A federal district court refused last week to disqualify a Connecticut lawyer in a suit against Yale University, even though finding a violation of the state’s version of Model Rule 4.2, the “no contact rule.”  Although ruling that disqualification was too extreme a sanction, the court ordered the turnover of interview notes from the lawyer’s interview of the improperly-contacted witness.

The case underscores the need to tread carefully when contacting anyone associated with the opposing party.

Coin curator’s claim

Yale University has an acclaimed art museum, and the museum’s former Curator of Coins and Medals sued the university for age discrimination after it terminated his employment.

In addition to being the museum’s coin curator, the plaintiff was an adjunct professor in the classics department.  The plaintiff’s lawyer phoned another professor in the department and interviewed him for 34 minutes as a potential witness, according to the opinion.  The other professor had never been involved in a law suit, and later said that it did not occur to him during the interview that he needed to consult with Yale’s lawyers before answering questions from the opposing side.

Yale’s counsel only learned about the interview six weeks later, and promptly moved to disqualify the plaintiff’s counsel for violating the no-contact rule, asserting that the professor interviewed was a represented “party” who was off-limits under the rule, absent consent from Yale’s lawyers.

Conceded “technical” violation

Connecticut’s Rule 4.2 differs from the Model Rule by barring communication about the subject of the representation “with a party the lawyer knows to represented by another lawyer in the matter,” without the other lawyer’s consent.  (The Model Rule uses the word “person,” not “party.”)  This raises the question “Who is included as a party?” for purposes of the no-contact rule, especially when an organization is a party.

Under the Connecticut rule comments, a “party” includes an organization’s employees with managerial responsibility; employees whose act or omission in connection with the matter may be imputed to the organization; and employees whose statements may constitute an admission of the organization.  While not express in the opinion, the profession presumably fell into one of these categories — perhaps the third one.

The plaintiff’s lawyer conceded that his interview raised a “technical violation” of Rule 4.2, but that it had been inadvertent, because the professor and the plaintiff were close colleagues and the lawyer regarded the professor as a witness on behalf of the plaintiff.  The lawyer argued that he had no intent to gain an unfair advantage, and that Yale was not prejudiced.

Trial taint needed for DQ

The district court agreed that the circumstances did not merit disqualification, notwithstanding the conceded rule violation.

As in many other jurisdictions, there is authority in the Second Circuit that disqualification motions require balancing the need to uphold ethical standards with a party’s right to freely-chosen counsel.  Therefore, an ethical violation, standing alone, might not be sufficient to mandate disqualification.  Many opinions in the Second Circuit and elsewhere hold that the remedy of disqualification is justified only when a violation poses a significant risk of trial taint.

The court agreed that disqualification was not necessary here.

Here, the district court explained, the taint concern was that the plaintiff’s lawyer had obtained confidential information about Yale’s litigation strategy from the professor, who had previously discussed the case with Yale’s lawyers.  The plaintiff’s lawyer had proposed to provide the court with the notes from the interview for in camera review; but the best remedy, said the court, was to order the lawyer to turn the notes over to Yale’s counsel.

Take-home lessons

If you’re involved in representing a client in any matter (not just litigation), you need to take heed of the no-contact rule.  As this case highlights, the rule comes in different flavors depending on jurisdiction.  While the case here involved disqualification, there is also always the possibility of disciplinary action from violating an ethics rule.  Last, the court’s order to turn over the interview notes — clear attorney work product — to the opposing party is a surprising remedy.  But obviously, such an order can’t be ruled out in circumstances that would appear to call for it.

Empty Chair in an Interrogation RoomWhen the government comes knocking during a grand jury investigation, can a G-man interview one of your executives without getting consent from counsel?  Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine said “Yes,” and refused to suppress a suspect’s statements in the tax fraud case against him, holding that the ex parte chat didn’t violate attorney ethics rules.

The case shows how in a federal criminal investigation, an exception to the well-known “no-contact” rule can sweep away its protection.

Tax fraud … more than skin-deep

In U.S. v. Sabean, IRS special agents interviewed a Maine dermatologist in his office, without his tax lawyer present.  Almost two years later, the dermatologist was indicted for taking more than $3 million in fraudulent medical deductions, health care fraud and illegally distributing prescription drugs.

The dermatologist moved to suppress the statements he made during the IRS interview, using an argument that the court called “rather novel” — namely, that federal statute requires government lawyers to adhere to the legal ethics rules of the jurisdiction where they work, including, Maine’s version of Model Rule 4.2, and that violating the no-contact rule amounted to a violation of his Fifth Amendment due process rights, requiring exclusion of his statements.

“Authorized by law” exception

Maine’s Rule 4.2, like its Model Rule counterpart, provides that a “lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented  by another lawyer in the mater, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other layer or is authorized to do so by law or a court order.”

Acknowledging that the IRS agents who interviewed the dermatologist were acting on behalf of government lawyers and knew that he was represented, the court decided that the interview fell under the “authorized by law exception.”

Comment [5] to Rule 4.2 says that ex parte “communications authorized by law” include “investigative activities of lawyers representing governmental entities, directly or through investigative agents, prior to the commencement of criminal or civil enforcement proceedings.  When communicating with the accused in a criminal matter, a government lawyer must comply with this Rule in addition to honoring the constitutional rights of the accused.”

The district court judge in Sabean reasoned that the comment means that the bar of the “no contact” rule “begins when there is an ‘accused,’ thereby marking the actual commencement of criminal proceedings,” and that the pre-indictment, non-custodial interview did not require consent of the suspect’s lawyer.

The judge found additional support for this view in the Reporter’s Notes for Rule 4.2, which were prepared by the state task force that considered adoption of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  The Reporter explained that “[t]raditional investigative activities of prosecutors are those ‘authorized … by law” for purposes of the exception to the no-contact rule.

The judge also cited a case from the Third Circuit, and cases from district courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which held that pre-indictment interviews do not violate the no-contact rule.

Suppression not an “appropriate remedy”

In addition, the court said that “while exclusion may be a remedy for due process violations of interview procedures, it is not a mandatory remedy,” and suppression is to be reserved for only the “most egregious violations of the no-contact rule.”

This case simply didn’t fall into the “egregious” category, the court ruled:  the interview was investigative, not prosecutorial; and it wasn’t “scripted to reveal potential trial strategy or obtain uncounseled confession.”

Following the denial of the motion to suppress, the jury trial in the case was set to begin on November 1.

scientific_CloudComputing45Two New Jersey lawyers cannot avoid disciplinary charges arising from their use of a paralegal to friend a represented opposing party on Facebook, the state supreme court ruled recently.

We’ve written before about the perils of using Facebook to obtain information about opposing parties or to communicate with them.  This latest example involves a twist of particular interest to legal ethics wonks like me, because it also spotlights the issue of how disciplinary power is allocated between local and state ethics regulators.

“Will you be my friend?”

The two lawyers represented governmental defendants against the claims of a plaintiff injured after being hit by a police car.  The lawyers directed their paralegal to search the Internet to obtain information about the plaintiff, and in response, she accessed his Facebook page.  Initially, the page was open to all, but later, the plaintiff changed his privacy settings to limit access to “friends.”

It is alleged that the two lawyers then instructed the paralegal to access and continue to monitor the non-public parts of the plaintiff’s Facebook account.  In response, she submitted a friend request to the plaintiff — but she did not reveal that she worked for the law firm representing the defendants in the case, or that she was investigating him as part of the case.

The plaintiff — who was represented by counsel — accepted the friend request, and so the paralegal was able to get information from the non-public parts of his account.

The plaintiff learned about the lawyers’ actions after they sought to add the paralegal as a trial witness and produced printouts from the plaintiff’s Facebook page and his friends’ pages.  He filed a grievance with the local New Jersey District Ethics Committee, asserting that contacting him through Facebook without going through his own attorney constituted an ethical violation.

The local committee, however, declined to docket the grievance; the committee advised the plaintiff that the allegations, if proven, would not be a violation of the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct.

Who’s in charge?

But that was not the end of the matter.

The plaintiff’s lawyer filed a grievance directly with the state-level disciplinary body, the Office of Attorney Ethics, which, in New Jersey’s disciplinary system, has parallel jurisdiction.  The director investigated and filed a complaint against the lawyers alleging violation of numerous rules, including New Jersey’s versions of Model Rule 4.2 (communicating with a person represented by counsel); Model Rule 5.3 (failure to supervise a non-lawyer assistant); Model Rule 8.4(a) (violating the ethics rules by inducing another person to violate them); and Model Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation).

The lawyers denied any violations — including asserting that they acted in good faith and were “unfamiliar with the different privacy settings on Facebook.”  Later, they asked the OAE to withdraw the complaint, arguing that procedurally, the state-level OAE could not proceed against them after the local-level district committee had declined to do so.  The OAE would not withdraw the complaint.

State supreme court:  “You’re on the hook”

That sent the case out of the disciplinary system and into the state court system, eventually ending up in the state supreme court.  On April 19, the court ruled that under New Jersey’s “robust disciplinary system,” the action of the local committee in declining the grievance would not “close off further inquiry” at the state level if the grievance presented “an important, novel issue as to which there is little guidance,” or if the allegations involved “egregious, unethical conduct.”

Bottom line:  The two lawyers will have face the ethics charges against them, notwithstanding the pass they got the first time around at the local level.  (Be aware that your own jurisdiction may have disciplinary procedures that are quite different from New Jersey’s.)  Stay tuned — and in the meantime, be very careful when using social media to investigate litigants.  Several jurisdictions have ethics opinions that point to the pitfalls, and provide specific guidance on how to stay out of trouble when doing so.  The New York State Bar Association guide to social media ethics issues, published last year, collects many of the significant opinions.

iStock_000003390628_SmallHere is the second in our series of interviews with general counsel from a variety of organizations, who share their lessons from the trenches.  You can read the first installment here.

Deal documentation quandary

What should general counsel do when a manager by-passes the legal department in negotiating transaction terms with another party — especially when that other party is a lawyer?

That’s the situation in which a seasoned GC for a large company found himself not so long ago.  The matter involved a purchase and sale transaction where the other party was a venture in which the venture’s attorney had an ownership interest and served as the venture’s business representative.

Over the course of the deal, the manager and the other party — in this case, the attorney — passed deal documents back and forth.  If the GC commented on the documents and sent a mark-up to the other party, the other party (namely, the attorney) would then simply resume communicating directly with the company’s manager, instead of the GC.

The GC felt out of the loop and unable to fulfill his role of protecting the company’s legal interests.  In addition, there was a significant ethics issue:  Model Rule 4.2 provides that in representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate on the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter — unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer.  The rule requires consent of the lawyer, not the client.

Here, the picture was complicated by the fact that (1) the other lawyer was partly dealing for his own account and partly representing a party; and (2) the organization’s manager was seemingly happy to facilitate bypassing the company’s GC in the interest of getting the deal done more quickly.

Things come to a head, and outside counsel weighs in

The GC eventually expressed his frustration to the manager, saying “I’m commenting on documents that you’ve discussed with the other side, but I’m not even aware of what you’ve agreed to.  Logistically, this is just not working.” The company was being subjected to risk, because the GC was not seeing intervening document drafts and inefficiency was mounting.

At this point, the GC consulted with the company’s long-time outside counsel.  A fresh pair of eyes was helpful in validating the GC’s assessment of the ethics issue, and in adding perspective on how to try to unwind these difficult circumstances.

Eventually, the situation came to a head with an uncomfortable exchange between the GC and the manager.  This manager, like many managers, was apparently viewing the legal department as a potential road-block, instead of the organization’s trusted advisor.  The GC pushed back, letting the manager know that requiring the other party to deal with the company’s lawyer wasn’t “just protocol — it’s an ethics rule and there’s a reason for that rule” — namely, to protect the organization from over-reaching by the other side and to give the organization the expert input on legal issues that it needed.

The aftermath and lessons learned

In the aftermath of the unpleasant words between the GC and the manager, the GC decided that he should step away from the transaction and hand off responsibility for the deal to the associate GC.  The associate GC would be more acceptable to the manager, as he had not been the one to challenge the manager.  The manager did not object to this resolution.

Eventually, the deal closed, with appropriate documentation.  Apologies were exchanged, as the manager realized he had been out of line, and that the law department brought value to the deal.

When the dust settled, the GC reflected that, when presented with a tough situation, a chief legal officer must decide whether “it’s something I can live with, or is it something that jeopardizes the interest of the client such that I have to go to the mat.”  Going to the mat here was the right thing to do.

And, as this GC agreed, the perspective of outside counsel can certainly help in these quandaries.