Playing with Dynamite

May 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

If a husband and wife came into your office and wanted you to represent them both in an ID divorce, what would you say? I think, and would hope, that the vast majority of us would decline on ethical grounds and offer to represent only one, not both.

How would it work, anyway, to represent both parties? You could put them in separate rooms and shuttle between. You could run to one room and advise the husband against agreeing to pay any alimony, and then run to another room and advise the wife to hold out until the husband agrees to alimony. Absurd? I’ll say.

Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct (MRPC) 1.7 precludes representation of opposing parties in litigation unless certain conditions are met. Ethics Opinion number 80 of the Bar issued March 25, 1983, makes it clear that joint representation in an irreconcilable differences divorce is unethical:

The Committee is, therefore, of the opinion that the representation of both parties to a no-fault divorce violates the Rule 1.7, MRPC, and that it is, therefore, unethical for a lawyer to undertake such multiple representation.

 How to handle it is set out in this language of the Opinion:

There is nothing wrong at all with one of the parties to a No-Fault Divorce being without an attorney, so long as that party, either H or W is properly informed by the spouse’s attorney that (1) that party is not represented by the spouse’s attorney, (2) the spouse’s attorney will not undertake to advise that party on any aspect of the case as to his or her rights, and (3) that party has a right to obtain an attorney to advise him or her and to review any of the agreements, pleadings or decrees which will be prepared. See Rule 4.3, MRPC.

A recent COA case involved dual representation and a challenged outcome. Leta Collins and Kenneth Collins were divorced from each other in 2011. They had filed a joint complaint for divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences. The pleading stated that “The parties together have been represented by [Name of the Attorney], and was signed by that attorney as “Counsel for Leta D. Collins and Kenneth J. Collins.” In the PSA, which was approved by the court, Leta relinquished all interest in Kenneth’s financial assets and retirement.

More than a year later, Leta discovered that she had not known of more than $500,000 in financial assets that Kenneth had at the time of the divorce. She filed a R60 motion, but she did not allege that a fraud had been committed. The chancellor denied the motion, and Leta appealed.

In the case of Collins v. Collins, decided May 5, 2015, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair wrote this for the court:

¶24. Leta argues that the marital property was not equitably distributed because she and Kenneth were represented by the same attorney during the divorce. She alleges that her lack of independent advice and counsel led her to sign the unfair PSA.

¶25. The joint complaint for divorce states “[t]he parties together have been represented by M. Chadwick Smith,” and it was signed by Smith as “attorney for” both parties. Leta testified she and Kenneth believed they were represented by the same attorney. Leta argues this was a direct violation of Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7(a), which prohibits representation of “a client if the representation of that client will be directly adverse to another client,” unless certain conditions are met.

¶26. The chancellor addressed this issue in her findings from the bench, stating that

when Mr. Chadwick Smith came in with his document, the final decree, I inquired of him who he represented because the divorce had the words that Ms. Collins’[s] counsel very ably draws to attention, that he represented both. And he stated, “I only prepared the paperwork, Judge. That’s what it says on there, ‘Prepared by.’” Only after the assurances of Mr. Chad Smith did I accept the parties’ divorce, and I signed the same on the 8th day of June 2011. Thus the allegations that Ms. Collins seeks to present that Mr. Collins committed a fraud on this court are fundamentally vested against Mr. Chad Smith.

¶27. Leta testified that she was the one who had actually prepared the PSA, based on her prior divorce papers, with some contributions from Kenneth. Kenneth likewise testified that Smith did not make any decisions for them. As the chancellor found, if Smith violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in dual representation, it was not a sufficient basis to modify the divorce decree. This issue is without merit.

What saved the attorney here apparently was that the parties had specifically waived financial disclosures, and it was Leta, and not the lawyer, who prepared the PSA. Both parties acknowledged that the lawyer gave them no advice at all. It did not help Leta’s cause, if you read the rest of the opinion, that it took her a year and some months to seek the court’s assistance.

A few thoughts:

  • Don’t let anything about the peculiar facts in this case mislead you into believing it’s ever okay to represent both parties in an ID divorce. It’s not. Ever. It’s unethical. And if it’s unethical, it can cost you professionally. Don’t do it. Ever.
  • Any lawyer who states on a joint complaint for divorce that he represents both parties is asking for trouble. That in and of itself is a statement admitting an ethical violation.
  • I must be getting old (and I admit I am), but I am seeing more and more of people with JD after their names taking the position that “I only drafted papers for the parties,” or “I simply typed and submitted what they gave me,” or “this is what the client insists on doing.” Whatever happened to lawyers (JD’s)  as counselors at law? Have lawyers gone from being legal advisors and guides to being high-priced clerk-typists? What is the point of having a lawyer when anyone with a word-processing program and a laptop can produce pleadings and an agreement? What is the point of having a lawyer if it is not to obtain legal advice? This trend, particularly among young people with JD after their names troubles me greatly. Notice that I said “JD after their names” and not lawyers. Just because you have JD after your name does not make you a lawyer. What makes you a lawyer is representing, protecting, and looking after the legal interests of a client. If all you’re doing is being a paying customer’s stooge, or acting as their clerk-typist, all you are is a JD, not a lawyer.
  • In this case, the parties themselves acquiesced in this awkward arrangement, which created an excuse for it under MRPC. Had they not, I think Ms. Collins had a legitimate beef, and maybe a viable lawsuit against their joint lawyer. But although it gets the lawyer out of this particular bind, I don’t think that the parties’ acquiescence can excuse this ethical breach. The lawyer, not the parties. has the higher duty and is ethically bound.
  • If you ever draft a joint complaint, make doubly, triply sure that you make it clear which party you represent, and that you have not, and will not provide the unrepresented party with any legal advice, and that she has the right to have attorney advise him or her and to review any of the agreements, pleadings or decrees which will be prepared.
  • Better yet: never, ever, ever, ever file a joint complaint for divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences.
  • And, for Pete’s sake, be an attorney and advise your client. That’s what you went to law school for.
  • Play fast and loose with the ethical rules and you are playing with dynamite.

Tagged:

§ One Response to Playing with Dynamite

  • thusbloggedanderson says:

    I was not happy with the result, which I could not square with the undeniable assumption that Ms Collins was entitled to trust her attorney.

    And I think the entire unanimous COA endorsed the attorney’s unethical behavior by their decision.

    Nor can I respect a chancellor who entered judgment on a complaint that on its face violated the MRPC. She and the COA appear to think that ethics are a dispensable part of legal practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Playing with Dynamite at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.

meta

%d bloggers like this: