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Communications with Unrepresented Former Employees of Represented Organizations

Adopted: January 16, 1998

Opinion rules that a lawyer may interview an unrepresented former employee of an adverse represented organization about the subject of the representation unless the former employee participated substantially in the legal representation of the organization in the matter.

Editor's Note: Opinion was originally published as RPC 254. Before adoption, it was revised to reference the appropriate sections of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct under which it was finally decided.

Inquiry #1:

Y Insurance Company carries the workers' compensation coverage for Employer. Adjuster, an employee of Y Insurance Company, was assigned to investigate and manage Employee's workers' compensation claim against Employer. During the three years that she handled Employee's claim, Adjuster played a major role in the decision making relative to the defense of the claim.

Last year, Attorney A was assigned to represent Y Insurance Company and Employer in Employee's workers' compensation action. Adjuster and Attorney A have worked closely together on the defense of the case. Adjuster's input, her knowledge of the claims file, and the records Adjuster has maintained in the claims file are integral to Attorney A's defense of the case.

May the lawyers for Employee communicate directly with Adjuster about Employee's claim without the consent of Attorney A?

Opinion #1:

No. Rule 4.2(a) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct provides: "[d] uring the representation of 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 or is authorized by law to do so." The ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility states, in Formal Opinion 95-396 (1995), that such "anticontact rules provide protection of the represented person against overreaching by adverse counsel, safeguard the client-lawyer relationship from interference by adverse counsel, and reduce the likelihood that clients will disclose privileged or other information that might harm their interests."

An organization that is represented by legal counsel in a matter also falls within the protection of Rule 4.2. Communications by adverse counsel with certain personnel of a represented organization are prohibited. Comment [5] to Rule 4.2 states that "…this rule will prohibit communications by the lawyer concerning the matter with persons having managerial responsibility on behalf of the organization…." Compare RPC 67 (permitting ex parte communications with a "rank and file" employee of an adverse corporate party). Although an adjuster for an insurance company may not be considered a "manager" or "management personnel" for the company, the adjuster does have managerial responsibility for the claims that she investigates. The adjuster is also privy to privileged communications with the legal counsel for the company and is generally involved in substantive conversations with the organization's lawyer regarding the representation of the organization. To safeguard the client-lawyer relationship from interference by adverse counsel and to reduce the likelihood that privileged information will be disclosed, Rule 4.2(a) protects from direct communications by opposing counsel not only employees who are clearly high-level management officials but also any employee who, like the adjuster in this inquiry, has participated substantially in the legal representation of the organization in a particular matter. Such participation includes substantive and/or privileged communications with the organization's lawyer as to the strategy and objectives of the representation, the management of the case, and other matters pertinent to the representation.

Inquiry #2:

About three months before an important Industrial Commission hearing in Employee's case, Adjuster left the employment of Y Insurance Company to become an adjuster for Z Insurance Company. Attorney B represents Employee in the workers' compensation action. Not long before the Industrial Commission hearing, Adjuster was in Attorney B's offices on an unrelated matter. Attorney A was not present. Attorney B approached Adjuster to discuss Employee's case. Should Attorney B have obtained the consent of Attorney A prior to speaking directly with Adjuster with regard to Employee's workers' compensation case?

Opinion #2:

Yes. The protection afforded by Rule 4.2(a) to "safeguard the client-lawyer relationship from interference by adverse counsel" can be assured to a represented organization only if there is an exception to the general rule that permits ex parte contact with former employees of an organization without the consent of the organization's lawyer. See RPC 81 (permitting a lawyer to interview an unrepresented former employee of an adverse corporate party without the permission of the corporation's lawyer). The exception must be made for contacts with a former employee who, while with the organization, participated substantially in the legal representation of the organization, including participation in and knowledge of privileged communications with legal counsel. Permitting direct communications with such a person, although no longer employed by the organization, would interfere with the effective representation of the organization and the organization's relationship with its legal counsel. Such communications are permitted only with the consent of the organization's lawyer or in formal discovery proceedings. The general rule, set forth in RPC 81, permitting a lawyer to interview an unrepresented former employee of an adverse organizational party without the consent of the organization's lawyer, remains in effect with the limited exception explained above.

Inquiry #3:

[The facts of this inquiry are unrelated to the preceding inquiries.]

Employee X is no longer employed by Corporation. While an employee of Corporation, however, Employee X may have engaged in activities that would constitute the sexual harassment of other employees of Corporation. An action alleging sexual harassment based on Employee X's conduct was brought against Corporation. Although he is not a named defendant in the action, Employee X's acts, while an employee, may be imputed to the organization. When he was employed, Employee X did not discuss the corporation's representation in this matter with Corporation's lawyer. Employee X is unrepresented. May the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the sexual harassment action interview Employee X without the consent of the lawyer for Corporation?

Opinion #3:

Yes. Unlike the adjuster in the two prior inquiries, Employee X was not an active participant in the legal representation of his former employer in the sexual harassment action. It does not appear that he was involved in any decision making relative to the representation of Corporation nor was he privy to privileged client-lawyer communications relative to the representation. Rather, Employee X is a fact witness and a potential defendant in his own right. Permitting ex parte contact with Employee X by the plaintiff's counsel will not interfere with Corporation's relationship with its lawyer nor will it result in the disclosure of privileged client-lawyer communications regarding the representation. Comment [5] to Rule 4.2, which indicates that the rule prohibits communications with any employee "… whose act or omission in connection with the matter may be imputed to the organization for purposes of civil or criminal liability or whose statement may constitute an admission on the part of the organization, " should be applicable only to current employees. The purpose of Rule 4.2 is not enhanced by extending the prohibition to former employees who, during the time of their employment, did not participate substantively in the representation of the organization.

Although the plaintiff's lawyer may communicate directly with the Employee X, the lawyer's communications are subject to the protections for unrepresented persons set fourth in Rule 4.3. Rule 4.3(a) prohibits a lawyer from giving advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure legal counsel, if the interests of the person are in conflict with the interests of the lawyer's client. Similarly, Rule 4.3(b) requires the lawyer to make known to the unrepresented person that the lawyer is not disinterested.

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