Learn something new every day. Or two things. Or three things. I’m not your boss.

About a week or so ago, I learned something new about South Carolina’s ethics rules – thanks to the law-student-powered blog of the University of Miami (FL) School of Law, Legal Ethics in Motion.  They wrote about a South Carolina federal court case in which a motion to disqualify premised on South Carolina Rule 1.18 was denied.  I learned a second new thing about South Carolina’s ethics rules in reading that opinion.

The first new thing I learned about South Carolina was that it has a weird-ish wrinkle in its Rule 1.18(a).

Most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, follow the lead of ABA Model Rules and have a version of Rule 1.18(a) that defines a “prospective client” as someone who “consults with” or “discusses with” a lawyer the “possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter.”

South Carolina, however, takes a different approach.  Its RPC 1.18(a) reads as follows:

A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship.

Now, that “only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form a relationship” language can have some obvious benefits in avoiding having to deal with certain situations where most folks would agree that the array of protections afforded to a person as a prospective client under RPC 1.18 just shouldn’t come into existence.  Like, if the only reason someone is reaching out is to get a lawyer disqualified – usually just dealt with through language in the Comment — this language should suffice to prevent RPC 1.18 protection from coming to pass.  Likewise, if say a person a lawyer has never met before calls out of the blue and starts running on at the mouth about their case before the lawyer could get a word – like “stop” – in edgewise, this rule’s “reasonable expectation” and “likely to form” language would be a very good tool for shutting down any RPC 1.18 argument.

But, even having only just learned of the existence of such language, I was still surprised to then learn what the federal court in South Carolina thought it meant.  Instead of resolving a disqualification motion on the basis that there didn’t seem to be any “significantly harmful” information that was ever transmitted, the court concluded that a series of events spanning a voice mail message, a telephone conference about a possible engagement, and an email exchange thereafter with a South Carolina lawyer was not sufficient to ever create the existence of a prospective client at all.

The court’s own description of the events is really all that should be needed to understand my surprise:

On July 7, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney Jay Wolman (Wolman) called and left a voice mail for Wyche attorney Tally Parham Casey (Casey) about a possible engagement in a case.  Wolman and Casey discussed the possibility of Wyche’s serving as local counsel for Plaintiff in this matter in a telephone conference on July 11, 2016.  Wolman subsequently emailed Casey on July 11, 2016, and provided Plaintiff’s and Gari’s names “[f]or conflict purposes” and requested a fee agreement “[i]f there is no conflict.”  Casey responded on that same day with applicable hourly rates and stated, “I hope we get the opportunity to work together.”  On July 12, 2016, however, Casey sent Wolman an email stating, “I’m afraid we have a conflict and will not be able to assist you with this matter.”

Pardon the wordplay and all, but I’m not sure it is “likely” that a multitude of judges would agree with how that particular line was drawn on the RPC 1.18(a) front in this particular South Carolina decision.

While I am on the subject of South Carolina and its ethics rules, one other development is worthy of mention here.   South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a public censure against an Arkansas lawyer for his role regarding using investigators to “pose as customers in an effort to obtain evidence to prove that the defendant was violating the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs.”  The Court explained that the Arkansas lawyer’s investigators “made false statements to the defendant’s employees and used tactics designed to prod the employees into making statements about the product,” and also “tape-recorded these conversations without notice to the employees.”

Many, many moons ago (2012), I wrote an article for an ABA publication called Landslide about the ethical problems for lawyers stemming from investigations relying on pretext in intellectual property matters.  I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that billions of people never read that article.  While it is probably a pretty safe bet to guess that this Arkansas lawyer was among the billions of people who didn’t read it, I can’t actually call that something I truly learned today because the conduct for which he is now being punished in 2017 with that public reprimand actually took place back in 2009.

Thus, if I’m flailing around trying to add one more thing to my list of nuggets learned today, it would have to be this, the South Carolina Court was actually a bit kind to this Arkansas lawyer in terms of how it described the problems.  It pointed out, in issuing a public reprimand against the lawyer in question, that the lawyer was “unaware that secret tape-recording, pretexting, and dissembling were in violation of the South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.”   Had it wanted to be a bit more damning in its explanation of events, it could have pointed out that the South Carolina rules upon which the discipline against the Arkansas lawyer rested (RPC 4.4(a) and RPC 8.4) say the same thing that Arkansas’s own version of those rules say and, thus, that it probably would not be a stretch to say that Arkansas’s ethics rules are also violated by (at least) pretexting and dissembling.

 

 

Texas Ethics Opinion Offers Stellar Example of Why You Ought to Have a Rule About This.

I’ve mentioned in the past the fact that Tennessee has a version of RPC 4.4(b) that directly addresses, and provides what I happen to think is the correct outcome, for what a lawyer is supposed to do about the receipt of someone else’s confidential information either inadvertently or via someone who isn’t authorized to have it in the first place.  Our RPC 4.4(b) goes further than the ABA Model Rule in two respects on this front in that: (1) it doesn’t just require notice as to inadvertently received information but makes clear that the lawyer has to either abide by any instructions as to what to do with the information or has to refrain from doing anything further with it until a court ruling can be obtained; and (2) we apply the same standard to information received unauthorizedly, e.g. a purloined document.  (Of course, I’ve also mentioned … repeatedly I admit … that the ABA Model Rules ought to be construed via Model Rule 1.15 to fill the gap on that second point, but … leading horses… and drinking water… and all that.

Earlier this month the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee issued Opinion 664 which “addresses” the following two questions:

1. Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they are in possession of confidential information taken from the opposing party without the opposing party’s knowledge or consent?

2.  Do lawyers violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if they fail to notify an opposing party or its counsel that they have inadvertently received confidential information of the opposing party?

In a relatively short opinion that discusses almost exclusively the first question, the Texas Committee ultimately says, “hey look, we don’t have a rule on any of this… so you are kind of on your own.”  That’s not really a quote from the opinion, of course.  The real quote from the opinion is longer but the gist is pretty much exactly the same as my fake quote.

The opinion then goes on to hold out the possibility that if you have this fact scenario plus something more than maybe one or more other rules could be violated — like Texas’s equivalents of Model Rule 1.2(d) or or Model Rule 3.3(a) or Model Rule 4.1 or Model Rule 8.4(d).  Quoting the opinion this time for real:

It is possible that under some circumstances the failure to provide notice to opposing counsel, or take other action upon receipt of an opponent’s confidential information, might violate one or more of the Texas Disciplinary Rules requiring lawyers to be truthful and to avoid assisting or condoning criminal or fraudulent acts or denigrating the justice system or subverting the litigation process.

The opinion also reminds readers that the lawyer’s course of conduct in such circumstances must be well thought through because the risk of disqualification still lurks, but in the end the opinion largely concludes with something that is mostly a restatement of the problem for Texas lawyers (and of my general inability to get horses standing so close to water to drink since Texas does have a version of ABA Model Rule 1.15  and confidential information certainly is “property”):

The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct do not prescribe a specific course of conduct a lawyer must follow upon the unauthorized or inadvertent receipt of another party’s confidential information outside the normal course of discovery.

The insistence on referencing discovery and, thus, making it seem like this is solely a problem for litigators rather than all lawyers is also a bit unfortunate.

Both the java fight and the nut dispute are kind of bananas.

If you spend any time on social media these days, you may have noticed how irritable folks are.  There are lots of reasons for it, of course.  We live in stressful times.  Practicing law has always been a high-stress endeavor as far as professions go; thus, cries for more civility in the practice of law have been going on for many years and likely will continue to go on for many more years to come.

I’ve offered before on this blog my overarching “don’t be an ass” theory as it relates to practicing law but lawyers are people and people are people, so … sometimes people don’t get along.

There have been two relatively recent examples of lawyers not getting along, actually getting into dust-ups that have become pretty high-profile (or at least they were a few weeks ago) and that seem pretty hard to believe all involved wouldn’t wish for a chance at a simple do over.

One of them was talked about most frequently as being a coffee fight, but reads more like something that was already in the problem range before the hurling of coffee ever came into the picture.  The dispute happened during a deposition so in addition to the he said/she said aspects of what went down, there was a court reporter present.  The court reporter’s version of events grabs parts of each of the competing stories and likely gets the closest to the accurate version of events — the coffee was iced coffee and it likely was hurled at the other lawyer.  Doesn’t change the fact that it’s really bad behavior but at least it makes it much less likely that anyone was at risk of burns from scalding coffee.  You can read about all the various filings and back and forth here, here, here, and here if you’d like.

The other dispute that got lumped into my reading pile with the java jousting is both more and less bizarre at the same time.  As it all appears to turn over false allegations about how one lawyer acted upon learning about the existence of a nut allergy on the part of another lawyer’s paralegal.  You can read a bit more about that weirdness here.

Interestingly (although maybe that’s the wrong choice of word), assuming away any criminality in any of the conduct), the ethics rules that often come into play in dust-ups of these sorts are RPC 3.4 (at least as to the parts of them that relate to battles over obstructionist discovery tactics and the like), RPC 4.4(a)’s prohibition on using means when representing a client “that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass … or burden a third person,” and RPC 8.4(d) prohibition on conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”  Interestingly (and here it is definitely the apt word), the coffee fight at least contains some undertones of issues that might be in the wheelhouse of the ABA’s new RPC 8.4(g),

Speaking of disputes, but not disputes between lawyers and not disputes involving the weaponizing of any ingestible foodstuffs, I will be doing a national teleseminar tomorrow along with Sue Friedberg who serves as Associate General Counsel of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney on “Ethics and Disputes With Clients.”  You can sign up for it through a number of different channels (check with your local bar for example) like through this link in Oregon or this link in Nebraska or this one in Missouri.

Proposal to adopt Ethics 20/20 Revisions in Tennessee Put Out For Public Comment

Back in August 2012, the ABA House of Delegates approved revisions to the ABA Model Rules proposed by the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission.  Very few of the proposed revisions included in the ABA Ethics 20/20 package are earth-shaking revisions, as many of them only involve change to language in the Comment accompanying certain rules.

The overall bent of the revisions, however, are to address aspects of the impact that technology has on modern law practice, highlight for lawyers their duty to, at the very least, keep abreast of and be competent regarding the types of technologies they use in their practice, and address a few other issues with good guidance regarding how aspects of globalization and the increased use of outsourcing interact with our ethical obligations.

More than twenty-five states have now adopted all or significant parts of the Ethics 20/20 package of changes.  Most recently Washington state has done this, with its revisions to become effective September 1, 2016.  Here in Tennessee, the TBA has filed a petition proposing adoption of almost all of those rule changes, and our Court has now put the TBA petition out for public comment with a November 17, 2016 comment deadline.  (There is also an Errata that the TBA put out to fix a redlining error made by the stupid Chair of the TBA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility when it was pointed out that we’d forgotten to pick up some changes to our RPC 5.5 that went into effect back in January 1, 2016.)

In my opinion, the most important, and most helpful, part of the Ethics 20/20 revisions takes place in RPC 1.6 by explicitly acknowledging the need to reconcile the duty of confidentiality with the duty to avoid conflicts of interest and the fact that, in reality, this means that lawyers need to be able to disclose some otherwise confidential information when looking at moving law firms or when firms are looking at proposed mergers in order to make sure to identify and address potential conflicts of interest under RPC 1.7.

The Tennessee proposed revisions would pick that change up.  Thus, if adopted, like the ABA Model, our RPC 1.6(b)(6) would now provide an exception to RPC 1.6(a) confidentilaity:

(6) to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.

If adopted, the TBA’s proposed revisions would also move the language about duties of safeguarding confidential information from the Comment to RPC 1.6 up into the black-letter of the rule itself.  Although our version of that rule would be place into a new RPC 1.6(d), instead of Rule 1.6(c) as in the ABA Model Rules because we already have a RPC 1.6(c) that deviates from the ABA Model Rules approach by imposing certain duties of mandatory disclosure of confidential information.

What we do not propose to pick up, however, are certain aspects of the Ethics 20/20 changes that were made to ABA Model Rule 4.4.  This is because, in Tennessee, we have a more robustly detailed version of  the rule that specifically addresses the duties of lawyers when they receive confidential information that they know or should reasonably know was inadvertently transmitted to them or that they know or should reasonably know was provided to them by someone not authorized to have the information in the first place.

Based on the November 2016 comment deadline, there is reason to be hopeful that these proposed revisions might become effective in Tennessee as early as January 1, 2017.  But, stay tuned.

Speaking of bad facts making bad law…

I’ve seen a number of short pieces around the Internet about the 70-year old Missouri lawyer who has gotten himself suspended for at least six months over a number of acts of misconduct, including (the thing most prominently mentioned) using information that his client improperly obtained by guessing someone else”s password.

There is no question that the facts, as laid out, in the Missouri Supreme Court opinion, justify a suspension and involve a violation of a number of ethics rules.  Specifically, there is no question that the use of the purloined information — payroll records and opposing counsel’s work product — was a violation of Missouri’s Rule 4.4(a) which prohibits the use of a method of obtaining evidence that violates a third party’s legal rights.  In addition, to the extent the tribunal concluded that that the lawyer had essentially threatened a disciplinary complaint against opposing counsel as leverage, it is a fair result to say that there was a violation of Missouri RPC 8.4(d), conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, even though Missouri – unlike Tennessee- does not have an RPC 4.4(a) that specifically prohibits such threats.

But the rest of the ethics charges — all of which take issue with the lawyer not disclosing to the other side that his client had improperly obtained the confidential materials — is, at best, a lazy outcome and, at worst, just wrong, hence the “bad facts making bad law” title.

Unlike Tennessee, Missouri’s RPC 4.4 does not have any application to receipt of documents purposefully sent but by someone not authorized to have them in the first place.  It only addresses inadvertently produced documents.  As the opinion lays out the story, there was nothing inadvertent about this situation.  The lawyer’s client purposefully and intentionally provided the materials to the lawyer.  Nowhere in the opinion does the Missouri court cite to actual ethics rule language that would explain why the lawyer would be required to tell the other side about his client’s improper access to the spouse’s computer.  The closest it gets is when it misquotes language from a comment to its Rule 4.4.  Specifically, the court wrote:

The comment accompanying Rule 4-4.4(a) recognizes that lawyers “sometimes receive documents that were mistakenly sent or procured by opposing parties or lawyers.”  However, when a lawyer knows that he or she has improperly received information, “Rule 4-4.4 requires the lawyer to promptly notify the sender in order to permit that person to take protective measures.”  In this case, Rule 4-4.4 required [the lawyer] to promptly disclose his receipt of the information to Ms. Jones so that appropriate protective measures could be undertaken.

Except, Missouri’s Rule 4.4 most certainly does not require prompt notification to the sender unless the materials were inadvertently produced.  Importantly, the “sent or procured” quote by the court of its Rule 4.4 is just flat wrong.  The actual language of the Missouri rule is “sent or produced.”  The use of “procured” is a particularly unfortunate error because it makes it seem like the rule must contemplate purloined document issues when everything about Missouri’s actual Rule 4.4 is tied to inadvertence.

If Missouri had Tennessee’s version of RPC 4.4 – which requires notification for both inadvertent disclosure and unauthorized disclosure, then Missouri could look to RPC 4.4 and claim notification was required.  Given that the lawyer’s client’s improper access to the spouse’s computer could, for example, expose that client to criminal liability under federal law as a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or the Stored Communications Act (or both), this is not merely an academic quibble.  It is one thing for a lawyer in such a situation to know better than to try to make use of the wrongfully obtained documents; it is another thing to flog the lawyer for failing to blow the whistle on their client’s wrongful conduct — potentially criminal wrongful conduct — by writing an opinion that makes it seem a matter-of-fact conclusion that a lawyer reading RPC 4.4 in Missouri would know they have to do that as well.

Because Missouri has a version of Rule 1.15 that is patterned after the ABA Model Rules, it does have an ethics rule on which it could have hung its justification for saying the lawyer was obligated to notify the opposing counsel about having the purloined materials.  Specifically, it could have pointed to RPC 1.15(d) and (e) as giving guidance:

(d) Upon receiving funds or other property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person. . .

(e) When in the course of representation a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer) claim interests, the lawyer shall keep the property separate until the dispute is resolved. The lawyer shall promptly distribute all portions of the property as to which the interests are not in dispute. Lawyers shall cooperate as necessary to enable distribution of funds that are not in dispute.

Of course, doing that would have required that court to embrace the rationale that Doug Richmond and I have explained in a separate article written quite a few years ago.  Instead, Missouri now adds itself onto the list (along with Nevada) of courts that would rather disregard the plain language of their own Rule 4.4, than admit we’ve got a point.

 

“Sleeping,” sleeping, and Cronic sleeping.

Three recent cases involving lawyers alleged to have been sleeping during trial (actually only two about sleeping lawyers, one about a lawyer pretending to sleep) leave me feeling like there has to be the germ of a worthwhile point to be made in there somewhere, but after drafting and redrafting this post in spare moments the last couple of days, I’m not sure any longer that had a point to be made but here we are, and I’m pot committed, so …

Those of us who primarily handle civil litigation tend to think that the stakes we deal with are high, and our clients certainly think so and expect us to treat their cases in that fashion.  Those responsibilities can end up keeping lawyers up at night.  Yet, in criminal cases, there are typically more significant repercussions for the participants that can flow from a lawyer’s mistake.  Jail time, capital punishment, etc.

Falling asleep during trial would be universally recognized as a pretty significant error for an attorney make.  Yet, pretending to be asleep during trial could, of course, be a strategic ploy.  The three cases decided in 2016 so far that got me thinking on this topic manage to cover the spectrum of the “slumbering lawyer” problem.

Back on Groundhog Day of this year, a prosecutor in Maine was chided by that state’s highest court for conduct described as “sophomoric, unprofessional and a poor reflection on the prosecutor’s office.”  Specifically, the conduct was pretending to sleep during the defense’s closing argument in a murder trial.  The court determined, however, that neither that conduct, nor other conduct by the prosecutor that the court found problematic, was enough to find prejudicial error to the defendant sufficient to justify reversing the homicide conviction in the case.  The stage craft of pretending to sleep could, as with other kinds of stagecraft, be viewed as amounting to a violation of RPC 4.4(a) on the part of the prosecutor.  Maine’s RPC 4.4(a), like the ABA Model Rule, prohibits a lawyer representing a client from “us[ing] means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….”

Moving on from fake sleeping, but also back in February 2016, the 11th Circuit affirmed a lower district court’s ruling that a criminal defendant was not prejudiced by his slumbering counsel because the lawyer alleged to have fallen asleep only did so during a non-critical stage of the trial.  Specifically, defense counsel fell asleep while a recorded interview of an accomplice – spanning 71 pages in transcript length – was played to the jury.  The 11th Circuit agreed with the district court’s ruling that the standard for ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington and not U.S. v. Cronic was correct and that the trial court did not unreasonably apply Strickland.

The 11th Circuit opinion presents a very dry read including very little detail (even the lawyer involved never has his name mentioned).  From the opinion though, it appears the only actual proof mentioned of an instance of sleeping was the lawyer’s own statement made after cross-examining the witness and in response to the prosecutor asking for a break while defense counsel was cross-examining the law enforcement officer who had authenticated the recording:  “I need to take a break; I fell asleep a couple of times.”  Whether a sleeping lawyer is viewed as providing incompetent representation in violation of RPC 1.1, or acting in a manner not sufficiently diligent under RPC 1.3, or simply not in a position to effectively communicate with the client during trial under RPC 1.4, one would think that, if the lapse into unconsciousness could actually be proven, that the potential would exist for a finding of a disciplinary violation.  Yet, I would be very surprised if discipline ever came to pass.

In contrast, just last week, the Fourth Circuit reversed the conviction and thirty-year sentence of a defendant whose counsel also fell asleep during trial.  The Fourth Circuit case, as with the 11th Circuit case, involved a Section 2255 proceeding, but the difference in this situation being fairly described as one of degree and of the resulting legal standard to be applied.  Everyone who testified during the evidentiary hearing proceedings — except for the lawyer in question — testified to having witnessed the lawyer asleep at least once during trial.  The lawyer’s client after first alleging his lawyer fell asleep twice, eventually testified that his lawyer had slept for as many as 10 minutes a stretch some 10 to 20 times during the trial.  Counsel for other co-defendants each testified that despite now having a direct view of him at all times, they had noticed at least one bout of snoozing.  Perhaps, most damningly, a juror testified that the lawyer was asleep for at least a half an hour almost every day of trial and that the sleeping lawyer had been a topic of discussion during deliberations.  The lawyer, in question, in testimony not lost on the appellate court, said he couldn’t recall sleeping during the trial.

The Fourth Circuit, in what was a first impression matter for it, joined several other circuits in indicating that the Cronic standard — permitting the presumption of prejudice — and not Strickland applies when a lawyer is asleep for a substantial part of the trial.  The Fourth Circuit, however, also explained in a footnote that its ruling should not be treated as meaning only “the most egregious instances of slumber” will serve to trigger the need for the Cronic standard, indicating that being asleep for a critical part of the trial alone could also be sufficient.  Thus, the same fact pattern in the 11th Circuit matter might suffice in the Fourth Circuit if the nap had come not during the paying of an audiotape of a repetitive witness statement but during a critical time in the trial.

The same set of ethics rules mentioned above as to the one-time-napper are, of course, also implicated by repeated siestas during trial, but the odds of such a proceeding being pursued and discipline imposed inherently should be more likely as to the lawyer in the Fourth Circuit case.  Given the pretty broad conspiracy that would be necessary for the lawyer to prove his public explanation that this was a political dirty trick mounted against him because he had run for public office, such a case would likely be difficult to defend.

[P.S. While his other response, equating the allegations against him as an insult to the federal judge who presided over trial, the logistics of the courtroom described in the Fourth Circuit opinion that could explain why the trial court wouldn’t necessarily have seen the sleeping no matter how frequent and the Fourth Circuit’s own pretty strong rebuke of the district judge’s discounting of the witness testimony — “[T]he district court utterly failed to consider the likely possibility that each was saw [the lawyer] asleep or nodding off on different occasions.  Had the court done so, it would have reached the conclusion that [the lawyer] could have been asleep on at least six or seven different occasions.” — that approach isn’t likely as elegant a way of defending himself as it might seem at first glance.]

 

A Texas two-step of January ethics opinions

So far this month, the Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas has put out two ethics opinions worthy of some discussion given the issues tackled and the outcomes of each opinion.

The more recent of the two, Opinion No. 653, evaluates whether a lawyer acting pro se in a matter has to abide by Texas’s version of RPC 4.2 — the rule that restricts a lawyer when representing a client from communicating about a matter with a person the lawyer knows is represented by counsel.  The committee laid out the question it would address as:

May a lawyer who is a party in a legal matter but who does not represent any other party in the matter communicate concerning the matter directly with a represented adverse party without the consent of the adverse party’s lawyer.

The Texas committee, while acknowledging that there is not universal agreement on the answer (even among Texas courts), concluded that its Rule 4.02 did not ethically prohibit a lawyer acting pro se from communicating directly with a represented adverse party.  In reaching that conclusion, the Texas opinion aligns itself squarely on the issue with the Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 99(1)(b).

Though reasonable minds can differ, I think the Texas committee’s effort to say that concluding otherwise would “strain the language of the Rule beyond its intended meaning” is more difficult to justify than its conclusion.  A number of interesting follow-up questions for the Texas committee might make the point about the language of the rule.  As an example, does a lawyer who, while proceeding pro se, uses a method of obtaining evidence that violates the other side’s legal rights violate Texas’s Rule 4.04(a).   Or what about if the same lawyer uses means that have as the sole purposes embarrassing or burdening the other side?  Both of those aspects of Texas Rule 4.04(a)’s prohibitions are premised upon the lawyer being engaged “[i]n representing a client.”

This kind of interpretation of a rule patterned upon ABA Model Rule 4.2 is also difficult to reconcile with what I have always understood to be the fundamental premise behind the prohibition — the notion that a lawyer as a skilled advocate trained in the art of persuasion would have the ability to take advantage of a nonlawyer and get them to agree to something or make some admission they would never make if skilled counsel on the other side was in the room.  Almost a year ago, I wrote a little bit about a presentation I did on legal ethics to a room full of regular people and how one of the things they were most surprised to learn was that the lawyer ethics rules didn’t let grown up adults decided for themselves if they wanted to talk to the other side’s lawyer.

In Tennessee, as in most states that have an RPC 4.2 patterned after the ABA Model, we explain the purpose for this rule in Comment [1]:

This Rule contributes to the proper functioning of the legal system by protecting a person who has chosen to be represented by a lawyer in a matter against possible overreaching by other lawyers who are participating in the matter, interference by those lawyers with the client-lawyer relationship, and the uncounseled disclosure of information relating to the representation.

The other Texas opinion, Opinion No. 652, requires much less discussion because it actually — correctly — serves to undo what would be a controversial position if still embraced by the Texas committee.  The two questions tackled in Opinion 652 are:

  1.  May a lawyer use a collection agency to collect past due attorney’s fees without violating the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct?
  2. May a lawyer report nonpaying clients to a credit bureau without violating the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct?

Now, you may think the answers to these two questions ought to be straightforward (and I think you are right), and, in fact, the Texas committee offered what I view as the correct answer to both questions.  1.  Yes.  2. No.  But, remarkably, as a read of the full opinion will reveal, the Texas committee had to reverse itself on a prior opinion from more than 20 years ago, in order to answer the first question with a “yes.”

 

 

A Rorschach test in two parts

To pass the time during Snowmageddon (Snowpocalypse?), here’s a blogpost equivalent of an ink blot test.  Do you think either of these situations (or both) (or neither) involve situations where disciplinary authorities should be allocating resources to go after lawyers under the ethics rules?

The first inkblot:

An attorney runs advertisements for his bankrutpcy practice that say: “Keep your property.”  “Stop wage garnishments.” “Stop home foreclosure.” “Stop vehicle repossession.”  And, oh yeah, “been screwing banks since 1992.”  And, the lawyer has a current website with a bulldog picture and the words “We love to take a bite out of a banker!”  Are disciplinary proceedings in order?  Should it result in a 30-day suspension?  Should it matter whether your argument that you meant “screwing” as a connotation to thumbscrews that used to be used in debtor’s prisons sounds at all convincing?

If you were the lawyer in question, can you think of any reason you would simply consent to having the suspension order go down against you?  Would it matter if you had a past disciplinary history?  Should it?  Would it matter if the jurisdiction had some special advertising rule prohibition different from the ABA Model Rules?  Or, what if the relevant rule just prohibited making false or misleading communications about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services, including statements contain material misrepresentations of fact or law or that that omit facts necessary to make the statement as a whole not materially misleading?  Would you want to know if anyone, anywhere had actually been misled by the statements in the advertisements?

The second inkblot:

Lawyer, representing a criminal defendant she believes to be wrongly incarcerated, and in connection/cooperation with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, takes a water bottle out of a house and doesn’t return it when she figures out it was not her water bottle and may have DNA on it of someone else that she is interested in having tested.  Should that be the subject matter of a disciplinary complaint?  What if she says she didn’t realize until she’d left the house that it wasn’t her water bottle?  What if you think, instead, that she knew when she took the water bottle that it was likely not hers?

Does it matter if the DNA turned out not to be helpful?  What about if, because of the attorney’s efforts, the criminal defendant was ultimately exonerated after spending 40 years in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit?  Is it obtaining evidence in violation of the rights of another in violation of RPC 4.4(a)?  Is that the kind of dishonesty that RPC 8.4(c) should exist to address?  What about RPC 8.4(d) and its prohibition on conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice?  Is it better, or worse, that the lawyer waited until finding out that the person wouldn’t submit to DNA testing before using the water bottle to run a DNA test?  Should the lawyer be admonished for the conduct?

What say you?

A proposed ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) has been put out for public comment.

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (“SCEPR”) has put out a proposed new RPC 8.4(g) for public comment with a March 11, 2016 deadline for any written comments.  The proposed rule revision would add to the list of types of prohibited conduct in RPC 8.4 the following:

(g) in conduct related to the practice of law, harass or knowingly discriminate against persons on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status.

Now, you might be asking yourself a number of things at this point.  The question that came to mind for me though was, aren’t there already other ethics rules sufficient to make harassing people for no good reason (including for discriminatory reasons) a disciplinary offense?  The answer to that question, I tend to think, is “yes.”  RPC 4.4 — which is entitled “Respect for the Rights of Third Persons” after all — prohibits a lawyer “in representing a client,” from “us[ing] means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass. . . or burden a third person.”  I would think that should already capture knowing sexual harassment or intentionally discriminatory conduct by a lawyer to an opposing party or opposing counsel or any other third party a lawyer has to deal with when representing a client.  Now I get that it wouldn’t capture anything a lawyer does when not representing a client, but that is when I would point to existing RPC 8.4(d) which prohibits engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice and does not limit its proscription only to when a lawyer is representing a client.  SCEPR clearly though does not see treatment of the issue through existing RPC 8.4(d) as sufficient.

Existing Comment [3] to RPC 8.4 provides:

[3]  A lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests, by words or conduct, bias or prejudice based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status violated [RPC 8.4(d)] when such actions are prejudicial to the administration of justice.  Legitimate advocacy respecting the foregoing factors does not violate paragraph [d].

Now, setting aside the tautological circularity of the existing comment (which, of course, can be a bit “Well, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?), current RPC 8.4(d) certainly brings something to the table over and above what RPC 4.4 would prohibit.  So, comparing the current comment with the new proposal, my next question was: why not just add “gender identity” and “marital status” to the list in the existing comment and be done with it? there must be some type of conduct not currently prohibited by the rules which is trying to be captured.

The answer to that is clearly that there is a specific type of conduct, and venue in which such conduct occurs, that is trying to be captured by RPC 8.4(g) as proposed.  The revision to Comment [3] offered by SCEPR spells out what the primary purpose of the change seems to be:  “Paragraph (g) applies to conduct related to a lawyer’s practice of law, including the operation and management of a law firm or law practice.”  So, workplace harassment and discrimination appears to be the motivation.

The rest of the proposed new comment language focuses a good bit on providing assurances that legitimate advocacy is still acceptable and that this provision won’t mean that you can’t claim a right of permissive withdrawal under RPC 1.16(b) if a client insists on doing something that the lawyer finds “repugnant” and turning down a potential client because they cannot pay you doesn’t mean you’ve discriminated on the basis of socioeconomic status.

That seems to me like an awful lot of assurances to have to provide in a comment about things a rule doesn’t prohibit.  I could get behind having to do that, I guess (even if it does seem weirdly defensive), if I was able to buy in to the need for the revision itself.  But, I just don’t quite understand how it makes sense to do the very thing this revision appears to be attempting to do — turn employment law issues into disciplinary matters.  Maybe I’m missing something.