The possibility that a conflict of interest could arise when an attorney or law firm simultaneously representes a corporation and one or more of its officers or directors is a a frequently recurring issue. The issue was raised recently, for example, in the civil complaint that former Stanford Financial Group CFO Laura Pendergest-Holt filed against the firm’s former outside counsel, in connection with his conduct of the defense in connection with the SEC’s investigation of the firm. (A copy of Pendergest-Holt’s complaint can be found here.)
An April 1, 2009 opinion (here) by Central District of California Judge Cormac Carney in the Broadcom Corporation options backdating criminal case presents a far more dramatic example of the pitfalls that can arise from dual representations.
The opinion involves the Irell & Manella law firm’s "separate, but inextricably interrelated representations" of Broadcom and its CFO, William Ruehle. The law firm represented the company in its internal investigation of the backdating allegations. It also represented the company and Ruehle in the defense of the backdating related civil litigation.
In June 2006, two lawyers from the firm interviewed Ruehle, without disclosing possible conflicts or disclosing they might later reveal his statements to third parties (such as the government). Subsequently, the law firm, at the company’s direction, disclosed Ruehle’s statements to the company’s auditors, the SEC and the DoJ.
Ruehle sought to suppress the government’s reliance on his statements in connection with the criminal prosecution, because the statements represented privileged communications. Judge Carney agreed, but his April 1 opinion went far beyond this conclusion.
Judge Carney found that Irell "committed at least three clear violations of its duty of loyalty" – it failed to advise Ruehle of and obtain his written consent to the conflict; it interrogated him for the benefit of another client (Broadcom); and it disclosed privileged communications to a third party without consent.
Judge Carney said that he found Irell’s "ethical breaches" to be "very troubling," not only because they resulted in the suppression of relevant evidence, but also because they "compromised the rights of Mr. Ruehle, the integrity of the legal profession, and the fair administration of justice." Because of these concerns, Judge Cormac concluded that he "must refer Irell to the State Bar for discipline."
Judge Carney’s blistering opinion is noteworthy in and of itself, both because of the prominence of the firm involved and because of the heat of the rhetoric he employed. His opinion is also a cautionary example both to lawyers involved in corporate representations and to corporate officers whose interests may be being represented by the company’s own counsel in connection with serious investigations that may potentially involve criminal implications.
The opinion may also be relevant for insurance professionals who often are called upon to address questions surrounding the possible need for separate counsel for individual defendants. Judge Carney’s opinion in the Broadcom case underscores how serious these issues may be, and the consequences that can sometimes arise if separate counsel issues are not appropriately addressed.
Insurance professionals of course cannot become involved in the kinds of ethical questions presented in Judge Carney’s opinion, but an awareness of the kinds of issues that can arise is an important perspective to bring to the table when questions involving separate representation do arise.
It is sometimes the case that it is the firm’s outside law firm that is resisting the suggestion that the firm may not be able to maintain the multiple representations it has purported to assume. These kinds of discussions can be particularly vexing, as law firm can often dominate the dialog and the insured company or insured individuals may not see where their interests may diverge from the position the law firm is advocating. While these conversations can sometimes be extremely delicate, they can involve critical issues. Insurance professionals aware of the kinds of issues involved in the Broadcom case can at least raise appropriate questions to try to ensure that issues are discussed.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for proving a copy of Judge Carney’s opinion.