Negligent lawyers can get themselves into hot water by retaining confidential client documents. Often, this violation of professional responsibility will result in a malpractice suit.
The more egregious behavior, the more intensely the lawyer may find themselves being litigated against. For example, in the following appeal, a lawyer is sued from all angles as his former firm and his former client sue him to regain client files retained post-employment.
Thomas Glynn Blazier was fired from his job as an associate at a law firm in Lake Charles. The firm sued Blazier for damages, during which it became aware Blazier had kept confidential files, including those relating to client Elaine Marshall. When Marshall learned of Blazier’s actions, she intervened as both an individual and as the Estate to which the files related and fought to regain possession of the files. Blazier motioned against this intervention to no avail.
Blazier then filed his first exception of no right of action, claiming Marshall had no cause of action and that she failed to comply with logistical filing requirements. The exception was rejected, and Marshall officially joined the firm in a motion for summary judgment to recover the retained files. The trial court granted this motion and ordered Blazier to return everything. Blazier was unhappy with this result and again sought to have Marshall excluded.
Blazier filed a new exception of no right of action, stating Marshall and he never had an attorney-client relationship. The trial court granted the exception in favor of Blazier and held the firm had the only interest in the documents, and Marshall could not separately sue to regain them. The firm had the sole right of action because the file materials belonged to the firm and because the clients hired the firm rather than the individual lawyer. Marshall appealed, claiming an interest in the documents separate from the law firm’s interest, which would grant her a cause of action.
An exception of no right of action is raised to challenge a plaintiff’s standing in the class of persons that legally have a cause of action for a particular lawsuit. Reese v. State Dep’t of Pub. Safety & Corr., 866 So.2d 244, 246 (La. 2/20/04). On appeal, the court should determine whether the party has a valid legal interest in the subject matter of the lawsuit. Eagle Pipe & Supply, Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corp., 79 So.3d 246, 256 (La. 10/25/11).
To analyze whether Marshall had a legal interest in the case, the court analyzed Rule 1.16(d) of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct. The rule mandates prioritizing the client’s interest over the attorney’s interest. The attorney may hold the files, but the client has a right to bring suit to recover these files regardless of the existence of a current attorney-client relationship. Therefore, a client will always have a right of action in a case involving the retention of their confidential documents by a former attorney. The appellate court reversed the lower court holding and sent it back to the trial court, mandating Marshall be deemed a valid party to the lawsuit.
Lawyers are expected to maintain a high level of professional responsibility. The rules of attorney-client privilege are drilled into the heads of first-year law students nationwide. Law firms are responsible for the behavior of their employees, even after their employment. This case demonstrates the procedure for holding lawyers accountable for acting against attorney-client privilege.
Additional Sources: HUNTER V. BLAZIER
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Corrinne Yoder-Mulkey
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