Tuesday, March 6, 2018
The Washington State Court of Appeals Division One holds
An insurance defense lawyer who files a notice of appearance on behalf of an estate may not, after withdrawing from representation of the estate, later act on behalf of another client to remove the personal representative of the estate. The personal representative is a former client, and the lawyer must comply with Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 1.9, either by withdrawing from representation of the other client or obtaining consent from the estate's personal representative. A lawyer who does not comply is properly disqualified for having a conflict of interest.
The case has a complex cast of characters arising from an accident where both drivers were killed and the wife of one was severely injured. The estate of Harris sued the estate of Taylor Griffith (the 16 year old at fault driver), his parents and their insurer.
Moore is an attorney who was appointed personal representative of the estate of Griffith over the parents objection
The court commissioner ruled that given the potential for conflict between the Griffith parents and their son's estate, it was more untenable to appoint one of the parents than to appoint Moore. The commissioner expressed confidence that Moore would recognize his obligation as a fiduciary to be independent and impartial. The commissioner appointed Moore as personal representative by order dated December 8, 2015. The order specifically authorized Moore "to participate in litigation and to settle or assign claims" on behalf of Taylor's estate.
Travelers appointed attorneys Jacquelyn Beatty and Michael King to serve as additional defense counsel. Beatty filed a notice in the wrongful death action associating herself with Jaeger on behalf of the Griffith parents and Taylor's estate. King filed a notice associating with Jaeger as counsel "for defendants."
The parents were dismissed as defendants and the issues narrowed to only damages. The damages issue went to arbitration.
Represented by King, the Griffith parents filed a petition under the Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA), chapter 11.96A ROW, to remove and replace Moore as personal representative. The court consolidated this petition with the pending motion to revise the commissioner's order appointing Moore. Both were set for consideration on April 29, 2016. By motions filed on March 31, 2016, the Harrises alleged that under RPC 1.9, Beatty and King could not continue to represent the Griffith parents. Beatty and King responded that the rule did not apply because Moore was not their former client.
The court on standing
A court's formal finding of a lawyer's rule violation carries with it sufficient potential for adverse consequences to the lawyer to make the ruling appealable by the lawyer. United States v. Talao,222 F.3d 1133, 1138 (9th Cir. 2000). Accordingly, we conclude Beatty and King have standing to appeal the disqualification order. Whether the Griffith parents also have standing need not be decided.
And on the merits
An advisory opinion issued by the Washington State Bar Association addresses the precise situation Beatty and King found themselves in—a potential violation of RPC 1.9 by a lawyer retained by an insurance company:
The Committee reviewed your inquiry wherein you had been retained by an insurer to represent a city and a police officer employed by the city. You filed a Notice of Appearance on behalf of each of those clients. Subsequently, you learned that there was a conflict of interest between the two clients. You ask whether you can continue to represent the city after proper withdrawal from representing the police officer. The Committee was of the opinion that for the purposes of RPC 1.9, the fact that you filed a Notice of Appearance means that the police officer is a former client and you must therefore comply with the requirements of RPC 1.9. WSBA Rules of Profl Conduct Comm., Advisory Op. 1578 (1994) (emphasis added).
We agree with the advice of the Bar. A lawyer appointed by an insurance company to defend two clients, and who files a notice of appearance on behalf of each of them, may not continue to represent only one of those clients without satisfying the requirements of RPC 1.9. Beatty and King could not continue to represent only the Griffith parents without Moore's waiver of the conflict. Because Beatty and King did not comply with the rule, the order disqualifying them was properly entered.