Thursday, July 23, 2015
An interesting decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concludes that document review is not the practice of law under the facts of the case.
The litigation involves a contract attorney suing Skadden Arps and Tower Legal Staffing under the Federal Labor Standards Act
Lola, a North Carolina resident, alleges that beginning in April 2012, he worked for Defendants for fifteen months in North Carolina. He conducted document review for Skadden in connection with a multi‐district litigation pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Lola is an attorney licensed to practice law in California, but he is not admitted to practice law in either North Carolina or the Northern District of Ohio.
We agree with the district court that: (1) state, not federal, law informs FLSA’s definition of “practice of law;” and (2) North Carolina, as the place where Lola worked and lived, has the greatest interest in this litigation, and thus we look to North Carolina law to determine if Lola was practicing law within the meaning of FLSA. However, we disagree with the district court’s conclusion, on a motion to dismiss, that by undertaking the document review Lola allegedly was hired to conduct, Lola was necessarily “practicing law” within the meaning of North Carolina law.
The court explains
The district court erred in concluding that engaging in document review per se constitutes practicing law in North Carolina. The ethics opinion does not delve into precisely what type of document review falls within the practice of law, but does note that while “reviewing documents” may be within the practice of law, “[f]oreign assistants may not exercise independent 10 legal judgment in making decisions on behalf of a client.” N.C. State Bar Ethics 11 Committee, 2007 Formal Ethics Op. 12. The ethics opinion strongly suggests that inherent in the definition of “practice of law” in North Carolina is the exercise of at least a modicum of independent legal judgment...
The gravamen of Lola’s complaint is that he performed document review under such tight constraints that he exercised no legal judgment whatsoever—he alleges that he used criteria developed by others to simply sort documents into different categories. Accepting those allegations as true, as we must on a motion to dismiss, we find that Lola adequately alleged in his complaint that he failed to exercise any legal judgment in performing his duties for Defendants. A fair reading of the complaint in the light most favorable to Lola is that he provided services that a machine could have provided. The parties themselves agreed at oral argument that an individual who, in the course of reviewing discovery documents, undertakes tasks that could otherwise be performed entirely by a machine cannot be said to engage in the practice of law.
Thanks to a faithful reader for sending this opinion. (Mike Frisch)