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Name: In re Charlisse C.
Case #: S152822
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 10/30/2008
Summary

In cases involving a potential conflict of interest, the standard for disqualification in cases involving successive representation is “vicarious disqualification,” which is different and less stringent than the standard in simultaneous representation cases. In July 2006, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition alleging that baby Charlisse came within the court’s dependency jurisdiction. The petition alleged that her mother put her at serious physical and mental harm and had also abused her sister. The juvenile court appointed the Children’s Law Center (CLC) to represent Charlisse. CLC was a nonprofit law firm that maintained three separate offices so that three different parties to a dependency proceeding could be represented without a conflict of interest. The mother objected to CLC’s representation of Charlisse, and moved to disqualify CLC on grounds that a conflict of interest existed. The juvenile court granted the disqualification motion, reasoning that CLC’s current structure violated the rule in Castro v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Supervisors (1991) 232 Cal.App.3d 1432 (Castro) and People v. Christian (1996) 41 Cal.App.4th 986 (Christian) – requiring that ethical walls be in place to allow an umbrella organization to represent more than one party in a legal action. The California Supreme Court held that remand was necessary. The Castro and Christian cases involve simultaneous representation. In simultaneous representation cases, the primary fiduciary value at stake is the attorney’s duty–and the client’s legitimate expectation–of loyalty. This is a different, and more stringent standard than in cases involving successive representation. In cases of successive representation, the chief fiduciary value at stake is that of client confidentiality, which requires application of the vicarious disqualification rule. In the context of public law offices, there is no automatic and inflexible rule of vicarious disqualification. Rather, the question is whether the public law office has adequately protected, and will continue to adequately protect the former client’s confidences through timely, appropriate, and effective screening measures, and/or structural safeguards. The evidentiary burden on this issue falls on the public law office — in this case, CLC — to show that the confidential information acquired from its prior representation of the mother has been, and will be, adequately protected during the representation of Charlisse.