Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Court Must Address "Plausible Claim" of Conflict of Interest

A trial court erred in granting summary judgment and treating as moot a motion to disqualify counsel, according to an opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The district court erred in the sequence in which it rendered its decisions. Because a claim of counsel’s conflict of interest calls into question the integrity of the process in which the allegedly conflicted counsel participates, the court should resolve a motion to disqualify counsel before it turns to the merits of any dispositive motion. That procedure was not followed here. We therefore vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its denial of the motion to disqualify and remand this case for further proceedings. Because the district court will decide in the first instance whether there was a conflict of interest or an appearance of such a conflict in violation of applicable ethics rules and, if so, will determine the appropriate remedy, we offer only limited guidance on the remaining issues the parties briefed and leave to the district court to decide them in view of its ruling on the merits of the motion to disqualify.

The case involves a death at a notorious juvenile facility. 

The court found the legal response to the death was less than a model of efficiency.

Our legal system is not at its finest when a mother’s case seeking redress for the sudden and violent death in government custody of her healthy teenaged son is lost in a muddle of scheduling inattention, miscommunication, and lack of follow-up. Oak Hill juvenile detention facility was for decades notorious for overcrowding, inhumane and unsafe conditions, and unresponsiveness to the needs of incarcerated youth. The District of Columbia faced class action litigation over its failings at Oak Hill, entered a consent decree requiring court-appointed monitors, and violated the decree so systematically for so long that it paid millions of dollars in court-ordered fines. Oak Hill was the subject of critical findings by the Inspector General, a mayoral Blue Ribbon Commission, a court-ordered monitor, witnesses before the D.C. Council and Congress, and was ultimately put under a court-ordered receivership. The District closed Oak Hill in 2009. That is the facility where Karl Grimes died...

...there is more reason here than in the typical case for concern that the facts have not been discovered. It is rare that a violent death occurs against a backdrop of seemingly relevant, severe, and systemic problems, yet—at least as the record reflects—so little is done to investigate.

As to the grounds to disqualify counsel for the District of Columbia

The district court erred in failing to consider Grimes’s motion to disqualify counsel for the District of Columbia before ruling on the government’s summary judgment motion. The basis of Grimes’s response to the government’s motion for summary judgment was that Peter Nickels, then the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, had a conflict of interest disqualifying him from appearing as counsel, even ex officio, on this case. As Attorney General, Nickels was the lead signatory on the government’s briefs in this case in the district court. Grimes’s assertions of conflict of interest arose when her counsel learned that, before he became Attorney General, Nickels had represented a class of plaintiffs that included plaintiff’s decedent Karl Grimes in a lawsuit claiming overcrowding and unsafe conditions, and seeking systemic reform at the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility where Grimes later died.

The court was required to deal with the conflicts issue once a "plausible claim" of a conflict was raised

Once a party moves to disqualify an adverse party’s counsel, the district court may not entertain a dispositive motion filed by the very counsel alleged to be conflicted until the court has first determined whether that counsel is disqualified.

And the conflict issue was not properly considered

Despite his name appearing on all the district court papers and his role as the chief legal officer for the District of Columbia, the government contends that Attorney General Nickels did “not serve as counsel.” Nothing in the factual record here rebuts the presumption that a lawyer whose name appears on a paper filed in court bears some responsibility for it. There is no evidence that, for example, the Attorney General’s Office instituted measures to insulate Nickels from supervisory or other participation in this litigation.

Judge Pillard wrote for the court. (Mike Frisch)


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