Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Remand Of Covington & Burling Disqualification Order
The Minesota Supreme Court has remanded the order that had disqualified Covington & Burling in civil litigation
This case presents several issues regarding disqualification of legal counsel because of a violation of Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 1.9(a) arising from a conflict of interest with a former client. These issues include who has standing to appeal a district court order granting a motion to disqualify, the legal standard for determining whether Rule 1.9(a) has been violated, and whether the right to seek disqualification can be waived. Appellant State of Minnesota retained appellant Covington & Burling, LLP (Covington) to represent it in a natural resource damages (NRD) case against respondent 3M Company involving the manufacture and disposal of perfluorochemicals (PFCs). Covington previously had represented 3M in legal and regulatory matters related to 3M’s fluorochemicals (FC) business from 1992 to 2006. Covington first appeared on behalf of the State in this action in January 2011. In October 2012, the district court granted 3M’s disqualification motion. Both the State and Covington appealed. The court of appeals dismissed Covington’s appeal for lack of standing and affirmed the disqualification of Covington. We granted Covington’s and the State’s respective petitions for review. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court.
Here, the district court concluded, based on the evidence in the record, that Covington obtained confidential information in its prior representation of 3M, and the district court presumed that the information was shared with all Covington attorneys. But the district court did not meaningfully assess Covington’s claims that this information was no longer confidential either because the information had been disclosed to regulatory authorities and the public or because 3M waived the attorney-client privilege by initiating a separate, concurrent lawsuit against Covington for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. The district court also did not analyze whether there is a substantial risk that any remaining confidential information would materially advance the State’s position in the NRD case. Therefore, the district court abused its discretion by failing to consider all legally relevant factors before concluding that the matters are substantially related...
Because we conclude that the district court did not consider legally relevant factors in conducting its disqualification analysis under Rule 1.9(a) and we conclude that a party can waive the right to seek disqualification of opposing counsel, we remand this case to the district court for its full consideration of these issues in a manner consistent with this opinion. The decision whether to reopen the record on remand rests within the discretion of the district court.
The ABA Journal had reported the trial court's order. (Mike Frisch)