Courts often analyze motions to disqualify by balancing the need to uphold professional standards against the rights of clients to choose their lawyers freely. The New Jersey court of appeals struck that balance earlier this month in upholding the disqualification of a lawyer who violated a confidentiality order, finding that the lawyer knowingly disobeyed a court order, among other violations.

Looking for class action plaintiffs

The lawyer sued a car dealership and others in a putative class action, alleging fraud and the violation of various state consumer statutes. The parties agreed on and the court entered a confidentiality order that allowed any party to designate confidential documents produced in discovery as “Attorneys’ Eyes Only.”

The confidentiality order mandated that the parties could use such material “solely for purposes of the prosecution or defense of this action.”

After several twists and turns, the suit was trimmed of its class allegations and proceeded solely against the dealership.

However, as the trial court wrote, “lo and behold, after the dealer produced the documents under the confidentiality order, a new [class action] lawsuit was filed in [another] county,” against the same defendant, based on the same theories, and initiated by the same lawyer, who admitted that she had used the “Attorneys’ Eyes Only” documents in soliciting the named class-action plaintiffs to file suit in the second action.

The lawyer claimed that this did not violate the confidentiality order; the trial court disagreed, and “relieved [the lawyer] from serving as plaintiff’s counsel” because of the violation. The trial judge also referred the matter to the state Office of Attorney Ethics. Following the client’s interlocutory appeal, the appellate division affirmed the disqualification order.

Inherent authority to impose DQ remedy

New Jersey’s Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4(c), identical to Model Rule 3.4(c), forbids a lawyer to “knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal except for an open refusal based on an assertion that no valid obligation exists.”

The appeals court held that the lawyer knowingly used materials designated as “Attorneys’ Eyes Only” to solicit clients and to initiate a separate lawsuit against the car dealership, and that the trial court had not abused its discretion in using its inherent powers to sanction the lawyer for her ethical violation by disqualifying her.

Quoting from its prior holdings on balancing the need for ethical conduct against client choice, the court of appeals said that “there is no right to demand to be represented by an attorney disqualified because of an ethical requirement.”

“We underscore that an attorney’s failure to conform to his or her ethical obligations may imperil their client’s right to counsel of their choice.”

Not only did the lawyer’s client lose out; the lawyer put her own license in jeopardy, with the court’s referral to the state disciplinary agency.