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Client-Lawyer Relationship in Child Support Enforcement Actions

Adopted: April 16, 2010

Opinion rules that the lawyer for a child support enforcement program that brings an action for child support on behalf of the government does not have a client-lawyer relationship with the custodian of the children.

Inquiry #1:

Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.S. 651 et seq., requires each state to establish a child support enforcement (CSE) agency to provide services for the establishment and collection of child support for dependent children who are recipients of public assistance. The act also requires the CSE agency to provide assistance in the collection of child support to a custodian of a dependent child not receiving public assistance if the custodian applies to the agency for such assistance. The Child Welfare Act, Chap. 110, Art. 9, of the N.C. General Statutes, enacts the requirements of Title IV-D. The CSE program established by the North Carolina act is administered by the Child Support Enforcement Agency, a branch of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The programis usually administered at the county level; the local CSE program administrator hires a lawyer to institute the child support proceeding against the non-custodial, responsible parent. The proceeding is instituted in the name and on behalf of the government at the instigation of the custodian of the child who is named ex relatione (e.g., County of Durham DSS of ex rel. Stevons v. Charles, 182 N.C. App. 505, 642 S.E. 2d 482 (2007)).

Lawyer A is defending a non-custodial parent in a child support action brought by the lawyer for the child support enforcement (CSE) program for the county. Does the CSE lawyer represent the custodian of the children?

Opinion #1:

The lawyer representing the CSE program does not represent the custodian of the children; the lawyer represents the government agency bringing the action. As previously observed in Ethics Decisions 279 and 2007-3, the purpose of the CSE program is to provide financial support to dependent children regardless of who currently has custody of a dependent child and regardless of who may currently owe support payments. "It would defeat the purpose of [CSE] legislation if a client-lawyer relationship were automatically created between the [CSE] lawyer and the custodian of the children because the lawyer would be unable to pursue any future child support action against such custodian should support and custody obligations switch." ED 279.

Nevertheless, if the CSE lawyer makes statements to the parent that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the lawyer is representing him or her personally, a client-lawyer relationship may be inferred. To avoid misleading the custodian as to the relationship, in any private conference with a custodian (outside of court proceedings), "the [CSE] lawyer should explain that he or she is not the custodian's lawyer; that their conversations are not protected by the duty of confidentiality; and that if the interests of the government and the custodian of the children diverge, the lawyer will represent the interests of the government." ED 279.

Inquiry #2:

Lawyer A wants to serve discovery on the custodian of the children. Should the discovery be served on the lawyer for the CSE program or on the custodian of the children?

Opinion #2:

This is a question of civil procedure and trial strategy that is outside of the purview of the Ethics Committee. However, if Lawyer A decides to seek information directly from the custodian, it would not violate Rule 4.2 unless the custodian is represented by his or her own lawyer in the matter.

During the representation of a client, Rule 4.2 prohibits a lawyer from communicating with a person that the lawyer knows is represented in the matter unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law or court order to communicate with the person. Lawyer A's direct communications with the custodian will not violate Rule 4.2 because the CSE lawyer does not represent the parent. ED 2007-3 (lawyer appointed to represent defendant/non-custodial parent in child support case may communicate directly with custodial parent).

Inquiry #3:

Lawyer A wants to depose the custodian. The CSE lawyer informed Lawyer A that he would not attend the deposition. May Lawyer A proceed with the deposition?

Opinion #3:

Yes. If the custodian was properly served with notice of the deposition, there is no prohibition on proceeding with the deposition although the CSE lawyer fails to appear. Even when a deponent is represented by a lawyer in a matter, if the deposition is properly noticed and the lawyer for the deponent fails or refuses to appear, the lawyer noticing the deposition may proceed. Such communications are "authorized by law" and, therefore, not prohibited by Rule 4.2.

Inquiry #4:

In a case involving international child support enforcement issues, the CSE lawyer, who works in the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, would like to call another lawyer from the attorney general's staff to testify as an expert. Does this violate the Rules of Professional Conduct?

Opinion #4:

No. Rule 3.7(a) prohibits a lawyer from acting as an advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness. However, this disqualification is not imputed to the other lawyers in same firm or organization unless the lawyer's testimony would be adverse to the interests of the firm or organization's client. Rule 3.7(b).

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