide guidance to attorneys about situations when they should begin by stating only that “professional considerations” require withdrawal and indicating the hope that courts will accept that “statement as sufficient,” but courts do not always go along and end up putting attorneys into a situation where they have to disclose information the client might rather not have aired.

The fourth ethics issue, however, is not as obvious but is, I think, the most interesting and compelling.  The district judge, without explicitly saying so, made clear that if the lawyers had scared Li into pleading guilty “by conjuring the nightmare of sexual assault in prison,” that would have been the kind of thing that could have “put their bar license on the line.”  I’m torn on that front.  Obviously, if the lawyers had actually threatened to cause that to happen or otherwise crossed lines into coercing someone against their will to plead guilty, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.  But, if a lawyer representing someone facing potential jail time, and knowing their client had the chance to take a plea that was likely to result in no jail time at all, engaged their client in discussions about the possibility of going to prison and the realities of the problems in the U.S. prison system including the statistics on violence and sexual assault that happens there on a daily basis, would that really be unethical conduct?

I tend to think the exact opposite.  I think that a lawyer would certainly be entitled under Model Rule 2.1 to discuss as “other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”  In fact, depending on the client and the likely prison in play, a lawyer might well be ethically obligated to discuss such issues under Model Rule 1.4(b)’s obligation “to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”