(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.
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…)