Wednesday, June 1, 2016
The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the disqualification of local and national counsel in an action brought against O. F. Mossberg & Sons as a result of a brief consultation with the plaintiff.
The District Court disqualified Mossberg’s out-of-state counsel, Renzulli Law Firm, and its local counsel, Tarlow & Stonecipher, pursuant to Rule 1.20(c) of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct. The basis for the court’s disqualification order was a prospective client consultation that Luke Keuffer had with an attorney from Tarlow & Stonecipher, which was later used in a deposition of Stephanie Keuffer by John Renzulli of the Renzulli Law Firm. The court found that the continued involvement in the case by Mossberg’s counsel gave the Keuffers reason to question whether their case can proceed fairly and cause to question what they may have disclosed in the consultation to Tarlow & Stonecipher that may later be used against them in the current litigation. The court also found that Mossberg’s counsel’s actions undermine the public’s trust in the legal profession. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the District Court’s order disqualifying Renzulli and Tarlow & Stonecipher.
Luke and Stephanie were out hunting. She had a Mossberg rifle.
The Keuffers allege that the Mossberg rifle fell and struck Luke’s rifle and then discharged and shot Luke in the face, causing serious and permanent injury. On August 10, 2010, Luke called Tarlow & Stonecipher, PLLC, and spoke to attorney Margaret Weamer “regarding [Luke’s] possible claim against [a] gun manufacturer for injuries sustained in [a] hunting accident.” Weamer’s time record indicates that she spoke with Luke for six to twelve minutes. After discussing the case with Luke, Weamer advised him that Tarlow & Stonecipher would not be interested in taking the case.
The issue came to light at a deposition and led to a disqualification motion
The court found that Renzulli improperly used the Keuffers’ consultation against them during Stephanie’s deposition. The court found that the purpose of Renzulli’s questioning was to intimidate the Keuffers and create an impression they have a bad case. The court indicated the uniqueness of the situation as Renzulli did not use “information learned” from the consultation, but used the fact that the consultation occurred. The court concluded that this was equally a violation of the Rules because Renzulli used the consultation to intimidate and create an adverse inference about the Keuffers’ case. The District Court disqualified Mossberg’s counsel because their actions defeat the purpose of the Rules of Professional Conduct which threatens the public’s trust in the legal system.
In this case...Renzulli consciously used the information learned in Luke’s consultation with Tarlow & Stonecipher for tactical litigation purposes.
The majority concluded that the trial court had not abused its discretion in ordering disqualification.
Justice Beth Baker dissented
The District Court found that Mossberg’s counsel did not use or reveal information learned from the phone conversation in violation of Rule 1.20(b). The court concluded, however, that there was “no reason why the rule should not be equally applicable when an attorney uses the fact that they consulted with a party and declined to represent that party to intimidate that party or to create an adverse inference about that party’s case.” The court concluded further that “knowing that certain information was not disclosed may be just as harmful as information that was disclosed.” The District Court made no finding that Luke disclosed information that could be significantly harmful to him in the case, and acknowledged that “it is not clear what information was disclosed/learned during Luke’s 6-12 minute consultation with Weamer.” It found nonetheless that “defense counsel used the fact that a consultation even occurred against the [Keuffers] in a significantly harmful manner...
Here, Renzulli used Luke’s communication with Weamer during his deposition of Stephanie as a litigation tactic to imply that the Keuffers had a weak case. Renzulli’s questioning demonstrated a lack of professional, courteous, and civil attitude toward not only the Keuffers, but to the legal system. Renzulli’s attempt to harass and intimidate the Keuffers was out of bounds. Even though the District Court found as a matter of fact that Renzulli did not reveal any specific information that Luke divulged to Weamer, the District Court properly recognized that Luke’s communication to Tarlow & Stonecipher of “the facts” that prompted him to seek legal assistance was not to be “used” against him by counsel for the adverse party. Accord Perry, ¶¶ 29-30 (analyzing whether an attorney violated her duty of confidentiality to a prospective client). See also M. R. Prof. Cond. Preamble ¶ 18. Renzulli acknowledged that he was attempting to do just that by suggesting that the Keuffers had to shop the case around before they could find a lawyer who was willing to take it...
The interests of Renzulli’s client—about whom the Court is noticeably silent— also are entitled to consideration before disqualifying counsel of its choice. Recognizing that a party “must not be lightly separated from her counsel of choice,” we have suggested that disqualification of counsel should not be used for punitive purposes.
Justice Laurie McKinnon also dissented
In my opinion, the District Court abused its discretion in imposing the severe remedy of disqualification, particularly given that the relationship between a prospective client and a lawyer do not impose duties as stringent as between an actual and/or former client and his lawyer. Imposition of such a severe remedy as disqualification should be sparingly imposed, in light of its significant effect in disrupting litigation...Under the circumstances here, disqualification of Mossberg’s counsel was an abuse of discretion when the District Court could have simply precluded the offensive line of questioning by both Renzuilli and Tarlow & Stonecipher and thereby maintained the integrity of the proceeding. The public’s trust in the legal system in not undermined when a trial court perceives an abuse by counsel and corrects it by a fair, proportionate, and measured remedy.