This is not truly a development that merits the “Bad Ethics Opinion or the Worst Ethics Opinion” treatment, but it is a development that deserves commentary.
Last week while my wife and I were getting some short R&R, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility issued Formal Ethics Opinion 2018-F-166. If all you read of it were the first two paragraphs, it would sound like a reasonable (albeit somewhat circular) ethics opinion to have issued:
The Board of Professional Responsibility has been requested to issue a Formal Ethics Opinion on the ethical propriety of a settlement agreement which contains a confidentiality provision that prohibits any discussion of any facet of the settlement agreement with any other person or entity, regardless of the circumstances, and which prohibits the requesting attorney from referencing the incident central to the plaintiff’s case, the year, make, and model of the subject vehicle or the identity of the Defendants.
It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement that requires the attorney to be bound by a confidentiality clause that prohibits a lawyer from future use of information learned during the representation or disclosure of information that is publicly available or that would be available through discovery in other cases as part of the settlement, if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.
So, again, that sounds reasonable in a vacuum (and it’s that last clause that makes it relatively circular as an application of RPC 5.6. As the opinion makes clear that the rule on which it is premised and hinges is RPC 5.6(b), which provides: “A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making: (b) an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer’s right to practice is part of the settlement of a client controversy.”
But, this opinion isn’t issued in a vacuum. It manages over the course of 4 pages to barely acknowledge the existence of an earlier-issued ethics opinion — Formal Ethics Opinion 98-F-141. It also doesn’t even mention the existence of a more recent Formal Ethics Opinion 2010-F-154. Those oversights are extremely unfortunate because the existence of those two FEOs should have made the issuance of this new FEO entirely unnecessary.
FEO 98-F-141 explained that a plaintiff’s attorney should not be required to, and should not agree to, be a party to a release and settlement agreement of their client unless the attorney is specifically releasing a claim for attorney fees. Otherwise, being a party to the release creates conflict of interest issues between the client and the lawyer. FEO 2010-F-154 repeated this guidance as part of explaining why – despite the problems associated with Medicare super liens — settlement agreements could not require the lawyer for the plaintiff to agree to indemnify the defendants for such liens. Thus, the second paragraph of FEO 2018-F-166 (if it was ever issued at all) could have read:
We have already opined in FEO 98-F-141 and FEO 2010-F-154 that it is unethical for a plaintiff’s attorney to be required to, or to agree to, be a party to a client’s release and settlement agreement. For any such provisions to be enforceable against plaintiff’s counsel, (s)he would have to be a party to the settlement agreement, which we’ve already explained is a no-no. As long as the lawyer is not an actual party to the agreement, then any such provisions are only binding upon the client – not the lawyer — and whether or not the client wishes to agree to them is up to the client given that RPC 1.2(a) declares that the client’s decision to settle a case is something that a lawyer has to abide. Thus, if a client wants to agree to terms of settlement that are lawful and the lawyer cannot be held to those terms as a party, then the client gets to do as the client wishes in that respect.
And then, FEO 2018-F-166 could have stopped right there.
Since it didn’t go down that way, this new opinion is, at best, unhelpful to the extent that it implies that a client doesn’t have the right to agree to things that they obviously would have the right to agree to or that it implies that if a client does it is somehow binding on the client’s lawyer going forward in future situations even if the lawyer is not a party to the release and settlement agreement and not bound thereby.