Termination of Joint Representation: The Former Client's Right to the File
Opinion rules that in cases of multiple representation a lawyer who has been discharged by one client must deliver to that client as part of that client's file information entrusted to the lawyer by the other client.
Minor Plaintiff was injured during a surgical procedure at Hospital. Nurse anesthetist, a hospital employee, participated actively in the surgery, along with several others. Due to the focus of the early investigation by the hospital, Nurse independently sought an attorney to represent her interests and selected Attorney A, who was in private practice and who coincidentally generally represented Hospital and the liability insurance carrier for the hospital and the nurse, as a hospital employee. At the same time Nurse was represented by Attorney B, who was in charge of Hospital's legal department, and who held himself out to Nurse as her attorney during investigation of the occurrence and in protecting her in the event of a lawsuit that was felt to be "imminent." Before undertaking representation of Nurse, Attorney A obtained approval of Attorney B and his office on behalf of Hospital and the liability insurance carrier. After Attorney A, Attorney B on behalf of Hospital, and the insurance company determined that the interests of Nurse and Hospital were the "same," they agreed to the joint representation of Nurse and Hospital and undertook investigation and management of the case, which continued for some time. Despite recognition by Attorneys A and B from the outset that reports of the incident by various participants differed, no disclosure was made of potential conflicts of interest existing at the time or that might arise later, and no attempt was made to limit the representation or sharing of information. During the period of joint representation of Nurse and Hospital, substantial information concerning the incident was gathered and placed in the file(s) maintained concerning the joint representation by both Attorneys A and B. Among the items contained in the files were statements obtained from individuals participating in the surgery by persons in Hospital's risk management department, a division of Hospital's legal department, headed by Attorney B. The files also contained hospital records of the injured party, which were furnished by Hospital. Nurse became aware of a "proposed statement" of facts concerning the occurrence, which was proposed by Attorney A as a report to be given to the injured minor's family, and, in her opinion, erroneously focused blame on her. Nurse had not participated in formulation of this statement and had not authorized it. Nurse requested a copy of the file from Attorney A for her review and use and asked if her interests were being protected. Nurse did not receive the file and did not receive answers satisfactory to her. Nurse then consulted Attorney X, who undertook to represent Nurse. Attorney X contacted Attorney A and requested a copy of all materials in the files relating to the representation of Nurse in order to assist in properly representing Nurse. Attorney A, on instructions from Attorney B for Hospital, refused to surrender statements that were given him by Hospital's risk management department, claiming that such materials are privileged as having been obtained in anticipation of litigation or trial. Attorney A also refused to surrender a copy of hospital records of the injured party claiming that those records are also privileged.
Under the circumstances, do Attorneys A and B have an ethical obligation to surrender the contents of the file(s) to Nurse and her new Attorney X?
Yes, otherwise irreparable harm could be done to a client needing the accumulated information to assist her defense. Rule 5.1 makes loyalty an essential element in the lawyer's relationship to a client. An impermissible conflict of interest may exist before representation is undertaken, in which event the representation should be declined. If such a conflict arises after representation has been undertaken, the lawyer should withdraw from the representation and comply with Rule 2.8. Rule 2.8(a)(2) obligates a lawyer whose employment has been terminated to surrender to the former client those portions of the file to which the client is entitled. Loyalty to a client is impaired when a lawyer cannot 1) represent the client zealously under Rule 7.1 and avoid prejudicing or damaging the client during the course of the professional relationship (Rule 7.1 (a)(3)), and 2) when the lawyer cannot keep the client reasonably informed or promptly comply with reasonable requests for information (Rule 6(b)(1)). When a lawyer undertakes representation of codefendants, an impermissible conflict may exist by reason of substantial discrepancy in the parties' testimony or incompatibility of positions. Identifying and resolving questions of conflict of interest is primarily the responsibility of the lawyer undertaking the representation and not the client's responsibility. Once Attorneys A and B determined that Nurse's and Hospital's interests were the same and, presumably, that no conflict of interest existed and then undertook joint representation of Nurse and Hospital, with the consent of Hospital and its insurance company, information gathered on behalf of Nurse and Hospital (who were deemed to have the "same interest") lost its confidential nature as between Nurse and Hospital by implied authorization, if not actual consent, under Rule 4(c)(1) and (2). Since Nurse relied on reasonable attorney-client expectations of protection of her interests and access to information, Attorneys A and B are now estopped to negate consent to the rights inuring to Nurse's benefit from the joint representation. Nurse is entitled to immediate possession of all information in the joint representation file or files of Attorneys A and B accumulated to the date of termination of representation that would or could be of some value to her in protecting her interests. This includes the items specified in the inquiry and any others that would or could be of some help to Nurse. The information must be surrendered unconditionally by Attorneys A and B without regard to whether the cost of its acquisition was advanced by either attorney or client (hospital). RPC 79. The attempt by Attorneys A and B to revoke the implied or actual authority to share information with Nurse can only apply prospectively to information gathered and work done after termination of representation.