April 26, 2010
Another Disqualification Overturned
The Maine Supreme Court vacated a judgment disqualifying a Washington, D.C. law firm in a matter in which an employee claimed a hostile and discriminatory work environment while employed at the Maine Education Association.
The Association hired the law firm to conduct an investigation of the employee's allegations. The employee was interviewed by a firm attorney with her own counsel present. The attorney advised the employee that he did not represent the Association but was conducting an independent investigation. The employee claimed, but the interviewing attorney denied, that she was assured of confidentiality. The attorney later substantiated the employee's allegations of discrimination.
When the employee filed a complaint against the Association, two other law firm attorneys entered an appearance as pro hac vice counsel. The attorney who had interviewed the employee had departed. The trial court granted the employee's motion to disqualify the law firm in the litigation.
Here, the court concluded that the moving party has the burden of establishing an affirmative ethical rule violation that would result in actual prejudice. General allegations will not suffice. The trial court must make express findings in that regard. The moving party had "failed to point to any particular prejudice she has suffered or will suffer and...the [trial] court made no such finding of actual prejudice."
A concurring justice would find the question closer than the majority and views it as "better practice not to have the same firm perform a discrimination investigation and represent the employer in any resulting litigation."
A dissenting justice would affirm the disqualification order, concluding that the interviewing attorney had misled the employee into believing he was an independent investigator and had disclosed information to the employer in violation of his commitment to her. The dissent also concluded that the attorney-investigator may be a necessary trial witness. (Mike Frisch)
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