Thursday, September 30, 2021

Kentucky Rejects Non-Client Standing To Seek Disqualification

The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed a disqualification of defense counsel in medical malpractice matters, holding that opposing parties (as here) have no standing to seek disqualification

Consistent with these authorities, and our reading of the pertinent Rules of Professional Conduct, we conclude a general requirement exists that to raise a conflict of interest and seek disqualification of counsel, a party must be a current or former client of the attorney against whom disqualification is sought.

We need not—and do not today—determine whether a non-client may ever have standing to assert an alleged conflict of opposing counsel. However, in our view, a non-client’s standing to raise an alleged conflict of interest by opposing counsel is questionable at best. Absent an unethical change of sides or a violation so open and obvious it compels a court to act, the ability of a non-client to “champion the rights” of an opponent typically does not exist. See FMC Technologies, Inc. v. Edwards, 420 F. Supp. 2d 1153, 1156 (W.D. Wash. 2006) (citing In re Yarn, 530 F.2d at 89). No such circumstances are present in this case sufficient to confer standing on Appellees. The trial court and the Court of Appeals erred in not so finding.

Further, the Appellees’ continually shifting reasoning and their failure to point to a single issue of fact revealing an actual conflict after years of litigation exposes the weakness of their position. It further reveals the true purpose of the motions: to gain a tactical advantage and wrest control of attorney selection from the opposition. Morgan-White’s own affidavit states she files disqualification motions in every case where an attorney represents multiple parties, regardless of whether she believes an actual conflict exists. This is the very sort of weaponizing which should be avoided.

We are convinced Appellants have shown all parties represented by Effinger and Piekarski have agreed to joint representation and a unified defense has been and continues to be asserted against all of Appellees’ claims. There appear to be no factual, legal, or strategic conflicts among any of Effinger and Piekarski’s clients. Although the trial court and Appellees can conjure potential scenarios where conflicting interests might possibly emerge, that is simply not enough. The appearance-of-impropriety standard was rejected in Marcum wherein this Court held “there should be something more substantive than just a possible conflict before disqualification takes place.” 457 S.W.3d at 717. Thus, contrary to the holdings of the trial court and the Court of Appeals, even if Appellees had standing to raise an alleged conflict—which they do not—we discern no issue exists here warranting the draconian sanction of attorney disqualification. The trial court’s disqualification orders were improper and writs of prohibition barring their enforcement is the appropriate remedy.

(Mike Frisch)

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