Panzerotti ≠ calzone : NY confidentiality ≠ TN confidentiality

It’s been a while. I know. But I saw a blurb about a story that caught my attention in the before-times and then a second story about the same case more recently that hooked me enough to write about.

Primarily, it hooked me because it provides a compelling opportunity to discuss two important points about legal ethics at the same time. First, the ethical obligations lawyers owe to former clients go beyond simply restricting certain future representations and include restrictions on using the client’s information. Second, even a clear violation of the ethics rules does not automatically translate to a viable cause of action against an attorney.

As we’ll see at the end, it is a story that because it happened in New York might just be a bad look for the lawyer involved when it would be a lot more damning if it had happened here in Tennessee.

The initial story that caught my eye was this one in Law360 where the proprietors of a panzerotti restaurant in Brooklyn sued an attorney saying he had stolen their idea for such a restaurant and the logo they used. The more recent story that lured me, also from Law360, is that the lawyer has now filed a motion to dismiss that suit, in part, arguing that the USPTO had rejected the restaurant’s trademark claims.

You can go read the amended complaint in the lawsuit in question for yourself:

But from the “former client” side of the story, this is how they tell it. Its principals retained the lawyer, Cea, to help with documents to be filed in connection with the seeking on E-2 visa application and that, as part of that process, they had to turn over their confidential business plan for the proposed restaurant. After they did that, they say they also retained Cea to represent the business regarding lease negotiations and obtaining a liquor license for their restaurant.

The lawsuit then claims that after their restaurant opened, Cea and a partner opened a competing restaurant, but in Manhattan, using the improperly obtained confidential business plan information of the former client. The lawsuit also claims that the competing restaurant’s logo infringes upon their logo in violation of The Lanham Act.

Now, I’m no trademark lawyer but my unsophisticated eyeball comparison of the two logos doesn’t impress me at all. The rest of the complaint, though, when it focuses upon the strong similarities on how the insides of the restaurants are laid out, and the kinds of equipment used, and even approaches to menu items is a bit more compelling. The complaint also alleges that the lawyer even hired the same architect that the former client used for its restaurant for the competing restaurant. Notably, the complaint also alleges that when first contacted after the opening of the competing restaurant, the lawyer claimed that his only involvement was in helping the second restaurant with its lease.

When first digging into this story, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of any lawyer thinking they could ever do something like this without running afoul of RPC 1.9(c)’s restrictions on adversely using information related to the representation of a former client.

In Tennessee, that rule reads as follows:

A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter … shall not thereafter reveal information relating to the representation or use such information to the disadvantage of the former client unless (1) the former client gives consent, confirmed in writing, or (2) these Rules would permit or require the lawyer to do so with respect to a client; or (3) the information has become generally known.

While proving a successful cause of action would be a different kettle of fish for reasons discussed below, because Tennessee (like most jurisdictions) treats all information related to the representation as confidential, under Tennessee’s rules, someone doing what Cea was alleged to have done would have real problems defending a disciplinary complaint. Perhaps, as to some of the allegations, Cea could engineer a defense based on all of the public facing aspects of the former client’s restaurant became “generally known” once they opened for business.

Even in Tennessee though, violations of RPC 1.9(c) wouldn’t automatically translate to a viable civil cause of action. (The actual lawsuit asserts a breach of fiduciary duty claim and that would likely be what someone would hazard as a claim in Tennessee.) That is because we, like most states, clarify in the Scope section of our rules that while ethics rules exist as a framework for imposing discipline, they are not intended or designed to provide a basis for an independent cause of action.

[21] Violation of a Rule should not itself give rise to a cause of action against a lawyer nor should it create any presumption in such a case that a legal duty has been breached. In addition, violation of a Rule does not necessarily warrant any other nondisciplinary remedy, such as disqualification of a lawyer in pending litigation. The Rules are designed to provide guidance to lawyers and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies. They are not designed to be a basis for civil liability….

We also have a final sentence in that part of the Scope that tries to clarify that there are some situations in which the violation of a rule can be relevant to determining whether a breach of the standard of care also occurred but since New York doesn’t I’ll leave that for another day.

New York’s approach to client confidentiality though is different and, as a result, even though its RPC 1.9(c) reads largely similar to Tennessee’s on adverse use of information its reduced scope of confidentiality under RPC 1.6 really changes the landscape.

New York’s RPC 1.6 limits confidential treatment to “information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege, (b) likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client if disclosed, or (c) information that the client has requested be kept confidential.”

That distinction and what it means for a lawyer appears to be salient to Cea’s situation. Cea’s motion to dismiss, while primarily focused on an attempt to enforce an alleged settlement agreement as well as other procedural arguments, does poke at the margins of whether he was ever asked to treat any of the information he learned from any client as confidential. He also appears to take issue even with the idea that he ever had any fiduciary relationship with anyone who is a party to this litigation. You can look at the memorandum of law supporting that motion to dismiss if you are so inclined.

There will be content.

So, it is March 20, 2020. We don’t know much about much in terms of what comes next. Stress and anxiety are most folks constant companions at the moment I’m certain. (And I bet a lot of you weren’t expecting the need to tech competence under the ethics rules to come at you quite this fast.) Whether or not there will be things to read here probably matters almost not at all to most people. Nevertheless, for better or worse, as long as I’ve got access to the internet I will plan to continue to post contents on the same weird and unsettling sort of “schedule.” Today’s another one of those days.

Today’s post is an opportunity to talk a bit about the dark side of litigation funding. Now, do not get me wrong, I’m generally “pro” when it comes to the topic of litigation funding. In fact, I had the opportunity to be a lawyer for one of the early litigation funding companies that operated in a niche, high-end space. Even then, one of the consistent issues for a company doing things the right way was the stigma of litigation funders as being companies that would take financial advantage of people in need.

Today’s story isn’t exactly about taking advantage of the kind of person in financial need you might think of, but it certainly is a story that sheds some light on unsavory aspects of an industry that speculates on the outcome of litigation.

Today’s story though also is something of a revisiting of the travails of a prominent California law firm that I’ve written about a few times in the past. Those posts had focused on a very contentious set of litigation matters between the firm and one of its former partners that effectively boiled down to a “he said, it said” sort of situation where the “he” was saying that the “it” was engaged in financial fraud and fired him when he raised questions about it and the “it” said that “he” was a sexual harasser. (If you aren’t familiar with that post, you can catch up here.)

It’s been a very bad couple of weeks for just about everyone in the United States. It’s been an even worse couple of weeks for John Pierce, the founder of the Pierce Bainbridge law firm. It has been such a bad couple of weeks that it is hard for an objective viewer not to think that the previously-referenced “he” seems to have a leg-up in proving his side of events against the “it” in the “he said, it said” landscape.

Before elaborating on the litigation funding issue, just a short recap of the recent chronology of events for the founder of this particular law firm.

And, about that deal, that is the deal with Parvati Capital that was front and center in the allegations in the “he said, it said” litigation. As a result of the Philadelphia suit, the details of that arrangement have come out and involve a highly -unusual approach to litigation funding where the law firm was given the sole responsibility for placing a value on their cases as part of agreeing to a 50-50 split with the litigation funder on the fees obtained in such future cases.

If you have access to Law360, you can read a pretty good article about that piece of the puzzle, one in which a former law partner of mine (who I practiced with back when I had the chance to represent a good litigation funding company many years ago) speaks on the ethical problems with the Parvati Capital deal. (Spoiler: pretty squarely an RPC 5.4 problem since it quacks very much like a fee-sharing duck.)

There are lots of aspects to dealing with litigation funding arrangements that can raise difficult ethics issues. But there are a variety of ways to obtain litigation funding within the ethics rules. Interestingly enough, while the Parvati arrangement seems very problematic as to some issues, and while having the lawyer assign a value to cases is bad news for a variety of reasons, such an approach does avoid altogether problems with navigating how to share documents and other details with a litigation funder for purposes of evaluating a case while doing what can be done to comply with RPC 1.6 and seek to protect privilege and work product.

Lawyers continue to struggle with tackling online negative reviews.

Today’s topic come up again for two different reasons. First, because the North Carolina State Bar has put out a new proposed ethics opinion seeking public comment about the topic. Second, because it was also discussed at one of the presentations made at the APRL mid-year meeting a week or so ago.

As the title of the post indicates, the topic is the ethical constraints on lawyers when faced with trying to respond to an online negative review posted by a client where they feel hard done and feel like, if allowed, they could demonstrate that the client’s negative allegations are unfair.

Proposed 2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 1 in North Carolina reaches roughly the same conclusion as the other ethics opinions issued on this topic: tread carefully because none of the confidentiality exceptions offered by RPC 1.6(b) are satisfied merely by the posting of an online review. Attempting to offer some practical advice, the proposed opinion says that the attorney can “post a proportional and restrained response that does not reveal any confidential information.” Given the broad scope of confidentiality under the ethics rules, this outcome offers little room for lawyers to offer much of a response. Perhaps recognizing that a bit, the opinion tries to find ways to authorize a lawyer to contest the negative review with denials while walking a fine line of not disclosing actual information by referencing some “generic” or limited denials that other ethics committees have proffered.

It’s a fine proposed ethics opinion in so far as it goes. (It’s also a good round-up of the opinions issued to date on this issue by other groups.) But it fails to fully wrestle with one ethical question it acknowledges is relevant and fails to address at all at least one interesting ethical question that ought to be the most relevant one of all.

It does address, in part, the meaning of certain language in Comment [11] to RPC 1.6 about a lawyer not being required to “await the commencement” of an action or proceeding to rely upon the self-defense exception. But it only focuses on it in one direction. Looking only to whether the disenchanted (or disingenuous if you believe the lawyer targeted) client is likely to pursue a proceeding, the opinion brushes aside that language as any justification for a lawyer on the basis that the client’s willingness to post a negative review does not alone demonstrate that the client is contemplating pursuing any formal proceeding against the lawyer.

But the opinion does not spend any time talking about the flipside, which was actually raised by an audience member at the APRL mid-year meeting I referenced above: What if the lawyer is the one contemplating pursuing a proceeding?

For example, some lawyers — lawyers who rely very heavily for work on their online presence and can be very badly damaged by a false review — may view the inability to respond to an online negative review as meaning that actually filing a suit for defamation against the client/former client is their only viable option. If they actually filed the suit, they’d be able to disclose information about the representation to make the case. So the logic goes, could they not begin to exercise that right of self-defense before they have commenced that proceeding?

Under that line of thinking, couldn’t they respond to the online review to contest the allegations, and indicate to the client that they will file suit for defamation if the client doesn’t retract the statements? I don’t think that works primarily because any such communication to the client about the review making that kind of demand before filing suit would have no need to occur publicly. In fact, it would seem reasonable to read the language in the Comment to RPC 1.6 exhorting lawyers to take certain steps, including seeking protective orders or filing matters under seal, even when pursuing litigation so as to keep reasonable disclosures of client information from unnecessary public dissemination as fundamentally contrary to such a course of public action prior to commencing such a suit.

The relevant ethical question that the opinion does not address at all is what a lawyer can do with respect to crafting a path for being able to respond through RPC 1.6(a) rather than RPC 1.6(b). As a practical matter, having written frequently about The Streisand Effect here in the past, I still believe that most of the time the best course for a lawyer is not to do anything to risk amplifying the megaphone the client has already obtained. Usually, engaging in a public skirmish with the person is only going to result in more people learning about the criticism, but I recognize that there are some lawyers who simply cannot afford the damage that can be caused to their business pipeline from negative online reviews.

For those lawyers, I think the only ethical path to get beyond offering platitudes and perfunctory denials would be to secure a client’s agreement, in advance, as part of an engagement contract that the lawyer may respond to any future online negative review that the client chooses to make.

Given that RPC 1.6(a) clearly allows lawyers to disclose information about their representation of a client if they have the client’s informed consent to do so. It seems to me that if the issue is described sufficiently on the front end, and the client agrees in advance that the price of going online to complain is that the lawyer can use information about the representation to respond to the complaint, then the requirement of informed consent can be satisfied. While it could feel very much like a truly awful first foot to put forward with a client by raising the issue, if the lawyer’s practice is such that the issue is that important, there also is a benefit to being up front with the person about it at the time that they are prospective client.

But maybe you all can tell me if I’m missing something in that respect?

Fettered is almost always better for lawyers.

Fettered is a fun word on a number of levels. It is a word lawyers are usually familiar with when it has a prefix attached to it and gets used when we talk about disclosures or access as being “unfettered.” But, it is also a word that literally means “to be restrained with chains,” so it would not be an entirely incorrect usage of “fettered” to describe being physically handcuffed … although it usually involves chains or manacles around the ankles rather than handcuffs.

The connection created by that word and its meanings is truly the only thing that prompted me to link the following two stories of interest for lawyers.

One involves a very thoughtful court ruling that provides a road map for the way lawyers should go about avoiding unfettered disclosure of client confidences even when they have the right to defend themselves.

The other involves a lawyer who so flagrantly went about things the wrong way that her lateral move ended with her in actual handcuffs for a couple of days, not to mention likely financial handcuffs for many years to come.

I’ve often spoken with lawyers about how the right to disclose confidential client information to defend your conduct is clearly acknowledged by the ethics rules, but also still an endeavor not entirely free of risk given the limits imposed under those same ethics rules. Model Rule 1.6(b) and its accompanying paragraphs of Comment actually combine to do a very good job of explaining to lawyers how they still have to go to some pains to try to protect information, even in the face of unreasonable conduct by clients (or former clients) behaving incredibly unfairly.

The two biggest components of those “pains” are: (1) that you cannot simply unleash and disclose everything you know that might be damaging to your former client but have to make measured disclosures that are only what is reasonably necessary to defeat the allegations against you, and (2) that you likely also must make some effort to see if the Court will allow you to file what you have to say under seal or under some other form of protective order to prevent far and wide dissemination of the information you are disclosing. But, what happens a fair percentage of the time is that lawyers read the rule but not necessarily the explanatory comments.

In connection with a criminal case in federal court in West Virginia involving accusations of ineffective assistance, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a very well structured and thoughtful opinion that essentially follows the guidance of the rule and its comment in a way that provides a good model for letting a lawyer defend their conduct while properly imposing safeguards to avoid unfettered disclosures. Thus, the full opinion is now another place to point lawyers to beyond just the Comments where they can read the preferred way this needs to work. As a bonus, it also provides an excellent gloss on a now-decade-old ABA Formal Ethics Opinion that some folks believed went a bit too far.

As to the lawyer who likely thought she was seeking greener pastures but ended up in handcuffs, the easiest place to succinctly describe Chelsea Merta’s conduct is a paragraph or two of the Confession of Judgment and Consent Permanent Injunction Ms. Merta entered in state court in St. Louis, Missouri around 10 days ago:

3. On or about February 2, 2018, seven days prior to her resignation, Merta transferred approximately 22,000 data files from SLF [her then firm] onto a portable USB flash drive without authorization from SLF. The data files that were transferred to the portable USB flash drive included files from SLF’s clients and SLF. Merta took the flash drive containing these files and, upon her resignation (despite representations to the contrary during her exit interview with SLF), retained the files. Many of those files were later found to be contained on [her and her new firm’s] MacBook Pro computers and cloud storage accounts.

4. Prior to her resignation and without authorization from SLF, Merta tampered with, deleted, and wiped her SLF computer, her SLF-issued smart phone, and other storage locations of all data, including data related to SLF’s clients and SLF, and also informed three clients of her imminent departure from SLF. Thereafter, following the submission of her notice of resignation, but prior to it becoming effective, Merta contacted a number of clients to inform them of her resignation and inform them that they could transfer their file to her new law firm.

In that confession of judgment, Merta agreed that the damages caused to her former firm were in excess of $550,000. The consent judgment also references the Court having already awarded damages against her for more than $200,000 over conduct involving contempt of court.

It was the contemptuous conduct – which itself at heart was continued refusal to relinquish the improperly taken files and continued misrepresentations to the Court about those facts – that also resulted in her spending two nights in jail until she purged the contempt. You can read all about the contemptuous conduct in this earlier order here.

Merta’s behavior when leaving to start a new firm, I sadly believe, happens a lot more often than you might think. It usually does not come to light for a variety of reasons, such as the dynamic associated with the pros and cons for the firm that has been wronged of ever pursuing the wrongdoing because of potential adverse effects for the firm and for continued discomfort on the part of its current and former clients. The reason that lawyers can tend to get away with this kind of conduct though is not that the departing conduct can’t be proven as the order lays bare. Technology these days makes it very difficult to not leave behind the kind of digital trail that Merta left.

Nevertheless, the tendency to engage in the conduct on the way out the door is fundamentally puzzling because it is antithetical to what lawyers usually are — risk adverse. It will likely come as no surprise to hear that this particular lawyer also has been pursuing bankruptcy proceedings. Thus, this case demonstrates just how significant the financial and professional risk of doing this can be in those cases where the firm that is wronged does make the decision to plow forward with proving it.


Shimkonicity (shim-ko-nis-a-tee)

When I first read some reporting about this decision from Ohio involving the indefinite suspension of a lawyer, I expected it to come across very much as an obvious case of a lawyer’s third strike leading to a steep punishment. But, the coming together of so many things with respect to this lawyer’s situation actually offers quite a story from which a lot of lawyers can learn a few things (or at least be reminded of some things they already knew). Thus, showing my age again, I’ve gone with The Police album rip-off title for this post.

So, yes, at the straightforward level, if you read this opinion, you will digest the story of a lawyer getting hit with his third strike. About nine years ago, Mr. Shimko engaged in some financial chicanery with some clients leading to a public censure in Ohio that was imposed as reciprocal discipline after Arizona had first done the same. Three years or so after that, he received a one-year suspension (but it was all stayed so he continued to practice) for disparaging a judge. Now, he’s received an indefinite suspension after he appealed a recommended two-year suspension for charging an excessive fee to a client and then unnecessarily disclosing confidential information about the client in connection with suing the client for the excessive fee amount (along with a bit of unsavory threatening to disclose the information in order to try to get the client to settle).

Most of his story is routine stuff that all lawyers know (or should know) they should not do. The last seven-or-so-pages of the opinion also offer a tangible example of why trying to throw every potential appellate argument into a mix — particularly in a disciplinary case — is not a very good strategy. But along the way, there are two real teachable nuggets here of things that a surprising number of lawyers sometimes don’t know, and there is also one big topic that the Court simply fails to mention which also is pretty important (and which it could have used to further skewer the lawyer’s scattershot allegations of error on appeal.)

Much the way my son tackles fast food; first we will tackle the nuggets:

Nugget #1: You just can’t bill your clients for time you spend drafting what amounts to your engagement letter. If it is a good engagement letter, you are substantially creating it for your own benefit and protection. At most, it is documentation that is partially being created for the client’s benefit. Don’t try to charge the client for that time.

Nugget #2: There is a second-level of consideration when a lawyer is proceeding under a self-defense exception to restrictions on the disclosure of confidential information. Not only do you have to be able to demonstrate that one of the specific exceptions under RPC 1.6(b) can be satisfied, which you can do if you are trying to pursue payment from the client as an example. But you also have to remember that the disclosures you make need to be no more than is reasonably necessary AND in a lot of circumstances you still have to make efforts to try to limit the number of people to whom the disclosure is made. The comments to RPC 1.6 lay out guidance about this in most jurisdictions in a very clear and helpful fashion. If you are litigating a fee dispute with a client, even though you can disclose confidential information to the Court in order to prevail on your claim or defeat the claim of your client/former client, you may very well have to also seek the entry of a protective order to try to prevent the information you are disclosing from becoming fully available to the public.

And the thing that was missing? Any discussion by the Court of why this Ohio lawyer’s arguments about how he was entitled to do what he did because the client was committing insurance fraud using his services are very hard to reconcile with one or two other ethics rules in Ohio (and elsewhere) – RPC 3.3 and RPC 4.1.

If the lawyer’s version of events regarding what the client had told him in advance of the examination under oath was to be believed, then under RPC 4.1 what the lawyer was required to do, at minimum, was to withdraw from the representation so as not to assist with the fraud. If representing someone in a pending insurance dispute during an examination under oath is somehow treated as a representation to a tribunal under Ohio law (which I would suspect is not the case), then RPC 3.3 in Ohio — patterned after the Model Rule — would have required the lawyer to speak up during the EUO about what was happening not after the fact.

The Court likely didn’t address those issues because it did not need to since the earlier rulings had found the lawyer’s assertions not to be credible, but even a footnote highlighting this issue for lawyers might have been a worthwhile piece of dicta.

Asking in South Carolina and definitely not receiving.

This development in South Carolina happened last month and I saw some folks getting a little worked up about it but am only getting around to writing a little about it now. (In fairness, last month only became last month around 80 hours or so ago.) But for some people getting worked up about it, it wouldn’t actually be all that noteworthy given that all South Carolina did was adopt a comment that made plain what the rule already truly required.

Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting subject not only because of the reaction it garnered but how it came about… in response to a petition seeking to change South Carolina’s Rule 1.6 in an entirely different direction.

But, I’ve managed to get way ahead of myself with the textual throat-clearing and have started in on all of this like you know what I am talking about.

In June 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court entered an order that rejected an attempt by the South Carolina Bar to seek to have RPC 1.6 revised to permit lawyers to make reference to published court decisions in their advertising without having to get their client’s informed consent. And, to be clear, what the bar was asking for was a very incremental level of permission. They were seeking to have the rule allow a lawyer to make reference to the citation of a published case, not the details of it, just the citation.

Now I suspect many lawyers would assume that no such revision was even necessary on the basis that they simply think that public information is public information and can be used in whatever fashion is desired. In fact, this Bloomberg article quotes someone from a law firm I used to work for saying something along those lines. That might well be a common sense approach but it is simply an entirely incorrect statement when it comes to how the ethics rule on confidentiality works.

As I’ve written about in the past (probably more times than you care to remember but most recently in August 2018), RPC 1.6 continues to impose confidentiality obligations on lawyers as to information related to representation of a client even as to the most public of events. And, what that means is, when you work through the rule and its various provisions authorizing disclosure of such information . . . there simply isn’t a provision that justifies use of the information in commercial advertising endeavors without the consent of the client.

The South Carolina Supreme Court was not interested in what the Bar was seeking. Instead, it opted to adopt a new comment to RPC 1.6 to drive the point home about what the text of RPC 1.6 already requires.

Specifically, the Court added the following new Comment [7] to its RPC 1.6:

[7] Disclosure of information related to the representation of a client for the purpose of marketing or advertising the lawyer’s services is not impliedly authorized because the disclosure is being made to promote the lawyer or law firm rather than to carry out the representation of a client. Although other Rules govern whether and how lawyers may communicate the availability of their services, paragraph (a) requires that a lawyer obtain informed consent from a current or former client if an advertisement reveals information relating to the representation. This restriction applies regardless of whether the information is contained in court filings or has become generally known. See Comment [3]. It is important the client understand any material risks related to the lawyer revealing information when the lawyer seeks informed consent in accordance with Rule 1.0(g). A number of factors may affect a client’s decision to provide informed consent, including the client’s level of sophistication, the content of any lawyer advertisement and the timing of the request. General, open-ended consent is not sufficient.

Of course, the South Carolina Supreme Court is not wrong about this. And, at a practical level, requiring client consent is not truly that onerous.

However, given the connection to lawyer advertising generally that this development has, it is worth pointing out that South Carolina is still a generally bad jurisdiction when it comes to that topic. Partly, this is because it still refuses to recognize at a fundamental level what the purpose of advertising actually is by having this kind of requirement in its RPC 7.2(a):

All advertisements shall be predominately informational such that, in both quantity and quality, the communication of factual information rationally related to the need for and selection of a lawyer predominates and the communication includes only a minimal amount of content designed to attract attention to and create interest in the communication.

Nevada provides lawyers yet another reason not to blow their own horn online.

I have beaten the drum for many, many years now about lawyers not understanding the true scope of their obligation of confidentiality under rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The ability to quickly share information far and wide online has not been helpful to lawyers who lack that understanding.  I remain astounded at how lawyers do not seem to recognize the unnecessary risk they are taking on by touting achievements in particular cases online.

Now, of course, I’m not privy to discussions between those attorneys and their clients in advance of such efforts so, perhaps, everything I see is kosher because every time I see a lawyer engage in such conduct they have gotten their client’s consent to do so in advance.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years though, I’m highly skeptical of that.  What I think is much more likely is that because these sorts of things usually never amount to any disciplinary proceedings much less instances of public discipline, this just continues to be something that many lawyers do either on the basis that the risk is minimal compared to the perceived reward or on the basis that they don’t see any risk at all.

For some lawyers, it is the misunderstanding about how confidentiality functions that can be the problem as they either aren’t aware (or simply don’t care) about the counter-intuitive fact that a public jury verdict is still RPC 1.6 confidential information as far as the lawyer is concerned.  Those transgressions can likely be forgiven by most, if not all, involved.  But, particularly when the self-congratulatory efforts in question go beyond just providing information about a jury verdict and also opt to reveal information about pre-trial settlement negotiations, the egregious nature of the breach of confidentiality is nearly impossible to forgive.  And, thanks to the way the Internet works, it is certainly impossible to forget.

Just this week, I saw one of these posts from lawyers with whom I use to practice law blowing their own horn about a very large jury verdict and revealing what the settlement offer from the defense was before trial.  I hope that they were operating with the consent of their clients or, if they happen to be reading this, that they go and at least get retroactive consent from the client involved which is better than having never gotten consent at all.

As if the risk of discipline (even if perceived to be a small risk) wasn’t enough to discourage lawyers from self-congratulatory social media postings (and if you spend any time on social media you know that it isn’t enough to discourage most), the Nevada Supreme Court provides a new opinion in a piece of defamation litigation that ought to give lawyers another reason to think very, very carefully about blowing their own horn online.

In Patin v. Lee, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected the effort of a lawyer and a law firm to stop a defamation case brought against them by a dentist.  The dentist had been one of the opposing parties of the firm’s client in a dental malpractice case.  The lawyer and law firm tried through exercise of an anti-SLAPP motion to bring the defamation case to a quick end.  They were unsuccessful though as Nevada adopted California’s approach to determining whether something written online can be considered “in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.”  If you aren’t familiar with the general concept of anti-SLAPP statutes, then such language is likely meaningless to you.  But, if you read the opinion it will give you a pretty efficient primer on the concept of anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP being an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). You can read that opinion right here

From a loss prevention standpoint, let me drill down on what is readily understandable in terms of the problematic conduct by the lawyer and law firm.  The lawyer represented a plaintiff in a dental malpractice lawsuit against three defendants – a dental group and two individual dentists.  The lawyer obtained a $3.4 million verdict in favor of the client against the dental group and one of the two individual dentists.  The jury verdict against the other dentist was one finding no liability.

There was some appellate wrangling in the malpractice case after the jury verdict but because the ultimate outcome on appeal did not change, that wrangling matters much less than what the lawyer and law firm decided to post on their website to tout their success in the case:

DENTAL MALPRACTICE/WRONGFUL DEATH – PLAINTIFF’S VERDICT $3.4M, 2014 Description; Singletary v. Ton Vinh Lee, DDS et al.

A dental malpractice-based wrongful death action that arose out of the death of Decedent Reginald Singletary following the extraction of the No. 32 wisdom tooth by Defendants on or about April 16, 2011.  Plaintiff sued the dental office, Summerlin Smiles, the owner, Ton Vinh Lee, DDS, and the treating dentists, Florida Traivai, DMD and Jai Park, DDS, on behalf of the Estate, herself and minor son.

The problem with this self-congratulatory post on the firm’s website — separate and apart from the normal questions that might be asked about whether the clients were consulted and consented before the post was made — is that it doesn’t mention that Dr. Lee — the person named in the caption headline and in the body of the update — was the individual dentist found by the jury to have no liability.  That dentist, in turn, is who sued the lawyer and law firm for defamation because a reader of the post in question would reasonably think that Dr. Lee had been on the wrong end of a $3.4 million jury verdict.

Those that know me know that I am not much for dropping Bible quotes but, even I have to say that this would be a pretty good place to drop Proverbs 27:2 – “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth….”

“Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up.”

Serial, perhaps the best known podcast of all podcasts, has recently launched its third season and like one of the REM songs off of Life’s Rich Pageant it focuses on Cuyahoga – but not the river but the County in Ohio – more particularly, it focuses on what goes on inside the Justice Center in Cuyahoga County.  Yet, much like the song was according to Peter Buck, the podcast also may just really be about America and its lost promises too.

So far the first three episodes have dropped, and they are particularly good.  Good, of course, in a troubling way for what they show with respect to the inner workings of the justice system.  Admittedly, all this season of Serial can truly do is show problems in just one particular courthouse in one particular location, but we all know there are universal themes that recur in many other similar venues in the nation.

The first three episodes alone have also given fodder for discussions of legal ethics for those so inclined.  The first episode follows an unfortunate and unfair bar fight through the court system.  The host, Sara Koenig, is given extensive access to the criminal defense lawyer involved.  (The series so far reveals that she was given nearly free rein in the building altogether.)  Even though there is one spot in which Koenig explains that had to be excluded from a meeting between the lawyer and his client in order to protect the attorney-client relationship while they talked, those familiar with the duty of client confidentiality still know that given how incredibly much is actually revealed by the lawyer about the case he is handling, how he is handling it, what he and his client have discussed, that surely there must have been a thorough and clear consent provided by the client for there to be no breach of the lawyer’s duty under Ohio’s version of RPC 1.6.

The second of the first three episodes introduces you to a judge who almost certainly needs to be made the subject of multiple judicial ethics complaints and who seems to have no business sitting in judgment of other people.  But the judge it introduces you to is likely a character-type that will sound very familiar to you in many respects no matter whether you’ve ever been in Cuyahoga County, Ohio or not.

The third episode tackles the very relevant topic of police brutality, the intricacies that can arise when one situation results in intertwining civil and criminal matters, and, for true ethics nerds, raises (at least indirectly) issues associated with a lawyer who swaps places in the system later in their career as well as problematic issues regarding where the line is in court proceedings between advocacy and assisting someone with manipulating evidence and testimony to assure an end result that may be believed to be just.

Anyway, your mileage may vary, but I find myself hooked.  I also find myself really wishing that Karen Rubin over at The Law For Lawyers Today might be able to weigh in at some point on her take on how the show portrays things, but, because she practices in Cleveland, I’m guessing that she is likely too close to the courts and the lawyers involved to be able to comfortably weigh in.

The fourth episode should be out tomorrow.  You should check it out.  (And, yes, I’m a guy with a pretty decent sense of humor and I see the hilarity in me encouraging the few hundred or so people who read this blog to go check out something that has millions upon millions of downloads.)

It’s still a good ethics opinion, even if the rule itself may need rethinking

Not quite 5 months ago, I wrote a bit of a shorter post about my view as to why ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 480 counted as a good ethics opinion.  For those that may not be remembering the opinion off the top of the head, it was the one that reminded lawyers – primarily in the context of social media — that RPC 1.6 governing confidentiality does not have an exception for “generally known” information nor an exception that says it is okay to discuss just because it is a matter of public record.

This opinion has been the subject of some renewed criticism — particularly a very well done column by Bill Wernz in the Minnesota Lawyer which (if you have a subscription you can read here) — and has been (in no small part because of Bill’s influential column) the topic of some spirited debate on an ethics listserv to which I am privileged to be a part.  (Loyal readers may recall an earlier effort on my part to address a first wave of criticism directed at this particular ABA opinion here.)

The summarized version of the criticism generally is that it feels increasingly illogical for confidentiality under the ethics rules to extend to information known or knowable by scads of other people.  An example that has been bandied about is a hypothetical of an attorney who has just secured a helpful published appellate opinion in case on a Wednesday and would like to argue and make reference to that case on Thursday for a different client and whether the restriction in RPC 1.6 means they cannot without the express permission of the client in the appellate case.

A few years back in Tennessee we accomplished a revision to our version of RPC 1.6 that provides some help for hypothesized conundrums such as these with the adoption of a Comment [3b] that reads:

Information made confidential by this Rule does not include what a lawyer learns about the law, legal institutions such as courts and administrative agencies, and similar public matters in the course of representing clients.  For example, during legal research of an issue while representing a client, a lawyer may discover a particularly important precedent, devise a novel legal approach, or learn the preferable way to frame an argument before a particular judge that is useful both in the immediate matter and in other representation.  Such information is part of the general fund of information available to the lawyer.

Other aspects of the renewed criticism keep coming back to the argument that the meaning of the word “reveal” in RPC 1.6 continues to be overlooked in efforts to interpret the rule.  I continue to believe that ABA Formal Opinion 480 and opinions like it are good opinions because I don’t think the people that put so much weight in their argument on the idea that “reveal” is something you cannot do as to already public information are as correct about that as they think they are.  If you didn’t know something until I tell it to you, I think it is entirely fair to say I “revealed” it to you even if it was already public.  It is not the greatest analogy in the world but harken back to your worst experience of someone spoiling for you the shocking twist of a film before you could see it.  In discussing that with someone and explaining your dismay in having the surprise revealed to you without warning, I don’t think you’d think much of someone claiming that millions of people already knew it so telling you about it didn’t really “reveal” anything.

While we obtained the language for Comment [3b] in Tennessee, there was another proposed revision to RPC 1.6 that was not successful but that I still believe would make the rule better and that, ideally, would be a decent fix to the Model Rule as well.  We had proposed adding a piece to RPC 1.6(a) – that would have required adding some numbering to make express consent of a client reason number (1) and implied authority to carry out the representation reason number (2) — where a third reason where revealing RPC 1.6 would be allowable where:  “the disclosure is limited to information relating to the representation of a client which has already been made public and the disclosure is made in such a way that there is no reasonable likelihood of adverse effect to the client.”  Our Court rejected that proposal, but I think an amendment to the Model Rule and other rules patterned on it along those lines would address many of the criticisms of the scope of RPC 1.6 while still protecting against disclosures that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to prohibit lawyers from making — like that one offered in my most-assuredly-unopened open letter post.

 

Traps for the Unwary – Married lawyers edition.

Within the last week, there was an interesting Law.com article (subscription required) on a topic that has been something of a pet . . . well not really “peeve” of mine, and not really a pet project of mine, but a topic that I feel like is somewhat uniquely overlooked by the people to whom it should be most relevant — spouses/significant others who are both lawyers but who work different places.

The article discusses an Ohio disciplinary case that is ongoing and that involves something that – based on anecdotal evidence over the course of my career — is an extremely frequent occurrence:  the sharing of information about cases and matters between spouses and significant others who both are lawyers but who aren’t both representing the client in question.

Although (as indicated above – unless you are particularly wily about how you use the Internet and various search engines ability to “cache” content — you need a subscription to read the article, here’s a snippet to give you a flavor of the fact pattern involved.

The Ohio high court is set to review a proposed disciplinary sanction against two education law attorneys, ThomasHolmes and Ashleigh Kerr, who are engaged to one another and admitted to exchanging emails that included work product and confidential client information.

Although Holmes and Kerr focus on similar types of law—namely the representation of public school districts—they have never shared clients and they worked at different firm. Holmes practiced most recently at [a firm] in …Ohio, and Kerr practiced at [a different firm] in … Ohio.

In a disciplinary complaint lodged in December against the couple, the Ohio Supreme Court’s board of professional conduct said the two have lived together since October 2015 and became engaged in November of that year. From January 2015 to November 2016, the disciplinary complaint alleged, the two exchanged information related to their client representations on more than a dozen occasions.

“Generally,” the board alleged, “Kerr forwarded Holmes an email exchange with her client in which her client requested a legal document (i.e. a contract, waiver or opinion). In response, Holmes forwarded Kerr an email exchange with his client which attached a similar legal document that he had drafted for his client. More often than not, Holmes ultimately completed Kerr’s work relative to her particular client.”

If you want more of the detail, you can access the disciplinary complaint here.  And you can go read the pending recommendation of the Ohio board as to the discipline — which has been agreed to by each of the lawyers here.

The proposed, agreed discipline is a six-month suspension from the practice of law for each lawyer (but with the suspension fully stayed/probated.)

I suspect the outcome of that matter – and perhaps even the fact of disciplinary proceedings at all — will come as a huge surprise to many lawyers.  But the simple fact is that the underlying practice — sharing information about cases in order to try to get your spouse or significant other to help you — despite how much it may seem consistent with human nature is almost always going to be undeniably a violation of the ethics rules.  It is possible that one of the lawyers could get the client to consent to the arrangement, but beyond that approach there are very few ways to avoid the simple fact that RPC 1.6 in almost any jurisdiction won’t permit doing this.

I also strongly believe that most lawyers who do this kind of thing — if they think about it from an ethics standpoint – believe that the risk is quite low of ever being found out because of the marital privilege.  But not only because of some of the inherent limits on how far that may take you, but also because of the increasing frequency in which we all do everything digitally… this case demonstrates that there are a number of ways that the communications can surface into the light without anyone ever having a spouse voluntarily provide information any marital privilege notwithstanding.