State ex rel. Cosenza v. Hill

Decision Date12 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. 31756.,31756.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of West Virginia ex rel. George J. COSENZA, Richard J. Wolf, Remiglio O. Jacob, and Lily F. Jacob, Petitioners, v. Honorable George W. HILL, Judge of the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia, and Stanley Bucklew d/b/a Bucklew Construction Company, Respondents.

George J. Cosenza, Esq., Richard J. Wolf, Esq., Cosenza, Merriman & Wolf, PLLC, Parkersburg, for the Petitioners.

Daniel A. Ruley, Jr., Esq., Pullin, Fowler & Flanagan, PLLC, Beckley, for the Respondent, Stanley Bucklew d/b/a Bucklew Construction Company.

PER CURIAM.

The petitioners herein, George J. Cosenza, Richard J. Wolf, Remiglio O. Jacob, and Lily F. Jacob, request this Court to issue a writ of prohibition to preclude the respondent herein, the Honorable George W. Hill, Judge of the Circuit Court of Wood County, from enforcing an order entered April 28, 2004. By that order, the circuit court disqualified petitioners Cosenza and Wolf, as well as the law firm of Cosenza, Merriman & Wolf, PLLC, from representing the Jacobs in their underlying cause of action against the additional respondent herein, Stanley Bucklew d/b/a Bucklew Construction Company. Before this Court, petitioners Cosenza and Wolf request that a writ of prohibition be issued to overturn the lower court's ruling and to permit them to continue their representation of the Jacobs in the underlying proceeding. Upon a review of the parties' arguments and the pertinent authorities, we deny the requested writ.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In September, 2000, the Jacobs filed a civil action against Bucklew in the Circuit Court of Wood County. At that time, the Jacobs were represented by James M. Bradley, Jr., and counsel for Bucklew was Diana Everett and Daniel A. Ruley, Jr., of Steptoe & Johnson. Petitioner Wolf also worked for Steptoe & Johnson at this time, but he avers that he did not work on the Jacobs' case or otherwise obtain any knowledge thereof from his colleagues. Thereafter, Mr. Wolf terminated his employment with Steptoe & Johnson in November, 2002, and became associated with Cosenza, Underwood & Merriman1 in January, 2003.

For reasons not apparent to this Court, the Jacobs discontinued their relationship with their prior counsel2 and, in October, 2003, retained petitioner Cosenza to continue their litigation against Bucklew.3 While preparing the case for trial, Cosenza, in January 2004, asked Wolf to assist him with such trial preparations. In response to this addition to the Jacobs' legal team, counsel for Bucklew, on March 9, 2004, moved to disqualify both Wolf and the entire Cosenza law firm, including Cosenza, himself, based upon Wolf's prior employment with Steptoe & Johnson at the time that that firm represented Bucklew.

Following a hearing on the matter, the circuit court, by order entered April 28, 2004, determined that disqualification was warranted. In short, the circuit court concluded that "representation of the plaintiffs [the Jacobs] by George J. Cosenza, Richard J. Wolf and the law firm of Cosenza, Merriman & Wolf, PLLC may create an `appearance of impropriety' although there is no evidence of actual impropriety." From this adverse ruling, the petitioners seek a writ of prohibition to preclude the circuit court from enforcing its disqualification order.

II. STANDARD FOR ISSUANCE OF WRIT

This case is before the Court as a petition for a writ of prohibition. In prior cases concerning the disqualification of counsel, we have found the writ of prohibition to be an appropriate vehicle by which to challenge an attorney's ability to continue his/her challenged representation of a client. See, e.g., State ex rel. Ogden Newspapers, Inc. v. Wilkes, 198 W.Va. 587, 482 S.E.2d 204 (1996) (per curiam)

("Ogden I"); State ex rel. McClanahan v. Hamilton, 189 W.Va. 290, 430 S.E.2d 569 (1993); State ex rel. Taylor Assocs. v. Nuzum, 175 W.Va. 19, 330 S.E.2d 677 (1985). When deciding whether a prohibitory writ should lie in a particular case, we typically employ the following standard:

In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving the absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.

Syl. pt. 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W.Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996). With this standard in mind, we proceed to consider the parties' arguments.

III. DISCUSSION

The instant proceeding presents a solitary issue for our deliberation and determination: whether petitioners Cosenza and Wolf and the Cosenza law firm should be disqualified from representing the Jacobs in their underlying matter against Bucklew. Concluding that the particular circumstances of this case warranted disqualification, the circuit court found that the appearance of impropriety precluded the attorney petitioners herein from continuing their representation of the Jacobs in the underlying matter.

Before this Court, the petitioners contend that disqualification is not proper because attorney Wolf, although employed by the same law firm that formerly represented Bucklew, did not work on or acquire any knowledge of the Jacobs' case while he was so employed. In support of their argument, the petitioners rely on Rule 1.10(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, which provides that

[w]hen a lawyer becomes associated with a firm, the firm may not knowingly represent a person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that lawyer, or a firm with which the lawyer was associated, had previously represented a client whose interests are materially adverse to that person and about whom the lawyer had acquired information protected by Rules 1.6 and 1.9(b) that is material to the matter.4

(Emphasis and footnote added). Based upon the facts underlying the instant proceeding, the petitioners argue that the second element of this test has not been satisfied insofar as Wolf did not personally represent Mr. Bucklew, and thus, he did not obtain any confidential information about Bucklew that he could now use in his representation of the Jacobs.

The respondent rejects the petitioners' arguments and states that the circuit court properly deemed the petitioners to be disqualified based upon the appearance of impropriety arising from their continued representation of the Jacobs in this matter. In this regard, Bucklew asserts that the circuit court properly ruled that Wolf, Cosenza, and the Cosenza law firm were disqualified from representing the Jacobs because it is charged with avoiding the appearance of impropriety and resolving all doubts in favor of disqualification. Citing HealthNet, Inc. v. Health Net, Inc., 289 F.Supp.2d 755 (S.D.W.Va.2003)

(mem.op.); Roberts & Schaefer Co. v. San-Con, Inc., 898 F.Supp. 356 (S.D.W.Va.1995) (mem.op.); Garlow v. Zakaib, 186 W.Va. 457, 413 S.E.2d 112 (1991); State ex rel. Taylor Assocs. v. Nuzum, 175 W.Va. 19, 330 S.E.2d 677 (1985). Based upon Wolf's prior association with Bucklew's counsel, Bucklew asserts that Wolf should be precluded from representing the Jacobs, whose interests are adverse to Bucklew, in their ongoing litigation against him.

Our resolution of the disqualification question presented by this proceeding is governed by the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct. Specifically, West Virginia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.10(b) provides

[w]hen a lawyer becomes associated with a firm, the firm may not knowingly represent a person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that lawyer, or a firm with which the lawyer was associated, had previously represented a client whose interests are materially adverse to that person and about whom the lawyer had acquired information protected by Rules 1.65 and 1.9(b)6 that is material to the matter.

(Footnotes added). Based upon the plain language of Rule 1.10(b), it is clear that two criteria must be satisfied in order to disqualify counsel, or a law firm, from his/her, or its, representation of a client: (1) representation of an adverse client or affiliation with a law firm that represented an adverse client and (2) knowledge of confidential information pertaining to the same or a substantially related matter.

Under the facts of the case presently before us, it is undisputed that the law firm with which attorney Wolf was previously associated, Steptoe & Johnson, defended Bucklew in the Jacobs' lawsuit against him. What remains to be determined, however, is whether Wolf acquired knowledge of such representation so as to preclude him from representing a party whose interests are adverse to those of Bucklew, particularly given that the prior representation by Steptoe pertains to the same litigation in which Wolf proposes to represent the opposing parties.

Wolf has averred that he did not acquire any knowledge of Bucklew's representation while he was employed by Steptoe. To satisfy the knowledge requirement, the acquisition of confidential...

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