Friday, January 20, 2023
The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned an order disqualifying counsel in litigation
This case presents an issue of first impression: whether an attorney’s representation of a general partnership creates an implied attorney-client relationship between the attorney and the individual members of the general partnership, and, if so, whether the Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct prohibiting communication by a lawyer with an individual represented by other legal counsel was violated. James L. Pettis, III, attorney for the plaintiff, appeals an order of the chancery court disqualifying him for a violation of Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, which prohibits a lawyer from communicating with a person they know to be represented about the subject of the representation. After a careful review of the law, this Court reverses the chancery court’s order, renders a judgment in favor of Pettis, and remands for further proceedings.
Newell Simrall, IV (“Newell”), John Karsten Simrall (“Karsten”) and Catherine Rea Leist n/k/a Catherine Rea Ray (“Rea”) are siblings and shareholders in the closely held Mississippi corporation B.N. Simrall & Son, Inc. (“the Corporation”). On April 1, 2010, Karsten and Rea, along with Dorman Dewayne Leist, entered into an amended partnership agreement for the general partnership Simrall & Simrall (“the Partnership”). In December of 2012, Newell, represented by J. Lawson Hester (“Hester”), filed a lawsuit (“the underlying litigation”) in the chancery court of Warren County, naming as defendants Karsten, the Corporation, the Partnership, and several other entities connected to Karsten. Penny Lawson (“Lawson”) represented all named defendants in the underlying litigation.
James L. Pettis, III (“Pettis”), was the law partner of Hester and had represented Newell in various matters over the years. In 2011, prior to the commencement of the underlying litigation, Pettis represented Newell in the negotiation of a stock purchase and land-transfer agreement (“the Agreement”) with Karsten. The alleged breach of the Agreement formed part of the basis for the underlying litigation. Although Pettis was involved in the negotiation of the Agreement, he was not retained to represent, nor did he enter an appearance on behalf of Newell in the underlying litigation.
Rea withdrew from the partnership while the litigation was pending
Sometime in 2019, two years after Rea had disassociated from the Partnership, Rea became aware that Karsten was attempting to sell land belonging to the Corporation. At Newell’s request, Rea and Newell met with Pettis on April 8, 2019, in his office to discuss the attempted sale. On April 11, 2019, Rea spoke with Lawson via telephone and informed her that she had met with Pettis. Pettis met Rea a second time when he attended the meeting of the shareholders and board of directors of the Corporation at Rea’s home on April 15, 2019. At both meetings with Rea, Pettis asked whether she was represented by Lawson or any other attorney in the underlying litigation. Rea responded on both occasions that she was not represented by anyone, nor did she wish to seek representation in connection with the underlying litigation. Both Rea and Pettis submitted affidavits stating they only discussed how to prevent the sale of the Corporation’s land by Karsten and that Rea was not represented by counsel in connection with the underlying litigation.
The trial court had disqualified Pettis
We hold that the chancery court erred by finding an attorney-client relationship existed between Lawson and Rea. Additionally, presuming such a relationship did exist, there was no evidence of knowledge or discussion of illicit subject matter which would provide the grounds for Pettis’s disqualification.
No implied attorney-client relationship on these facts
The representation of a general partnership by an attorney does not automatically give rise to an attorney-client relationship between the attorney and any of the individual partners.
Even if an attorney-client relationship had arisen between Rea and Lawson, the chancery court erred by disqualifying Pettis because there was no evidence concerning the knowledge and subject matter requirements of Rule 4.2 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 4.2 states that “[i]n representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a party the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so.” Miss. R. Pro. Conduct 4.2 (emphasis added). The comment to Rule 4.2 specifically states that the rule does not bar communications with a party “concerning matters outside the representation.” Miss. R. Pro. Conduct 4.2 cmt. The only finding the chancery court made was that “[Rea] is no longer a partner of the partnership but was a partner when Plaintiff’s Complaint was filed in 2012[,] . . . that Penny Lawson represented the general partnership and its individual members,” and that Pettis “violated the Rules of Mississippi Professional Conduct by conducting meetings with [Rea], a represented person.”
Although not explicitly argued by the parties, as Hester’s law partner, Pettis’s disqualification does not fall under Rule 1.10 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct as an imputed disqualification of a law firm due to a conflict of interest because the chancellor only made a finding that Pettis violated Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, not that a conflict of interest existed. Hester’s disqualification was within the jurisdiction and authority of the chancery court because he was engaged in practices and proceedings before the court as Newell’s attorney in the underlying litigation. Because Rea was not a party to the underlying litigation and because Pettis did not represent Newell in the litigation, no conflict of interest existed. Therefore, this Court finds the disqualification of Pettis under the theory of an imputed disqualification as a member of Hester’s law firm to be untenable.