State ex rel. Yurish v. Faircloth, No. 19-1160

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtWALKER, Justice
Citation243 W.Va. 537,847 S.E.2d 810
Parties STATE of West Virginia EX REL. June YURISH, Kristin Douty, and Christina Lester, Petitioners v. The Honorable Laura V. FAIRCLOTH, Judge of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County, and The State of West Virginia, Respondents
Docket NumberNo. 19-1160
Decision Date28 May 2020

243 W.Va. 537
847 S.E.2d 810

STATE of West Virginia EX REL. June YURISH, Kristin Douty, and Christina Lester, Petitioners
v.
The Honorable Laura V. FAIRCLOTH, Judge of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County, and The State of West Virginia, Respondents

No. 19-1160

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: March 3, 2020
Filed: May 28, 2020


Christian J. Riddell, Esq., Stedman & Riddell, PLLC, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Counsel for Petitioners.

Patrick Morrisey, Esq., Attorney General, Gordon L. Mowen, II, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondents.

WALKER, Justice:

847 S.E.2d 812

Petitioners June Yurish, Kristin Douty, and Christina Lester are charged with the same crime arising from the same circumstances in three criminal cases pending in the Circuit Court of Berkeley County. Christian Riddell is counsel for all three, jointly. But the State moved to disqualify Mr. Riddell from representing Petitioners because, it argued, the joint representation created a current conflict among Petitioners’ interests and threatened future conflicts that would jeopardize the integrity of the proceedings. The circuit court granted the State's motion.

Petitioners now seek a writ from this Court to prohibit the circuit court from enforcing that order. They contend that the disqualification of Mr. Riddell is a clear violation of their Sixth Amendment right to choose their own counsel, regardless of the conflicts that exist or that may arise. We disagree. The circuit court did not clearly err when it applied Rule 44(c) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure to disqualify Mr. Riddell from representing Petitioners, jointly, at this early stage of the proceedings. So, we deny the requested writ.

847 S.E.2d 813

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In August 2019, authorities filed three criminal complaints in the Berkeley County Magistrate Court against Petitioners June Yurish, Kristin Douty, and Christina Lester.1 The complaints charged each Petitioner with a single violation of West Virginia Code § 49-2-812(a), Failure to Report.2 All three charges arise from the same set of facts. Christian Riddell appeared in magistrate court as counsel for each Petitioner. At his request, the magistrate court transferred the cases to circuit court, which then scheduled an initial hearing for October 21, 2019.

The State moved to disqualify Mr. Riddell from appearing in Petitioners’ cases immediately before the October 21 initial hearing. In its motion, the State represented that it had offered plea agreements to Petitioners which, as a condition of acceptance, required each to assist the State's investigation and, if necessary, to testify against her codefendants. The State argued in its motion that the offer created a concurrent conflict of interest for Mr. Riddell under West Virginia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7.3 The parties then appeared for the previously scheduled hearing on October 21. There, Mr. Riddell produced conflict waivers4 from each of his clients in which they represented that,

3. My attorney has further informed me that it is probable that the prosecutor will offer me a plea agreement [that] requires my cooperation and testimony against my codefendants in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

4. My attorney has informed me that, pursuant to Rule 1.7 of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, the possibility of such a plea agreement creates for him a concurrent conflict of interest as to joint representation because he will be able unable to negotiate any such plea agreement on my behalf because of his ongoing representation and duties to my co-defendants.

Petitioners responded to the State's motion the next month. They urged the circuit court to approach the State's motion with extreme caution out of deference to their rights under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution to be represented by the counsel of their choice. They reasoned that their waivers cured any concurrent or future conflicts that may arise as the case progressed and that the State had not met its heavy burden to prove that disqualification was necessary and justified.5

847 S.E.2d 814

The circuit court reconvened the parties on November 18, 2019. After argument, the circuit court granted the State's motion from the bench. The court found that regardless of any actual conflicts of interest, Mr. Riddell's joint representation of Petitioners created two likely future conflicts. First, one Petitioner may want to share information with Mr. Riddell that she did not want him to share with her codefendants. Mr. Riddell could not comply with that instruction if he continued to represent all three Petitioners. Second, Mr. Riddell could not advise one Petitioner on any proposed plea agreement that would obligate her to assist the State in the prosecution of her codefendants. The court recognized Petitioners’ position that they would never accept a plea agreement but observed that that position could change. And, the circuit court observed that Mr. Riddell's participation in plea negotiations in any of Petitioners’ cases could easily give rise to a direct appeal or a habeas petition, regardless of Petitioners’ conflict waivers.

The parties gathered once again on December 10 so that the circuit court could ask each Petitioner about the joint representation and to advise her of her rights, as required by West Virginia Rule of Criminal Procedure 44(c).6 During the hearing, the court questioned each Petitioner individually and in near-identical fashion. Each Petitioner affirmed to the circuit court that she understood that she had a right to be represented by counsel. Each Petitioner also affirmed her understanding that because of the joint representation, Mr. Riddell had to meet with Petitioners simultaneously or obtain the others’ permission to keep confidential information she shared with him. Each Petitioner also affirmed that she understood that if the State offered a cooperation plea agreement, or if she decided to approach the State about a plea agreement, Mr. Riddell would have to withdraw from the joint representation arrangement. Each Petitioner also informed the circuit court that no conflict of interest existed or could occur in the future that would justify disqualification of Mr. Riddell from her case.

Following the colloquy, the court addressed the applicability of Rule 44(c) to the case at hand. The court found that the rule applied to potential conflicts as well as actual ones and concluded that good cause existed under Rule 44(c) to believe that a conflict of interest would likely arise in Petitioners’ cases that would disqualify Mr. Riddell from representing Petitioners jointly. The court explained that while a conflict may not arise immediately in Petitioners’ cases, it would certainly arise

once the Court moves forward and the Court makes a ruling about the admissibility of that tape that has been circulating, as the Court goes through different hearings and different matters are addressed, I cannot fathom a situation where a conflict of interest would not likely arise in this case. And as a result of that in order to protect the defendants according to Rule 44(c) the Court will grant or has already granted the state's motion and I just wanted to re-affirm that decision here today.

Even though the individual defendants have been I think sincere in their statements to the Court and certainly want you, Mr. Riddell, to represent them I don't believe that they're making decisions that are in their best interest and even when I heard one of the defendants say I don't feel that there would be any conflict that's not saying there couldn't possibly be and that's the standard the Court employs.

Petitioners’ counsel then asked the circuit court to clarify its ruling and advise whether it intended to disqualify him from representing one Petitioner or all of them. The court responded:

No, you're not permitted to represent any of them. A conflict for one is a conflict for all. I have no idea what shared information you've been given nor would I even go so far as to ask that is not a province of the Court but you have clearly met with
847 S.E.2d 815
your clients in an effort to be of assistance to them. They have engaged you. They have spoken with you and you've been their attorney for several months now. So the perception is there that you have information that they have shared with you that may be adverse at some point to any one of the other defendants. So this Court does adopt the pretty standard requirement that if you have a conflict for one you have a conflict for all.

The circuit court entered an order on December 11, 2019, memorializing its oral rulings from the December 10 hearing. Petitioners seek a writ from this Court prohibiting the enforcement of the December 11 order.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A writ of prohibition is an extraordinary remedy reserved for extraordinary causes.7 When a party argues that a court has acted beyond its legitimate authority, rather than its jurisdiction, we look to five factors to guide our determination as to whether the party's case is extraordinary and, therefore, deserving of...

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2 practice notes
  • Estate of Jones v. City of Martinsburg (In re Estate of Jones), No. 18-0927
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • October 30, 2020
    ...the fact that the conflict was purely speculative—what might occur in the future. See State ex rel. Yurish v. Faircloth, ___ W. Va. ___, 847 S.E.2d 810 (2020). 51. In one recent newsworthy case from Louisville Kentucky, police entering a residence for a warrantless search, fired thirty-two ......
  • State v. Tucker, No. 20-0685
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 17, 2021
    ..."A writ of prohibition is an extraordinary remedy reserved for extraordinary causes." State ex rel. Yurish v. Faircloth, 243 W. Va. 537, ---, 847 S.E.2d 810, 815 (2020) (citing State ex rel. Vanderra Resources, LLC v. Hummel, 242 W. Va. 35, 829 S.E.2d 35 (2019) (internal quotation......
2 cases
  • Estate of Jones v. City of Martinsburg (In re Estate of Jones), No. 18-0927
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • October 30, 2020
    ...the fact that the conflict was purely speculative—what might occur in the future. See State ex rel. Yurish v. Faircloth, ___ W. Va. ___, 847 S.E.2d 810 (2020). 51. In one recent newsworthy case from Louisville Kentucky, police entering a residence for a warrantless search, fired thirty-two ......
  • State v. Tucker, No. 20-0685
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 17, 2021
    ..."A writ of prohibition is an extraordinary remedy reserved for extraordinary causes." State ex rel. Yurish v. Faircloth, 243 W. Va. 537, ---, 847 S.E.2d 810, 815 (2020) (citing State ex rel. Vanderra Resources, LLC v. Hummel, 242 W. Va. 35, 829 S.E.2d 35 (2019) (internal quotation......

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