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. 03-04

Issued October 14, 2003
¶1 Issue
: May a lawyer threaten to present criminal charges against an opposing party or witness during negotiations in a private civil matter?

¶2 Opinion: In the course of representing a client in a civil matter, it is not per se unethical for a lawyer to threaten that the client may pursue criminal charges against an adverse party where the civil and criminal matters are related. However, such a threat will be a violation of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct if it constitutes “extortion,” if the lawyer does not have a reasonable belief that such charges are warranted by the law and the facts, or if it involves “abusive treatment” of a witness.
¶3 Background: This query arose when counsel, during a mediation, stated that the opposing party’s witness was in violation of Utah law and that the County Attorney’s office “would be interested” to learn of the alleged violation.
¶4 The Former Rule. Prior Disciplinary Rule 7-105 of the Model Code of Professional Responsibility barred a lawyer from using criminal charges to gain leverage in a civil action: “A lawyer shall not present, participate in presenting, or threaten to present criminal charges solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.”1 The stated intent of DR 7-105 was to prevent lawyers from using the criminal justice system for oppressive purposes, and the rule set the boundaries of acceptable lawyer conduct clearly.
¶5 The drafters of the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”), however, deliberately left out the provisions of DR 7-105. The rationale behind this omission was the drafters’ belief that “extortionate, fraudulent, or otherwise abusive threats were covered by other, more general prohibitions in the Model Rules and thus that there was no need to outlaw such threats specifically.”2 The prior rule was thought to be overbroad because it prohibited legitimate pressure tactics and negotiation strategies.3 The current Utah Rules of Professional Conduct also include no analog to DR 7-105, but instead prohibit a lawyer from using “means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person”4 and from engaging “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation [or] . . . in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”5
¶6 ABA Opinion 92-363: The American Bar Association addressed the permissibility of threats in 1992 in Formal Opinion 92-363 (“Opinion 363”). Opinion 363 concluded that a lawyer may use the possibility of presenting criminal charges against the opposing party in a private civil matter to gain relief for the client, as long as the criminal and civil matters are related, the lawyer has a reasonable belief that threat is warranted by the law and the facts, and the lawyer does not suggest she possesses improper influence over the criminal process or try to exert such influence.6 Correspondingly, a lawyer may agree to refrain from presenting criminal charges as part of a settlement so long as the agreement does not violate applicable law.7
¶7 The same factors apply to threats against an opposing party’s witness. Opinion 363 notes that “abusive treatment” of witnesses may implicate Model Rule 4.4. Abusive treatment exists if the lawyer’s purpose in suggesting charges may be brought is merely to embarrass, delay or burden a third person. If, however, the lawyer has a well-founded belief that criminal charges related to the civil action may be justified, and the lawyer does not suggest the presence of improper influence over the criminal process, the conduct is not abusive. (more…)

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…)