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Delaware Federal Court Examines Motions to Disqualify Opposing Counsel

M. Denise Tolliver v. Trinity Parish Foundation, et al.
Case No. 14-1021-LPS (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, August 31, 2016)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/lps/2016/august/14-1021.pdf

M. Denise Tolliver v. Trinity Parish Foundation, et al.involved a Plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration of a Court order denying her motion to disqualify opposing counsel in her employment discrimination lawsuit on the basis that the Court had improperly analyzed her motion to disqualify under Model Rule of Professional Conduct (“M.R.P.C.”) 1.10(b), which addresses situations in which a conflict of interest may be imputed to other lawyers in the same firm with the conflicted lawyer, rather than M.R.P.C. 1.9, which addresses duties owed by lawyers to former clients. The U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware explained that Rules 1.9 and 1.10(b) both require that the previous case and the current case be substantially related in order to establish a violation, and found that the Court had previously determined that Plaintiff’s prior case which gave rise to the alleged conflict was not substantially related to the instant lawsuit. Accordingly, the Court held that the requirements to establish a violation of Rule 1.9 could not be met. Thus, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.

By way of factual background, on July 28, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware denied Plaintiff M. Denise Tolliver’s (“Plaintiff’s”) motion to disqualify opposing counsel in her employment discrimination lawsuit. Plaintiff subsequently moved for reconsideration on the grounds that a conflict of interest remained based upon information that, when she was represented by Young, Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor LLP (“YCST”), Scott Holt (“Holt”), an attorney at YCST, assisted Plaintiff’s former attorney, Teresa Fariss (“Fariss”), who was no longer employed at YCST. Defendant Trinity Parish Foundation (“Defendant”) opposed Plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the purpose of a motion for reconsideration is to “correct manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered evidence,” and that a motion for reconsideration “is the ‘functional equivalent’ of a motion to alter or amend judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e).” See Max’s Seafood Café ex rel. Lou-Ann, Inc. v. Quinteros, 176 F.3d 669, 677 (3d Cir. 1999); Jones v. Pittsburgh Nat’l Corp., 899 F.2d 1350, 1352 (3d Cir. 1990). The Court explained that “a proper Rule 59(e) motion must rely on one of three (3) grounds: (1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence; or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice.” See Lazaridis v. Wehmer, 591 F.3d 666, 669 (3d Cir. 2010).

Plaintiff contended that reconsideration was appropriate because it had come to her attention that records indicated she last communicated with YCST in person on June 30, 2000, when she was terminated as a client upon her request for representation in a new matter, and not by letter on June 2, 2000, as previously indicated when the Court denied her motion to disqualify opposing counsel. In addition, Plaintiff contended that Holt, who remained employed at YCST, also represented her and, therefore, the Court should have considered her motion under M.R.P.C. 1.9, which addresses duties owed to former clients. Defendant responded that the information Plaintiff referred to was not newly discovered evidence.

The Court noted that it had analyzed Plaintiff’s motion for recusal under M.R.P.C. 1.10(b), which addresses situations in which a conflict of interest may be imputed to other lawyers associated in the same firm with the conflicted lawyer, in this case former attorney Fariss. See M.R.P.C. 1.10(b) (“When a lawyer has terminated an association with a firm, the firm is not prohibited from thereafter representing a person with interests materially adverse to those of a client represented by the formerly associated lawyer and not currently represented by the firm, unless: (1) the matter is the same or substantially related to that which the formerly associated lawyer represented the client; and (2) any lawyer remaining in the firm has [confidential or protected] information… that is material to the matter”); United States v. McDade, 404 F.App’x 681, 683 (3d Cir. 2010) (Rule 1.10 “imputes one attorney’s conflicts to all other attorneys in his firm”). After reviewing the evidence in the record, the Court noted that it was evident from YCST’s letterhead that Holt was an attorney at the firm during the relevant time-frame, yet Plaintiff’s motion for recusal referred only to her representation by Farris, with no mention of Holt, and therefore, the matter was analyzed under M.R.P.C. 1.10(b).

In addition, the Court stated that it had previously determined that the case wherein Fariss represented Plaintiff was not substantially related to the instant lawsuit, noting that there were different defendants in the two (2) cases, that there was no significant factual overlap between the two (2) cases, and that the cases did not involve the same legal dispute, even though both cases raised employment discrimination issues. The Court explained that Rules 1.9 and 1.10(b) both have “a similar requirement that the matters be substantially related in order to establish a violation.” Given the Court’s previous finding that the matters were not substantially related, the Court found that the requirements to establish a violation of Rule 1.9 could not be met. See Apeldyn Corp. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd., 660 F.Supp.2d 557, 561 (D. Del. 2009) (to establish that a representation violates Rule 1.9, four (4) elements must be shown: “(1) the lawyer must have had an attorney-client relationship with the former client; (2) the present client’s matter must either be the same as the matter the lawyer worked on for the first client, or a ‘substantially related’ matter; (3) the interests of the second client must be materially adverse to the interests of the former client; and (4) the former client must not have consented to the representation after consultation”). Accordingly, the Court concluded that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate any grounds to warrant reconsideration of the Court’s Order denying the motion to disqualify. Thus, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.


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