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Archive for the ‘California LPL’ Category

California Court Clarifies Grounds for Law Firm Disqualification

Posted on: January 30th, 2019

By: Brett Safford

In O’Gara Coach Company, LLC v. Joseph Ra, 2019 Cal.App. Lexis 12, the California Court of Appeal clarified the grounds on which a law firm can be disqualified. The Court reversed the decision of the trial court and disqualified Richie Litigation PC from representing Joseph Ra, a former executive of O’Gara Coach Company, LLC, in litigation involving Ra and O’Gara Coach. The Court held that disqualification is warranted because Darren Richie, the founder of Richie Litigation, formerly served as O’Gara Coach’s president and chief operating officer, and in those roles, he served a primary point of contact for the company’s outside counsel and possessed “confidential information, protected by O’Gara Coach’s attorney-client privilege, concerning Ra’s allegedly fraudulent activities at issue in this litigation.” The Court disqualified Richie Litigation even though Richie was not a licensed attorney when serving as O’Gara Coach’s president and chief operating officer and never had an attorney-client relationship with the company. The Court further held that vicarious disqualification of the entire firm, not only Richie, is warranted under the doctrine of imputed knowledge.

The litigation between O’Gara Coach and Ra arose from a lawsuit filed by Marcelo Caraveo, a former customer of O’Gara Coach, alleging wrongful conduct by O’Gara Coach, Ra, and others relating to Caraveo’s acquisition of luxury vehicles from O’Gara Coach. Ra filed a cross-complaint against O’Gara Coach for indemnity, and O’Gara Coach filed a cross-complaint against Ra, Caraveo, and others alleging that Ra and Caraveo “were the primary architects” of a fraudulent scheme involving the sale, leasing, and financing of vehicles.

Richie’s employment with O’Gara Coach terminated in 2016. In May 2017, Richie filed articles of incorporation for Richie Litigation which named Robert Lu as the sole officer and director.  In June 2017, Lu substituted as counsel of record for Ra. In August 2017, Richie was admitted to the California State Bar.

In October 2017, O’Gara Coach moved to disqualify Richie Litigation based on two reasons. First, O’Gara Coach argued that although Richie was not a licensed attorney when employed by the company, “the court should apply the rule requiring disqualification of attorneys representing adverse parties in successive representations when, as here, the matters are substantially related, as well as the rule that, when a former client’s confidential information is known to any attorney at a law firm, the entire firm must be disqualified.” Second, O’Gara Coach argued disqualification of Richie Litigation is warranted because Richie was privy to O’Gara Coach’s privileged information, and “Richie Litigation is not entitled to exploit that information in litigation adverse to the company.” The Court of Appeal rejected the first argument, but agreed with the second, holding that the trial court “erred in failing to consider O’Gara Coach’s alternate argument that disqualification of Richie and his law firm was required as a prophylactic measure because the firm was in possession of confidential information, protected by O’Gara Coach’s attorney-client privilege, concerning Ra’s allegedly fraudulent activities at issue in this litigation.”

The Court of Appeal explained that O’Gara Coach presented undisputed evidence that Richie participated in meetings and communications with outside counsel who were investigating Ra’s activities and “developing theories material to O’Gara Coach’s defense and forming the basis for its cross-claims in this litigation and that are protected by lawyer-client privilege.”  As the privilege belongs to O’Gara Coach, Richie cannot disclose privileged information without O’Gara Coach’s consent.  The Court further concluded, “[N]ow that Richie is a member of the California State Bar, O’Gara Coach is entitled to insist that he honor his ethical duty to maintain the integrity of the judicial process by refraining from representing former O’Gara Coach employees in this litigation against O’Gara Coach that involve matters as to which he possesses confidential information.”

The Court of Appeal further held that Richie Litigation is variously disqualified because “once a showing has been made that someone at the adverse party’s law firm possesses confidential attorney-client information materially related to the proceedings before the court, a rebuttable presumption arises that the information has been used or disclosed in the current employment,” and Ra did not present evidence that Richie had been screened from Lu or other lawyers at the firm working on the pending litigation. As such, the Court held that “the doctrine of imputed knowledge requires the vicarious disqualification of the entire Richie Litigation firm.”

O’Gara Coach emphasizes the paramount importance of protecting client confidences and the attorney-client privilege to ensure the “integrity of the judicial process.” An attorney must not only be mindful of his or her own prior relationships with an opposing party, but also of the prior relationships between other attorneys in his or her firm and an opposing party. Without thorough conflict checks, firms may subject themselves to disqualification and other costly repercussions from their clients.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brett Safford at [email protected].

New Task Force Aims to Reform California’s Technological Ethical Rules

Posted on: January 15th, 2019

By: Paige Pembrook

On December 5, 2018, the California State Bar Task Force on Access Through Innovation in Legal Services held its first meeting and started a long process to modernize ethical rules that currently inhibit lawyers from fully using innovative technologies and services from non-lawyer businesses. Under the Current Rules of Professional Conduct for California lawyers, attorneys risk professional discipline and malpractice liability when using services and software offered by non-lawyer technology businesses, even though those services and software offer significant potential to improve access to and delivery of legal services.

Earlier this year, the State Bar charged the Task Force with recommending rule modifications to allow collaboration and technological innovation in legal services, including use of artificial intelligence and online legal service delivery models. The Task Force is specifically tasked with scrutinizing existing rules and regulations concerning the unauthorized practice of law, lawyer advertising and solicitation, partnerships with non-lawyers, fee splitting, and referral compensation. The Task Force must submit its recommendations to the State Bar Board of Trustees before December 31, 2019.

As any effective rule changes remain years away, lawyers must be aware of and comply with the current rules that restrict lawyers seeking to collaborate with and use technology from non-lawyer businesses. The Rules of Professional Conduct are often implicated when lawyers collaborate with non-lawyer businesses offering technology-driven legal services and software. These rules include those premised on harm to clients that flows from incompetent legal service (Rule 1.1), non-lawyer ownership of law offices and the unauthorized practice of law (Rules 5.4 and 5.5), and the dissemination of biased and/or misleading information (Rules 7.1-7.3).

To the extent that lawyers violate any of the aforementioned rules by using technology-driven legal services and software offered by non-lawyer businesses, they may be subject to State Bar discipline.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].

As of 1/1/19 California Lawyers & Clients Going To Mediation Have To Sign This

Posted on: December 19th, 2018

By: Greg Fayard

Come January 1, 2019, California lawyers who participate in mediations will need to provide written disclosures to their clients explaining mediation confidentiality. Further, California lawyers must get written acknowledgment from clients that they understand mediation confidentiality before participating in mediation. This requirement does not apply to class actions, however. The new law is a new statute in the Evidence Code pertaining to mediations–Section 1129.

The following disclosure satisfies the new law, so long as it is in 12-point font, in the preferred language of the client, and on a stand-alone, single page. Both the attorney and client have to sign and date the disclosure.

Mediation Disclosure Notification & Acknowledgment

To promote communication in mediation, California law generally makes mediation a confidential process. California’s mediation confidentiality laws are laid out in Sections 703.5 and 1115 to 1129, inclusive, of the Evidence Code. Those laws establish the confidentiality of mediation and limit the disclosure, admissibility, and a court’s consideration of communications, writings, and conduct in connection with a mediation. In general, those laws mean the following:

  • All communications, negotiations, or settlement offers in the course of a mediation must remain confidential.
  • Statements made and writings prepared in connection with a mediation are not admissible or subject to discovery or compelled disclosure in noncriminal proceedings.
  • A mediator’s report, opinion, recommendation, or finding about what occurred in a mediation may not be submitted to or considered by a court or another adjudicative body.
  • A mediator cannot testify in any subsequent civil proceeding about any communication or conduct occurring at, or in connection with, a mediation.

This means that all communications between you and your attorney made in preparation for a mediation, or during a mediation, are confidential and cannot be disclosed or used (except in extremely limited circumstances), even if you later decide to sue your attorney for malpractice because of something that happens during the mediation.

 

I, _____________ [Name of Client], understand that, unless all participants agree otherwise, no oral or written communication made during a mediation, or in preparation for a mediation, including communications between me and my attorney, can be used as evidence in any subsequent noncriminal legal action including an action against my attorney for malpractice or an ethical violation.

NOTE: This disclosure and signed acknowledgment does not limit your attorney’s potential liability to you for professional malpractice, or prevent you from (1) reporting any professional misconduct by your attorney to the State Bar of California or (2) cooperating with any disciplinary investigation or criminal prosecution of your attorney.

(Signature)

[Name of Client] [Date signed]

(Signature)

[Name of Attorney] [Date signed]”

 

This disclosure must be provided to clients and signed as soon as reasonably possible before the client agrees to mediate. However, not obtaining a proper signed acknowledgment from a client is not a basis to set aside an agreement prepared for, in the course of, or pursuant to mediation. (Evid. Code, § 1129, subd. (e)). Attorneys can be disciplined for not complying with the new law, however. (Evid. Code, § 1122,, subd. (a)(3)).

What prompted this new law? First, it addresses the lack of client awareness of confidentiality at mediation. Second, attorneys were able to avoid mediation professional liability claims through the cloak of confidentiality. To address attorneys escaping mediation liability claims, a communication, document or writing related to the attorney’s compliance with the new law is admissible in an attorney disciplinary proceeding (unless the document discloses something said or done during mediation).

In sum: If a California lawyer plans to mediate, he or she should prepare the above disclosure and calendar the client’s prompt signature before the mediation.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

Yelp Can’t Be Ordered to Remove Defamatory Reviews by A California Lawyer’s Unhappy Former Clients

Posted on: December 3rd, 2018

By: Frank Olah

On July 2, 2018, in Hassell v. Bird (2018) 5 Cal.5th 522, the California Supreme Court held that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits courts from ordering Yelp to remove defamatory consumer reviews posted by an attorney’s former client.

Section 230 states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Moreover, “[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”  (Section 230(e)(3).)

The Hassell court held that Section 230’s broad immunity protects “interactive computer services” such as Yelp from defamation liability even in circumstances where Yelp was not itself sued for defamation. The court reasoned that a defamed plaintiff should not be able to avoid the immunity protections of Section 230 by intentionally not naming Yelp as a defendant. Instead, some defamed plaintiffs tried to circumvent Section 230’s immunity by enforcing a judgment against the defamer defendant, and then using the judgment and injunction to remove the defamatory Yelp posts. Such a strategic end-run around Section 230 is not permitted.

In June 2012, Ava Bird hired attorney Dawn Hassell to prosecute a personal injury lawsuit. After a few months, Hassell concluded Bird was unhappy and withdrew. Bird posted negative reviews on Yelp about Hassell’s lawyering skills. Hassell asked Bird to remove them; Bird declined. Hassell proceeded to sue only Bird for libel.

After a default prove-up hearing, the trial court entered judgment for Hassell for $557,919 in damages, apparently caused by three one-star Yelp reviews. The trial court also ordered both Bird and Yelp to remove the three defamatory reviews. Upon being served with the court’s order, Yelp moved to set aside and vacate the default judgment. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed. It found the removal order did not did not impose any “liability” on Yelp, as that term is used in Section 230(e)(3), since the default judgment and damages were against Bird and not Yelp.

The California Supreme Court reversed. It observed that the “immunity provisions within section 230 have been widely and consistently interpreted to confer broad immunity against defamation liability for those who use the Internet to publish information that originated from another source.” (Id. at 535.) It found that “lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content—are barred.” The Court found that Section 230 confers “blanket immunity from tort liability for online republication of third party content.” The Court reasoned that subjecting companies like Yelp to defamation liability for the republication of online content would tend to chill online speech. This chilling effect could materialize in the high costs for companies like Yelp of having to investigate potentially defamatory postings.

The Court found that Yelp was being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews. The Court concluded that Hassell’s legal remedies lay solely against Bird, and could not extend to Yelp. Notably, the Court ruled that Hassell had powerful remedies available to her, i.e. “the judgment requires Bird to undertake, at a minimum, reasonable efforts to secure the removal of her posts. A failure to comply with a lawful court order is a form of civil contempt… the consequences of which can include imprisonment.”

On October 18, 2018, Hassell filed a petition for writ of certiorari urging the United States Supreme Court to review the decision, which she argue renders California courts powerless to compel companies like Yelp to remove clearly unlawful content. Apparently, Hassell is not convinced that pursuing a contempt order against Bird and demanding that her former client be thrown in jail will improve her Yelp rating.

One criticism of the Hassell Court’s reasoning is its naïve willingness to adopt the fiction that Yelp is just a folksy old-fashioned newspaper publisher exercising a publisher’s traditional editorial functions. The reality is that Yelp applies its own judgment to award star ratings to businesses. In this case, Hassell claimed that the manner in which Yelp utilized Bird’s reviews caused its rating to drop to 4.5 stars. The trial court had observed that Yelp featured one of Bird’s defamatory reviews as a “Recommended Review” and that Yelp had not factored many positive reviews into Hassell’s overall rating. That is to say, Yelp promoted Bird’s negative reviews and gave them greater weight than many more positive reviews causing Hassell’s star-rating to drop.  And the lower Yelp star-rating caused Hassell to lose business.

Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will not want to parse the issue so finely. But Congress may wish to consider whether it makes sense to update Section 230 to allow a company like Yelp to be compelled to remove postings that the original poster was ordered to remove.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Frank Olah at [email protected].

Is “But-For” Causation In California Legal Malpractice Cases In Jeopardy?

Posted on: September 18th, 2018

By: Gretchen Carner & Brett Safford

California attorneys sued for fraud and intentional torts, as opposed to negligent legal malpractice, may be subjected to a different causation standard after the California Court of Appeal’s recent opinion in Knutson v. Foster (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1075.  The opinion has caused somewhat of a stir.  “But-for” causation and the “case-within-the-case” analysis are concepts used in virtually every lawsuit by a former client against his or her attorney.  It is axiomatic that a plaintiff, to establish a claim against his or her former attorney, must show that but for the conduct of the attorney, plaintiff would have achieved a better result.

Knutson modifies the causation analysis for certain claims against attorneys. Knutson held that the “but-for” standard should not be used when an attorney is sued by his or her former client for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty. The Knutson court premised its reversal of the trial court on a supposed distinction between the “but-for” and substantial factor causation tests. In addition, the Knutson court appears to have abandoned the well-established “case-within-the-case analysis.”

In Knutson, Plaintiff Dagny Knutson filed a lawsuit against her former attorney Richard Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Knutson’s claims against Foster arose from his handling of her claim for breach of oral contract against USA Swimming.

Knutson, an internationally ranked swimmer in high school, committed to Auburn University on a full athletic scholarship.  She selected Auburn because Paul Yetter, one of its swimming coaches, was considered an expert in the individual medley, Knutson’s specialty event.  However, in March 2010, the head coach of USA Swimming Mark Schubert told Knutson that Yetter was leaving Auburn and advised her to swim professionally instead of attending Auburn or another university.  Schubert then orally promised her that she would receive training at USA Swimming’s “Center for Excellence” in Fullerton, California as well as room, board, tuition, and a stipend.  The agreement was to last through 2016—after the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Notably, the oral agreement did not include “performance markers,” which Knutson would have to meet to retain her benefits.  Knutson accepted the offer and hired a sports agent.  However, only a few months after moving to Fullerton, USA Swimming terminated Schubert’s employment.

At the suggestion of her agent, Knutson hired attorney Foster after she stopped receiving money from USA Swimming.  Yet, Foster did not disclose to Knutson his close personal ties with high-level persons in the aquatics industry or that he had well-established relationships USA Swimming and other swimming organizations.  Foster also did not disclose that he represented Schubert in 2006, or that following Schubert’s termination from USA Swimming in 2010, he refused to represent Schubert in a wrongful termination action because “he did not want to have a negative relationship with USA Swimming in the future.”

Foster, on behalf of his client, Knutson, ultimately reached a settlement with USA Swimming.  The settlement agreement provided tuition from January to December 2012, but between 2013 and 2016, all payments were contingent upon “perform markers,” i.e., Knutson maintaining a top 25 ranking in the world or a top three ranking in the United States.

After learning of Foster’s conflicts of interest, Knutson sued Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury found in favor of Knutson on both causes of action, but the trial court granted Foster’s motion for new trial on the grounds that Knudson “failed to adduce evidence of causation and that the jury’s award of damages was excessive.” The trial court also denied Foster’s motion on two other grounds.  Both Knutson and Foster filed notices of appeal.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erroneously applied the “but-for” test for causation instead of the “substantial factor” test.  The Court explained, “Here, the trial court recognized the different standards of causation between legal malpractice claims and fraud claims, but nevertheless erroneously applied the malpractice standard of causation to the fraudulent concealment claim.  Although the court referred to the substantial factor for causation, it used and applied the but for test.”  After identifying Foster’s alleged concealments and breaches of loyalty, the court then concluded that “[a] substantial factor in Knutson’s decision to enter into the settlement agreement was Foster’s fraudulent concealment of the foregoing facts” and breaches of his fiduciary “caused Knutson harm initially by failing to provide her with all the information needed to make an informed decision about entering into the settlement agreement with USA Swimming and failing to ensure that Knutson’s best interests were being protected by Foster during the negotiations.”

The Court’s analysis in Knutson is problematic because it blurs the relationship between the “but-for” test of causation applied in legal malpractice claims and the “substantial factor” test of causation applied in intentional tort claims.  The “but-for” test has long been the appropriate causation standard for legal malpractice claims.  As explained by the California Supreme Court in Viner v. Sweet (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1232, “In a litigation malpractice action, the plaintiff must establish that but for the alleged negligence of the defendant attorney, the plaintiff would have obtained a more favorable judgment or settlement in the action in which the malpractice allegedly occurred. The purpose of this requirement, which has been in use for more than 120 years, is to safeguard against speculative and conjectural claims.”  (Id. at p. 1241, emphasis added.)  “This method of presenting a legal malpractice lawsuit is commonly called a trial within a trial.” (Blanks v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 336, 357.)  The “substantial factor” test requires that the “the plaintiff to establish ‘a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it was more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in the result.’ ” (Lysick v. Walcom (1968) 258 Cal.App.2d 136, 153, emphasis added.)

Knutson is a significant case because it not only contains a confusing analysis of the distinction between “but-for” causation and “substantial factor” causation, but it could also be read to dispose of the “case-within-the-case” analysis for claims against an attorney for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Review by the California Supreme Court is warranted to address the confusion Knutson creates.  Until then, it should be argued that Knutson is an outlier case which can be distinguished on its specific facts.  We will be keeping a close eye on this one.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Gretchen Carner at [email protected] or Brett Safford at [email protected].