Lawyer as Member of Hospital's Board of Trustees
Opinion rules that a lawyer whose associate is a member of a hospital's board of trustees may not sue the hospital on behalf of a client.
Editor's Note: This opinion is overruled by 2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 2.
Attorney A is an associate (nonshareholder) in a law firm in North Carolina. He was appointed to the board of trustees of a local hospital on October 7, 1991, and has served as a trustee since that time. The hospital is a public, nonprofit, charitable hospital governed by a board of trustees.
After the appointment of Attorney A as a trustee, Attorney B, a shareholder in the same law firm, filed a malpractice claim against a doctor and the hospital. Attorney B handled all aspects of the claim from the initial investigation forward without discussing it with Attorney A and without any assistance from Attorney A.
After oral discussions between Attorney A and the hospital attorney concerning his firm's involvement in the case, Attorney A wrote the hospital attorney a letter in which he stated that he did not feel there was a conflict of interest because he had complied with the procedures prescribed in CPR 290 . At all times Attorney A refrained from any expression of opinion about the case, as well as from formal or informal consideration of the matter, including any communications with anyone at the hospital concerning the matter, and absented himself from all hospital meetings during any discussion or vote concerning the case. Attorney B reached a settlement of the case through negotiations with attorneys for the doctor and the hospital.
The hospital now has a program which began on October 1, 1990, under which it pays a substantial portion of all malpractice claims out of hospital funds. Prior to October 1, 1990, the hospital was insured, but had a large deductible, and the settlement of this claim was paid entirely out of the deductible.
With respect to any new cases that may arise, would it be ethical for Attorney B to represent a client with a claim against the hospital, so long as there is adherence to the procedures prescribed in CPR 290 ?
No. Under Rule 5.1(b), an irreconcilable conflict would exist if a lawyer who is a member of the board of trustees of a nonprofit hospital were to represent a client who is suing the board or the hospital which is managed and controlled by that board. Rule 5.1(b). While lawyers are associated in a firm, none of them shall knowingly represent a client when any one of them practicing alone would be prohibited from doing so by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 5.11(a) and CPR 66. RPC 53 is hereby overruled.
Other prior ethics opinions which appear to be in conflict with this opinion are distinguishable. CPR 290 allows a lawyer to appear before a government board upon which a lawyer from his or her firm is a member provided four specified steps are taken to insulate the attorney board member from the board's consideration of the particular matter. See also CPR 327. RPC 130 allows a law firm to accept employment on behalf of a governing board upon which its partner sits provided the representation is otherwise lawful and certain steps are taken to insulate the attorney board member from the decision. None of these prior opinions involve the representation of a client whose interests are directly adverse to those of the board and who is filing a lawsuit against the board upon which the attorney board member sits. CPR 290 and CPR 327 are unchanged by this opinion and remain in effect.
In reliance on RPC 53, lawyers have undertaken to represent clients in litigation or other adversarial proceedings filed against a board upon which a member of their law firm serves. To require lawyers who have relied upon RPC 53 to withdraw from the representation of a client in the midst of an adversarial proceeding or litigation would work a hardship upon the client. Therefore, this opinion shall be applied prospectively. Lawyers may continue to represent clients in litigation or other adversarial proceedings which were filed as of the effective date of this opinion despite service by another lawyer from the same firm on the board. However, the procedures for removing the attorney board member from involvement in the case set forth in CPR 290 must be observed. This opinion shall apply to the representation of clients in litigation or other adversarial proceedings against a board upon which a member of the firm serves which are filed on or after the effective date of the opinion.
If the answer to Inquiry #1 is "no," is it permissible under any circumstances for Attorney A to sit on the hospital board and for Attorney B at the same time to handle the malpractice case against the hospital?
See the answer to Inquiry #1 above.
Finally, would it make any difference in the answers to Inquiries #1 and #2 if Attorney A were a shareholder in the firm rather than an associate?