Ethics Advisory Opinion 15-02

Utah State Bar

Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee

Opinion Number 15-02

Issued February 10, 2015

 

PROPRIETY OF EX PARTE CONTACT WITH INDIVIDUALS WITHIN AN ORGANIZATION

ISSUE

1.  May an attorney representing a party in pending or existing litigation contact servants, agents, and employees of an organization, which is the opposing party, to discuss issues directly related to the litigation, if the attorney is aware the organization is represented by counsel in the matter?  Is it ethical for an attorney to make contact directly with in-house or corporate counsel, even if the attorney is aware that the organization is represented by outside counsel in the matter?  Is it ethical for an attorney to send a copy of correspondence or email to an organization’s employee where the original is directed to opposing counsel?

 FACTS

2.  The query before the Committee relates to the issue of the propriety of an attorney making contact with a servant, agent, or employee of an organization which is potentially or is in fact involved in litigation, where the contacting attorney knows or has reason to know that the organization is represented by counsel.  The related question pertains to the same issue, except that the contact in question is with the organization’s in-house or corporate counsel.  Lastly, is it ethical for an attorney to send a copy of correspondence to an employee, the original of which is directed to opposing counsel for an organization?

 OPINION

3.  Communications, concerning the subject matter of anticipated, proposed or current litigation, are improper, if the individual being contacted is either (1) an employee of the target organization within the current “control group,” or (2) the individual’s acts, omissions or statements in the matter might be imputed to the opposing organization.  Contact with in-house counsel may be permissible, depending on the circumstances, as discussed below.

ANALYSIS

 4.  This opinion involves what has sometimes been referred to as the “no contact without consent” rule.  Utah Rules of Professional Conduct (URPC), Rule 4.2, Communication with Persons Represented by Counsel, states the general rule as follows:

(a) General Rule. In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, an attorney may, without such prior consent, communicate with another’s client if authorized to do so by any law, rule, or court order,[1] in which event the communication shall be strictly restricted to that allowed by the law, rule or court order, or as authorized by paragraphs (b), (c), (d) or (e) of this Rule.[2]

5.  As a general matter, subject to the exception that a lawyer may “communicate with another’s client if authorized to do so by any law, rule, or court order,” Rule 4.2 requires that a lawyer not communicate “about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer.”  Rule 4.2(a) (emphasis added).  The Rule “applies to communications with any person who is represented by counsel concerning the matter to which the communication relates,” and “applies even though the represented person initiates or consents to the communication. A lawyer must immediately terminate communication with a person if, after commencing communication, the lawyer learns that the person is one with whom communication is not permitted by this Rule.”  Comment (3) and (4) to Rule 4.2.  Rule 4.2 is broadly consistent with the general rules set forth in § 99, A Represented Nonclient – The General Anti-Contact Rule, The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers; See also The Law of Lawyering, Hazard, Hodes & Jarvis, §§ 4.01 and 41.02.
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Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 07-02

(Approved February 25, 1993)
Issue:
May an attorney give a “second opinion” on a legal matter, when approached by a non-client who is represented by counsel?

Opinion: Rule 4.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer, “[i]n representing a client,” from “communicat[ing] about the subject of the representation with a party the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter.” A lawyer does not violate the letter or purposes of this rule by rendering a second opinion on a legal matter, when the lawyer is not “representing a client” on the same subject. However, the lawyer should make every effort neither to impair the first attorney-client relationship nor to use the consultation as a means of soliciting the represented party.
Rationale: Rule 4.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer, in representing a client, from communicating with a party the lawyer knows is 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.” The main thrust of this rule is “to prevent situations in which a represented party may be taken advantage of by adverse counsel; . . .”1 Of course, an attorney cannot give advice to an unrepresented person with the exception of suggesting that he or she seek counsel.2
A lawyer does not violate the letter or purposes of Rule 4.2 by rendering a second opinion to a represented party, when the lawyer is not “representing a client” in the same matter. Under its express terms, Rule 4.2 applies only to situations in which the lawyer is “representing a client” in making the communications. Moreover, the situation is not one “in which [the] represented party may be taken advantage of by adverse counsel; . . .”3 The Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee is, therefore, of the view that an attorney does not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct by rendering a second opinion, when the lawyer is not representing a client in the same matter.
This conclusion is supported by In re Mettler,4 where the Supreme Court of Oregon addressed the scope of DR7-104(A)(1), the predecessor to Rule 4.2. DR7-104(A) provided:
During the course of his representation of a client a lawyer shall not: (1) Communicate or cause another to communicate on the subject of the representation . . . with a person he knows to be represented by a lawyer on that subject . . . .
The court concluded that the phrase “during the course of his representation of a client” acts “as a threshold requirement for unethical conduct” and that a lawyer, therefore, cannot violate the rule unless he or she communicates with a represented person in the course of representing a client.5
This conclusion is also consistent with the ethics advisory opinions of other jurisdictions. In 1987, Kentucky considered the issue and concluded that a lawyer may provide legal advice to a person who is represented by counsel and is seeking a second opinion. The opinion cautioned, however, that the lawyer must make every effort neither to impair the first relationship nor to use the consultation as a means of soliciting the client. The opinion also suggested that the lawyer should obtain the party’s consent to consult the first lawyer so that all significant facts can be taken into account in rendering the second opinion.6 In Philadelphia, a lawyer who is approached by a represented party may ask the party to review how his or her present lawyer is handling the case. However, the opinion advises lawyers to be prudent in questioning the represented parties and to exercise discretion in evaluating the work of other lawyers.7 (more…)

04-04 – In litigation to enforce an oral contract allegedly made by a corporate defendant’s former employee

August 25, 2004

1 Issue: In litigation to enforce an oral contract allegedly made by a corporate defendant’s former employee on behalf of the corporation, where the former employee was not a member of the control group, may the plaintiff’s attorney contact the ex-employee without the consent of the corporate defendant’s attorney?

2 Answer: The contact with the former employee is not unethical. Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 4.2 (2004) does not bar a lawyer’s unauthorized contact with former employees of a represented corporate defendant except in very limited circumstances not applicable to this opinion.
3 Facts: A corporate defendant is represented by a lawyer in the defense of a claim based on an oral agreement allegedly made by a former employee of the corporate defendant while employed by the corporate defendant. The former employee was not a member of the “control group” as this term is defined in Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 4.2(c) (2) (2004), but the former employee did have authority to enter into contracts. The former employee is not separately represented by legal counsel with respect to the matter. We are asked whether the lawyer representing the corporate defendant represents the former employee with respect to the matter under Rule 4.2(c)(1)(B)(iii), thereby precluding plaintiff’s counsel from communicating with the former employee with respect to the matter without complying with Rule 4.2(a).
4 Analysis: In 1991, the ABA’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressed whether Model Rule 4.2 limits contacts with former employees. In ABA Formal Opinion 91-359 (1991), the ABA Committee concluded it does not. In pertinent part, the opinion provides:
While the Committee recognizes that persuasive policy arguments can be and have been made for extending the ambit of Model Rule 4.2 to cover some former corporate employers [sic], the fact remains that the text of the Rule does not do so and the comment gives no basis for concluding that such coverage was intended. Especially where, as here, the effect of the Rule is to inhibit the acquisition of information about one’s case, the Committee is loath, given the text of Model Rule 4.2 and its Comment, to expand its coverage to former employees by means of liberal interpretation.
Accordingly, it is the opinion of the Committee that a lawyer representing a client in a matter adverse to a corporate party that is represented by another lawyer may, without violating Model Rule 4.2, communicate about the subject of the representation with an unrepresented former employee of the corporate party without the consent of the corporation’s lawyer.
5 The only Utah court to have carefully considered this issue followed the ABA’s interpretation of Model Rule 4.2 at a time when Utah Rules of Professional Conduct 4.2 mirrored the Model Rule. In Shearson Lehman Bros., Inc. v. Wasatch Bank, 139 F.R.D. 412 (D. Utah 1991), plaintiff’s counsel sought to interview 24 former bank tellers regarding bank practices during the time an employee allegedly fraudulently endorsed checks. The court held:
Today this court joins the ranks of those which have construed Rule 4.2 consistently with the position taken by the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Under this court’s rules of practice, Utah Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2 as well as ABA Model Rule 4.2 do not prohibit ex parte contact with the former employees of an organizational party that is represented by counsel.
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Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 96-01

(Approved April 26, 1996)
Issue:
May a lawyer representing a defendant in multiple lawsuits asserting similar claims initiate and conduct ex parte communications with former plaintiffs who have settled their claims?

Opinion: Yes, but only if the settling plaintiffs are not represented by counsel and only after appropriate disclosures have been made by the lawyer to the settling plaintiffs.
Facts: A lawyer’s corporate client has been and is a defendant in multiple civil lawsuits. Certain lawsuits have been settled and others are pending. Most of the current lawsuits were filed by the same plaintiffs’ lawyers who represented the individuals whose claims have been settled.1
The lawyer’s client believes that random audits of the records of current claimants reveal a lack of basis for many of the claims asserted. The client desires to bring an action against the claimant lawyers who, in the client’s view, have asserted meritless current claims.
The client has asked the lawyer to interview some of the individuals who brought settled claims that the client believes were supported by false or questionable evidence. The objective of this investigation is to acquire evidence, if any, that the claimant lawyers knowingly recruited clients and deliberately submitted on behalf of those clients claims that were supported by fabricated evidence.
The client wants the lawyer to ask the settling plaintiffs to disclose what their lawyers told them about bringing the settled claims. The proposed communications with the settling plaintiffs would be initiated by the lawyer for the corporate client. The lawyer would not inform counsel who represented settling plaintiffs of these communications.
The client has advised the lawyer that it has no intention to seek redress from any of the individuals who have settled their claims.2Times to appeal or reopen have generally expired.
Analysis: The Utah Rules of Professional Conduct contain two basic rules regarding contact with persons who are not the lawyer’s client. The first is found in Rule 4.2, which forbids contact with represented parties, and the second is found in Rules 4.3 and 4.4, which govern contact with unrepresented parties and third persons.
Rule 4.2
The relevant portion of Rule 4.2 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct states:
In 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.3
Discussion of the last phrase of this Rule is quickly concluded: The corporation’s lawyer does not have consent (and indeed wants to initiate the conversation without notifying plaintiffs’ counsel) and does not propose to obtain a court order authorizing the communication.
Analysis of the first phrase of the Rule is more difficult and involves a discussion of whether the settling plaintiffs are “represented by another lawyer in the matter.” The issue is fact-specific and the burden of determining the person’s represented status is on the contacting lawyer. Under Utah law, in the absence of “disturbing events or special arrangement,” a lawyer’s employment comes to an end and the attorney-client relationship is terminated with the completion of the specific task for which the lawyer was employed.4Utah courts generally follow the common law rule that the employment of the defendant’s lawyer terminates upon entry of judgment, while the employment of the plaintiff’s lawyer terminates upon satisfaction of judgment. (more…)

Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 96-03

(Approved April 26, 1996)
Issue:
What are the ethical obligations of an attorney who has negotiated an agreement with medical providers on behalf of a personal-injury client whose debts are subsequently discharged in bankruptcy?

Opinion: Absent dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, the attorney has no ethical obligation to honor personally the client’s agreements to pay medical providers out of a settlement or judgment. Disputes resulting from the failure of an attorney to make payment for services rendered by the medical providers should be treated as questions of substantive law, including state and bankruptcy law, and should be examined under traditional contract, agency, and bankruptcy doctrines rather than as questions of the ethical propriety of the attorney’s actions.1
Analysis: In a personal injury action, attorneys on behalf of their clients often negotiate agreements with medical providers for the care the client receives or has received in conjunction with the injury. Such agreements contractually obligate the client, but not the attorney, to pay medical providers for those services out of, or at the time of, any settlement or judgment. Prior to the settlement or judgment, the client may file a bankruptcy and may be discharged of certain of these medical-cost obligations.
The factual background of the present issue is not substantially different from that addressed by Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 98.2In that opinion it was determined that imputation of an ethical obligation for an attorney’s failure to pay a third party for services could create the possibility that the Bar could initiate disciplinary actions against a lawyer for the mere failure to pay creditors. Such a possibility was determined to be beyond the scope of the Bar’s role in maintaining ethical standards among its members. This conclusion seems particularly valid when, as postulated in the present factual variation, the debts themselves may be legally discharged through a bankruptcy proceeding and when such a discharge may have been avoided through proper documentation by the medical provider.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, however, Rule of Professional Conduct 4.1 provides:
In the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.
Rule 4.3(b) provides:
In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the unrepresented person misunderstands the lawyer’s role in the matter, the lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to correct the misunderstanding.
Based on the foregoing rules, an attorney’s dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation in conjunction with obtaining the medical services could subject the attorney to disciplinary action. For example, an attorney who (1) knows that his client intends subsequently to discharge medical debts in a bankruptcy proceeding, or intends to have his client seek a discharge of such debts in bankruptcy, (2) uses a form of documentation that the attorney knows will not withstand a bankruptcy, and (3) affirmatively states that the medical provider will be paid at settlement or judgment, will have committed an ethical violation. (more…)