Representation of Clients with Similar Claims After Participation in a Confidential Settlement Agreement for Another Client
Opinion rules that a lawyer may participate in a settlement agreement that contains a provision limiting or prohibiting disclosure of information obtained during the representation even though the provision will effectively limit the lawyer's ability to represent future claimants.
Attorney represents Plaintiff in an employment dispute with Employer. There are several other employees with factually similar potential claims. Attorney does not represent these employees and they have not yet asserted claims against Employer.
Attorney negotiates his client's claim with counsel for Employer. Counsel for Employer explains to Attorney that Employer is willing to negotiate the matter and perhaps settle it if it can be done confidentially to avoid additional claims by the other potential plaintiffs. At this point Attorney has no intention of representing the other potential plaintiffs and tells Counsel for Employer this. Based on this representation, Counsel for Employer agrees to provide Attorney with information about Employer's financial status, insurance coverage, and other facts about the case.
While negotiating the terms of a settlement that will be favorable to Plaintiff, Counsel for Employer requests that the settlement agreement include a provision prohibiting Attorney from representing any other employee who has a factually similar potential claim against Employer. May Counsel for Employer propose such a settlement provision and, if so, may Attorney participate in a settlement agreement that includes such a provision?
No. Rule 5.6(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that "[a] lawyer shall not participate in offering or making. . . an agreement in which a restriction on the lawyer's right to practice is part of the settlement of a controversy between private parties." An agreement not to represent other claimants against the opposing party denies members of the public access to the very lawyer who may be best suited, by experience and background, to represent them. RPC 179 ("Although public policy favors settlement, the policy that favors full access to legal assistance should prevail.") In addition, such agreements result in a personal conflict for the lawyer who is asked to give up future representations in the interest of a current client. ABA Formal Opinion 00-417, 1101: 204 (2000). Restrictive provisions of this nature also raise public policy concerns that the ultimate settlement figure will bear less of a relationship to the merits of the case than to the amount necessary to "buy off" defendant's counsel. Id.
Counsel for Employer withdraws the request for a term in the settlement agreement that would prohibit Attorney from representing other employees. Instead, he requests that the agreement include the following provision:
Confidentiality: The parties stipulate, acknowledge, and agree that the Agreement and its terms shall remain confidential to the maximum extent allowable under North Carolina law and that such confidentiality is of the essence of the Agreement and its underlying terms. The parties agree not to disclose to anyone the terms of the Agreement, save and except to their tax return preparers, accountants, auditors, lenders, attorneys, courts, or to governmental agencies where such disclosure is required by law or administrative regulation, only as necessary, and to that extent the parties agree to use their best efforts to assure that such disclosure of the terms of the Agreement is not further disclosed.
May Counsel for Employer propose such a settlement provision and, if so, may Attorney participate in a settlement agreement that includes such a provision?
Yes. The confidentiality provision above does not specifically prohibit Attorney's use of confidential information learned during the representation or representation of other claimants with similar claims against Employer. Instead, it restricts only the disclosure of certain information gained in the representation. The provision is not proscribed by Rule 5.6(b) which is silent on participation in a settlement agreement that prohibits a lawyer from revealing information about the matter or the terms of the settlement. In fact, such a provision is consistent with the lawyer's continuing duty to not reveal the confidential information of a client or a former client without the informed consent of the client or the former client. Rule 1.6 and Rule 1.9(c).
Accord, ABA Formal Opinion 00-417.
A settlement agreement containing the confidentiality provision set forth in Inquiry #2 is entered into by Plaintiff and Employer, and Plaintiff's representation by Attorney is concluded. May Attorney subsequently agree to represent the other employees on their similar claims against Employer?
Yes, provided it can be done without revealing Plaintiff's confidential information, including the terms of the settlement agreement, and without exposing Plaintiff to liability under the agreement.
Attorney may be able to represent other employees without revealing Plaintiff's confidential information to them or to any third party. However, it will be difficult for Attorney to represent other employees without using Plaintiff's confidential information to advance their claims-for example, to obtain certain records from Employer, to subpoena witnesses, or in settlement negotiations.
Rule 1.9(c) prohibits a lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter from using information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as permitted by the Rules or when the information has become generally known. Thus, Attorney may not use the confidential information of Plaintiff to advance the interests of new clients if doing so will harm the interests of Plaintiff. Attorney's use of Plaintiff's confidential information to represent the other employees, even without overt disclosure of the information, would violate Rule 1.9(c) if it exposed Plaintiff to liability under the confidentiality provision of the settlement agreement. In this event, Attorney would be prohibited from representing other employees because Attorney's failure to use Plaintiff's confidential information would materially limit his representation of the other employees. Rule 1.7(a)(2). But see, ABA Formal Opinion 00-417.
As to whether representation of the other employees may expose Plaintiff to liability under the agreement, it is beyond the purview of the Ethics Committee to interpret contractual language in a settlement agreement.