Lawyer Professional Liability: D.C. Circuit discusses remedy following breach of fiduciary duty

In So v. Suchanek, Nos. 10-7071, 10-7087 and 10-7113 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 20, 2012), a professional liability action against an attorney, the Court considered the defendant attorney's appeal of a judgment that the attorney had to disgorge fees, with interest, totaling $455,933.52 as a result of the attorney's breach of fiduciary duty by failing to disclose a direct conflict of interest. The Court also considered the former client's cross-appeal, in which the former client argued that the amount of disgorgement should have been higher. The Court ruled against the attorney and in favor of the former client, affirming the judgment against the attorney as to liability, but remanding the matter to the trial court for recalculation of the amount of disgorgement of fees, in a higher amount, covering the entire course of representation.

The facts of the case are perhaps best summed up by the trial court's one-sentence introduction to its Memorandum Decision:

This case presents the sad story of a blind and
partially deaf retired administrative law judge who robed himself
with the made-up title "Chief Judge Emeritus"; held himself out
as a knowledgeable, indeed powerful, lawyer with experience in
complex international financial matters; undertook to provide
legal representation from Washington, D.C., to a British
corporate entity, an American investor, a wealthy but naive, non-
English speaking Hong Kong investor, and a Chinese woman resident
in Canada, in connection with a financial fraud perpetrated in
London; ignored or failed to recognize conflicts of interest
between and among these clients; accomplished roughly nothing
except administrative duties for any of them; accepted
substantial payments from his client but neither prepared nor
submitted bills; and, when his representation came to an end and
his Hong Kong client demanded the return of $400,000 of the funds
that had been entrusted to him, refused to do it.

So v. Suchanek, No. 08-2091 (D.D.C. May 6, 2010)(U.S. District Judge James Robertson).

Finding several conflicts of interest in violation of D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7, the district court stated that:

The controlling Circuit precedent found in Hendry v.
Pelland, supra, amply supports a finding that a lawyer who
represents his client although he has conflicts of interests has
violated his fiduciary duty, and that such a violation, without
more, will support an order for the disgorgement of legal fees.
Hendry does not, however, require disgorgement, nor does it
prescribe the amount or proportion of fees that must be disgorged
if disgorgement is to be the remedy. For those matters, the
trial court is left to its sound, equitable discretion.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit observed, in pertinent part, that although not every ethics violation rises to the level of a breach of fiduciary duty, a breach occurs when an attorney represents clients with conflicting interests.

The Circuit Court agreed that disgorgement is an equitable remedy entrusted to the sound discretion of the district court. Here, however, the Circuit Court held that the district court's award of damages was founded on an erroneous view of the law, namely, a misapplication of rule 1.7, because the district court erroneously considered the conflict of interest limited to two discrete time periods. The Court directed that on remand, the district court consider the following factors:

The remedy . . . [the district court] fashions should account for the full extent of the conflicts found; the need to deter attorney misconduct; the "fundamental principle of equity . . . that fiduciaries should not profit from their disloyalty"; and the decreased value of the services provided to So resulting from Suchanek's rampant misconduct. Hendry, 73 F.3d at 402; see also Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers [sec.] 37 cmt. e (2000)("Ordinarily, forfeiture extends to all fees for the matter for which the lawyer was retained . . . . ")

This case illustrates the importance of early identification of conflicts of interest and an effective response to such conflicts.