We appear to be living now in an era in which whistle blowers are going to be in the news (and perhaps be the news) more than ever.
Many who know me, know that I hold a pretty controversial opinion — Arrested Development is potentially the greatest television show in history. For many years when I needed a fictional lawyer for my hypos at seminars, Barry Zuckerkorn, Bob Loblaw, and Wayne Jarvis were my go-to choices. I could drop this blog and write a blog just about the genius of that show but (perhaps) even fewer people would read that, much like it never got its fair share of viewers. One example of the simple brilliance of its writing though was its treatment of the issue of whistle blowers from the 20th episode of the first season, “Whistler’s Mother”:
Mr. Jordan: Listen, you’ve got the money now and you know my price. You don’t need a whistle blower around here.
Michael: Interesting choice of words, Mr. Jordan. He’s right, we don’t need a whistle blower. We need a building full of whistle blowers. Okay? Whistles. I want this place to be honest. That’s exactly why I had these made up for us. When you see something wrong…
Michael: There you go. I want you to report it. I want you to…
Michael: Exactly. Just like that. I want us to police ourselves vigilantly… Let’s wait till something’s actually happens, though.
Michael: All right… Good fun… Enough!
[twenty minutes later…]
Michael: 45, 46, 47…
Michael: Okay, there’s still three whistles left out there. Who’s got the whistles?
Board Member #1: He kept one.
Michael: There’s a good example of whistle blowing, okay, but you’ve kept yours, so it’s hurting your case.
Board Member #1: I was in the bathroom when you asked for it back.
Board Member #2: No, he wasn’t.
When lawyers (or those that work closely with lawyers) claim to be whistle blowers, the stakes tend to be even higher and the ethical issues for those lawyers and even for the lawyers that represent those lawyers are almost always complicated. Even when answers seem straightforward, the tensions that exist between the public interest in preventing wrongdoing and the private interest in protecting confidentiality can lead to second-guessing as to where the right lines should be drawn. When the traditional right of a client to fire their attorney for any reason or even no reason at all is wound into the mix, sometimes that readily clarifies how the tension is resolved but not always. It is a pretty good explanation for why there aren’t really many instances of outside counsel to companies or government entities serving as whistle blowers. When the lawyer seeking to blow the whistle though is an in-house counsel, that absolute right to fire your attorney can be made to yield to public policy since the client is also the lawyer’s employer.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been three stories of interest making the rounds involving three high-profile cases – two of them in California and one in D.C. — where the classic tensions are playing out in differing ways. The D.C. case is the longest running of the three and was actually pretty much believed to be over back in 2008 when the a former in-house counsel for GE’s Sarbanes-Oxley suit — which she supported using her former client’s confidential information — was dismissed as untimely filed. The matter got renewed attention with a recent development of a disciplinary suspension recommendation against her. One of the California matters is part of a roiling and unseemly dispute between the State Bar of California and the Chief Disciplinary Counsel that it fired within the last year. The other California matter is currently in the middle of trial proceedings and involves the former General Counsel of Bio-Rad, Sanford Wadler, who filed suit back in 2015 alleging he was fired because he blew the whistle on his former employer’s violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The weird mess involving the California State Bar has been back in the news twice in succession. First, there was a story that the former assistant to the former Executive Director, Joe Dunn, would not be permitted to use information she took with her on her laptop to pursue her claim that she too was fired in retaliation because of her knowledge of the same kinds of violations for which her boss has said he was terminated. Then, even more recently, word came down that Dunn’s suit, which had previously been forced into arbitration, has been dismissed by the arbitrator. The former Bio-Rad General Counsel recently received a favorable ruling about his ability to use confidential client information to seek to prove his case despite what would otherwise be his ethical obligations of confidentiality.
At a primary level, the developments in the three cases underscore a few points. One, none of them involve outside counsel. Two, lawyers who claim to be terminated for whistleblowing are almost always going to be met with counter-allegations that that they just simply were bad at their job and were terminated for poor performance. Three, the obligations lawyers owe to clients in terms of confidentiality not only complicate matters and raise the stakes but almost always create satellite disputes within the litigation about use of information that will make or break the case.
Rather than try to re-tread all of the details of the three matters (because you might care about all, none, or just some of them), I’m pretty sure through the links I have provided and a little Googling, you can immerse yourself as much as you want in available information about any of the three.
One piece of one of the matters though really piqued my interest and deserves a brief separate discussion — the detail of why the former GE attorney, Adriana Koeck, appears headed for a 30-day suspension and a lawyer representing her is also getting punished — going beyond the use of the confidential client information to support allegations in the complaint but providing some of that same information to the press. One of the reasons the matter piqued my interest originally was that, here in TN, we have a version of RPC 3.6 on trial publicity that allows communications about the media regarding the contents of a complaint, for example. D.C. has a much different version of that rule.
But, further digging is what further made me curious because D.C. really is a weird place, I guess. Admittedly, at this point I have only read the Law360 article, but it seems bananas that a D.C. lawyer who assisted, Koeck, in providing documents referenced in her complaint to news reporters is being disciplined for doing so. Koeck’s 30-day suspension seems to be explainable by the fact that she didn’t participate in the proceedings having already agreed to be suspended from practice by consent. But punishing a lawyer for that lawyer seems Draconian. Yet, and somehow I missed reading about this back in 2015, but even the prominent law professor who gave Koeck advice that the crime-fraud exception would apply to the documents also received disciplinary punishment for doing so — that seems even more Draconian.
In fairness, I’ll have to dig a bit further to educate myself on those proceedings to see if I can better explain all of that.
In the meantime, it does appear like Season 5 of Arrested Development is going to happen. So yay for that.