Wednesday, October 11, 2017
A motion to disqualify counsel in litigation arising from the Lod Airport terror attack has been denied without prejudice of Judge Emmet Sullivan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Plaintiff seeks to disqualify Mr. Sher and Mr. Both based on two primary theories: (1) conflicts of interest under D.C. Rules 1.7 and 1.9; and (2) D.C. Rule 3.7's prohibition against a lawyer acting as an advocate when the lawyer is also a necessary witness...
First, plaintiff points to Mr. Sher's role in this matter as both a co-defendant and an attorney representing the Center Defendants. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Sher's dual role violates D.C. Rule 1.7(b)(4), which requires disqualification where a "lawyer's professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer's own financial, business, property, or personal interests." See Mot. at 9-10.
Second, plaintiff argues that Mr. Sher and Mr. Both's prior representation of Dr. Engelberg in the Attorneys' Fees Litigation forecloses their role as counsel for the Center Defendants in this case under D.C. Rule 1.9. See Mot. at 10-12. According to plaintiff, this suit is substantially related to the Attorneys' Fee Litigation and the interests of Dr. Engelberg are now materially adverse to the interests of the Center Defendants.
The court dealt with the standing of a non-client to move to disqualify
Here, plaintiff is not and never has been a client of Mr. Sher or Mr. Both. Rather, plaintiff seeks disqualification of Mr. Sher and Mr. Both based on alleged conflicts of interest between (1) Mr. Sher and his co-defendants and (2) Mr. Sher and Mr. Both's previous and current clients – i.e., Dr. Engelberg and the Center Defendants, respectively. Plaintiff claims he has standing to do so because Mr. Sher and Mr. Both's continued representation of the Center Defendants in this case would so infect the litigation as to impact his interest in the just adjudication of his claims. See Mot. at 7-8. In other words, according to plaintiff, disqualification of opposing counsel is "absolutely necessary to preserve the integrity of the adversary process" and preserve the "fairness of the proceedings." Id. at 7, 13. Plaintiff cites to a number of cases, each of which confirm the principle that counsel must be disqualified where their ethical breaches infect the litigation – but none of which give plaintiff his desired result.
Plaintiff has failed to clear that high bar here. With respect to plaintiff's concern that Mr. Sher's personal interest as a co-defendant will cloud his judgment as an advocate for the Center Defendants, the Court finds compelling that, in their opposition brief, (1) the Center Defendants assert that they have provided consent – after being advised by another attorney – as to Mr. Sher's continued representation; and (2) Mr. Sher maintains that he reasonably believes that he will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to his co-defendants. See Opp. at 8-9; D.C. Rule 1.7(c) (a lawyer may represent a client despite a conflict if "[e]ach potentially affected client provides informed consent" and "[t]he lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client"). Likewise, with respect to the allegations of adversity between the Center Defendants and Dr. Engelberg, Dr. Engelberg himself –the client whose interests are alleged to be harmed – has stated through his counsel that he does not object to Mr. Sher and Mr. Both's role in this case at this stage in the proceedings. See Opp. Ex. C. See also D.C. Rule 1.9 (permitting a lawyer who formerly represented a client to represent another person in a substantially related matter in which that person's interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client if the former client gives informed consent).
In short, notwithstanding plaintiff's claims to the contrary, the Court finds that any alleged conflicts here simply do not rise to the level where they affect the integrity of the proceedings or threaten plaintiff's right to a just determination of his claims. Accordingly, plaintiff lacks standing to seek disqualification of Mr. Sher and Mr. Both on conflict-of-interest grounds.
A non-client has standing to raise the Rule 3.7 issue, which the court held was premature. (Mike Frisch)