Representation of Corporation in Derivative Action
Opinion rules that a law firm may not simultaneously represent shareholders in a derivative action and the corporation's landlord on a claim for back rent.
Two minority shareholders and an attorney from Law Firm B went to the principal place of business of a corporation to review corporate records. Law Firm A, on behalf of the corporation and its president, brought suit against the two minority shareholders for trespass and invasion of privacy. It is undisputed that one of the two minority shareholders was an officer and director of the corporation at the time of the inspection. Prior to answering the Complaint filed by Law Firm A, the two minority shareholders were elected as officers and directors of the corporation by a unanimous vote at the annual meeting of shareholders and directors. In addition, at that meeting the minority shareholders moved that the corporation sue its president for mismanagement, but that motion was defeated by a majority vote of the directors, who were controlled by the president. Law Firm B filed a counterclaim against the corporation and its president, praying for independent relief for the minority shareholders and derivative relief for the corporation. Thereafter, the president called a special meeting of the shareholders and directors to vote on a salary increase for himself and to consider disposition of a claim for back rent from the landlord of the corporate premises. The two minority shareholders and directors voted against a salary increase on the ground that the president admitted owing in excess of $50,000 to the corporation for unauthorized loans. Additionally, at that special meeting the minority shareholders were told for the first time of the landlord's claim for back rent. Subsequently, the landlord retained Law Firm B to file an action against the corporation for the rent arrearage. Full disclosure was made to the landlord and the minority shareholders, and all desired continued representation by Law Firm B. Since the filing of the Reply to the counterclaim, the Court has ordered that all the other directors and officers of the corporation be brought in as additional party defendants. Law Firm A has entered an appearance for a number of the other directors and officers. May Law Firm B ethically represent both the landlord and the minority shareholders under the facts stated?
No. Law Firm B may not ethically continue to represent both the minority shareholders on behalf of the corporation in the derivative action and also continue to represent the landlord in the landlord's action for back rent. Law firm B is effectively representing the corporation in the derivative action and, at the same time, representing the landlord in that claim against the corporation. Rule 5.10 and the comment clearly establish that Law Firm B's obligation is to the corporation in the derivative action, not simply to the minority shareholders who employed it to bring the derivative action.
While informed consent in the ordinary situation will permit representation of multiple parties with conflicting interests, it will not override the conflict unless the attorney in question reasonably believes representation of the other client, in each instance, will not be adversely affected. See Rule 5.1(a), (b). Since Law Firm B is effectively acting on behalf of the corporation in the derivative action, and since the issue of back rent claimed by the landlord appears to be entangled with the issues involved in the claims and counterclaims in the suit between the minority shareholders on the one hand in the derivative action and between the corporation and its president on the other hand, there is serious doubt as to the effectiveness of the consent of the minority shareholders to permit representation of the otherwise conflicting interests, and it does not appear that representation of both clients may reasonably be undertaken without a threat to the interest of one of the other clients and to the sanctity of confidential communications protected by Rule 4. Which, if any, party Law Firm B may continue to represent will depend upon the availability of informed consent from any of the parties, the relevance of confidential information, within the meaning of Rule 4, received by Law Firm B in its current representation of the minority shareholders and effectively of the corporation in the derivative action and in its representation of the landlord, and on the Court's judgment in the exercise of its inherent authority. See Swenson v. Thibaut, 39 N.C. App. 77, 250 S.E.2d. 279 (1978), cert. denied and appeal dismissed, 296 NC 740, 254 S.E.2d 181 (1979); G.S. §55-55.