Court denies motion to clarify obligations when making permitted ex parte contacts

By David Hricik

The ABA Model Rules and most state rules divide the world into “persons represented by counsel,” who may not be contacted about a matter, and “unrepresented persons,” who may.  Speaking generally, a lawyer may not communicate about a matter with a person who is “represented by counsel” in that particular matter.  See, e.g., A.B.A. Model Rule 4.2.  This is true even if the represented person wants to talk to the lawyer: only the person’s lawyer may consent.

If a person is not “represented by counsel,” in a matter, a lawyer may communicate with that person, subject to requirements of Rule 4.3, which usually include explaining why the lawyer is communicating and not giving legal advice. A comment to that rule states: “In order to avoid a misunderstanding, a lawyer will typically need to identify the lawyer’s client and, where necessary, explain that the client has interests opposed to those of the unrepresented person.”

Two common problems arise with these rules.  One is that whether a person is “represented by counsel” is not always clear when an entity is the opposing lawyer’s client: if you’re suing my client, and my client is a huge multi-national corporation, is everyone at my client “represented” by me, or what?  The comment to ABA Model Rule 4.2 provides some clarity, but not a lot at the margins, by stating:

In the case of a represented organization, this Rule prohibits communications with a constituent of the organization who supervises, directs or regularly consults with the organization’s lawyer concerning the matter or has authority to obligate the organization with respect to the matter or whose act or omission in connection with the matter may be imputed to the organization for purposes of civil or criminal liability. Consent of the organization’s lawyer is not required for communication with a former constituent.

That’s likely why a comment states: “A lawyer who is uncertain whether a communication with a represented person is permissible may seek a court order.”

The second problem is that often what, exactly, a lawyer must say to a person who is not “represented by counsel,” can be unclear.  Obviously, a lawyer who wants the person not to reveal information will want the person to be given all sorts of information by opposing counsel — “you don’t have to talk to me and you shouldn’t reveal privileged information” and so on — while the lawyer wanting to make the contact wants to make the contact friendly and informal.

It’s not perfectly clear from the court’s order, but it appears that in Hoist Fitness Systems, Inc. v. TuffStuff Fitness International, Inc. (C.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2019), a lawyer sought an order modifying the protective order to specify that certain persons were not “represented” and to clarify what the lawyers had to do to comply with Rule 4.3.  The court denied the request:

Defendant seeks to amend the Protective Order to require the parties to comply with the law – specifically, California Rule of Professional Conduct 4.37. Defendant “seeks clarification from the Court regarding the proper interpretation of Rule 4.3, and if it agrees with [Defendant’s] interpretation, grant [Defendant’s] request to amend the protective order to ensure compliance with Rule 4.3 by all counsel in this litigation.” Dkt. 147 at 1.

Pursuant to Local Rule 37-2.4, “[t]he Court will not consider any discovery motion in the absence of a joint stipulation or a declaration from counsel for the moving party establishing that opposing counsel (a) failed to confer in a timely manner in accordance with L.R. 37-1; (b) failed to provide the opposing party’s portion of the joint stipulation in a timely manner in accordance with L.R. 37-2.2; or (c) refused to sign and return the joint stipulation after the opposing party’s portion was added.” L.R. 37-2.4. Here, Defendant filed the instant Motion to Amend the Protective Order without a Joint Stipulation or the required declaration from counsel. Hence, the Court need not consider Defendant’s Motion to Amend the Protective Order.

In addition, the Court declines Defendant’s request to give an advisory opinion on whether Plaintiff’s counsel has violated California Code of Professional Conduct 4.3. Golden v. Zwickler, 394 U.S. 103, 108, 89 S. Ct. 956, 959, 22 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1969) (“‘(T)he federal courts established pursuant to Article III of the Constitution do not render advisory opinions.”). Moreover, there is no good cause to amend a stipulated protective order to include a requirement that counsel comply with the law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c)(1) (“The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.”).

It’s hard to tell, but if the party seeking the modification had identified particular individuals and sought rulings as to them, then perhaps the cost of formal discovery could have been reduced, and the potential for future motion practice on this point, eliminated.

About David

Professor of Law, Mercer University School of Law. Of Counsel, Taylor English Duma, LLP. Former judicial clerk to Chief Judge Rader; former lawyer with Baker Botts and other firms

7 thoughts on “Court denies motion to clarify obligations when making permitted ex parte contacts

  1. 3

    A recent decision was a reminder that ex pare contacts are also prohibited, and sanctionable, in all PTO inter partes proceedings. Under 37 C.F.R. § 42.5(d), communications with a Board member regarding a specific proceeding are not permitted “unless both parties have an opportunity to be involved in the communication.” This prohibition, however, does not extend to “referring to a pending case to illustrate a systemic concern.” Rules of Practice Before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board and Judicial Review of Patent Trial and Appeal Board Decisions, 77 Fed. Reg. 48612, 48,617 (Aug. 14, 2012).

  2. 2

    Here are other situations in which communication to individuals rather than through counsel arises: Since so many patent suits are on older patents, the inventors on those patents, even though they are potential witnesses, are often no longer employed by the patent owner. Or, the patent has been sold to a PAE. If the patent owner attorneys foolishly fail to contact the inventors in advance, which happens, the defense counsels may get to them first and obtain their cooperation. Or even notice the taking of their depositions as third party witnesses and encouraging them to not be represented by the patent owners attorneys, with whom they may not have entirely common interests, especially if they were laid off by the original patent owner.

  3. 1

    You might be interested in this case that I litigated, argued, and won on appeal, on this very question:
    link to metnews.com

    1. 1.1

      Thanks. I’ve dealt with it several times, too. Your case sounded particularly interesting.

    2. 1.2

      Thank Michael, but assuming I understood those facts correctly, it seems to me to have been generating an avoidable legal expense defending “pushing the edge” on this issue? Also, even if the same result [not losing a client by attorney disqualification] would occur in other states, is it in general really worth potentially aggravating or biasing a trial judge by personally contacting an executive of the patent owner?

      1. 1.2.1

        Paul – In our case, the executive was one of our directors. The argument I made then and would make now is that he was a key witness in the case. Why should the other side get to talk to him and not us?

        1. 1.2.1.1

          Thanks for the clarification.

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