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Settlement Agreement Restricting a Lawyer's Practice

Adopted: July 21, 1994

Opinion rules that a lawyer may not offer or enter into a settlement agreement that contains a provision barring the lawyer who represents the settling party from representing other claimants against the opposing party.

Inquiry #1:

Attorney A and counsel represent several plaintiffs whose civil rights and constitutional rights were allegedly violated as a result of the conduct of defendant municipality and several of its employees. During the course of litigation and settlement negotiations, individual settlement offers are made by Attorney B and his counsel who represent the municipality and its employees.

Attorney B submits to Attorney A a settlement agreement and release that requires Attorney A and his counsel to join in the release and agree not to represent any potential claimants (other than those already represented by Attorney A and counsel) who may have also been damaged by the alleged conduct of the municipality. The settlement documents also contain provisions requiring confidentiality as to the terms and content of the settlement agreement and the sealing of the agreement by court order. Because the defendant is a municipality, in order to seal what would otherwise be public records, a court order will have to be entered pursuant to G.S. §132-1.3(b).

May Attorney A enter into such an agreement?

Opinion #1:

No. A lawyer may not be a party to a settlement agreement wherein he agrees to refrain from representing other potential plaintiffs in the future. To do so would be a violation of Rule 2.7(b) which prohibits a lawyer from entering into an agreement, in connection with the settlement of a controversy or suit, that restricts his right to practice law. Although public policy favors settlement, the policy that favors full access to legal assistance should prevail.

Nevertheless, participation in a settlement agreement conditioned upon maintaining the confidentiality of the terms of the settlement is not unethical. The amount and terms of any settlement which is not a matter of public record are the secrets of a client which may not be disclosed by a lawyer without the client's consent. If a client desires to enter into a settlement agreement requiring confidentiality, the lawyer must comply with the client's request that the information regarding the settlement be confidential. See Rule 4.

Inquiry #2:

May Attorney B offer such a settlement agreement?

Opinion #2:

No. A lawyer may not offer a settlement agreement that contains a restriction on a lawyer's right to practice law as a condition of the agreement. See Rule 2.7(b).

Inquiry #3:

What should Attorney A do when his client desires to accept the agreement?

Opinion #3:

Attorney A must advise his client that neither he nor Attorney B may ethically participate in an agreement restricting a lawyer's right to practice law.

Inquiry #4:

May Attorney A withdraw with the permission of the client so that the client may accept the monetary terms of the settlement?

Opinion #4:

Since the participation of both the plaintiff's attorney and the defendant's attorney in such an agreement is unethical, this inquiry is moot.

Inquiry #5:

May Attorney B settle with Attorney A's then former client after Attorney A withdraws?

Opinion #5:

See Opinion #4 above.

Inquiry #6:

May Attorney A and his client agree, as part of a settlement, not to be heard when Attorney B seeks, at an ex parte proceeding, to seal otherwise public records under G.S. §132-1.3(b), when Attorney A believes that there is no apparent basis in law for requesting the sealing other than preventing a class action or additional lawsuits?

Opinion #6:

It is not unethical for Attorney A to agree not to be heard when Attorney B attempts to show to the court that the requirements of the statute allowing the sealing of the record have been met. See G.S. §132-1.3(b). It is the responsibility of Attorney B to not advance claims that are unwarranted under existing law unless there is a good faith argument for an extension or modification of existing law. See Rule 7.2(a)(2).

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