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.