March 29, 2004
1 Issue: What action, if any, may a lawyer for an employer ethically undertake on behalf of a vanished former employee who, along with the employer, has been named as a defendant in an action arising when the person was an employee?
2 Answer: Under certain narrowly prescribed conditions, an employer’s lawyer may ethically take limited action to protect the interests of the vanished former employee, provided the lack of direct contact with that defendant is brought to the attention of the relevant tribunal.
3 Facts: Plaintiff filed suit naming a company and its former employee as defendants. The employer concedes that the former employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment and has asked the company’s lawyers to represent the missing defendant. Absence of a formal answer to the complaint may result in a default judgment being entered against the absent former employee. We have no information about the reasons for the employee’s absence, but we assume that a reasonable effort has been made to locate the person and determine the reason for the absence. We also assume that, at this early stage of the proceeding, the interests of the employer and former employee are not in conflict.1The lawyer requesting this opinion also indicated that the employer has liability insurance that covers the incident giving rise to the lawsuit.2The company has requested that the lawyer represent the missing ex-employee.
4 Analysis: This case presents two fundamental, but competing ethical principles: On the one hand, a basic ingredient of the representation of a client is that, under Rule 1.4, the lawyer communicate with the client, keep the client informed about the status of the case, and provide sufficient information to the client that he may make informed decision.3On the other hand, lawyers have a general obligation to advance the administration of justice.4
5 A formal application of Rule 1.4, without reference to any other parts of the Rules of Professional Conduct, would produce the following syllogism: The lawyer hasn’t communicated with the absent ex-employee and cannot formally satisfy the requirements of Rule 1.4; a violation of Rule 1.4 constitutes an ethical transgression; ergo, the lawyer may not ethically represent the ex-employee. Yet, we find this result inconsistent with the greater public policy of providing safeguards for an individual’s rights to the extent practicable and when it can be done without infringing on the rights of others. After all, the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct are “rules of reason . . . [that] should be interpreted with reference to the purpose of legal representation.”5
6 Further, before a mechanical application of Rule 1.4 to the absent defendant leads us to conclude that lack of initial attorney-client communication mandates no representation, we consider the intent of Rule 1.4. It is constructed around the normal relationship of an attorney-client contact already having been established and provides the guidelines that require a lawyer to keep that client properly informed “to the extent the client is willing and able” to be so informed.6Here, for reasons that are not known—and perhaps not contemplated by the drafters and adopters of the Rules—the (prospective) client is not “willing and able.” Without further analysis, we, therefore, decline to conclude that Rule 1.4 prevents all forms of representation of the missing employee.