Friday, January 30, 2015

Procedure for attorney disqualification must be followed

In Mitts v. Stamps, 2015 OK CIV APP 7, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held that the trial court must follow the prescribed procedure in disqualifying a party's legal counsel.  The Mitts court held:

¶7 The Oklahoma Supreme Court has conferred a special procedural status on motions to disqualify counsel. As the Court most recently re-affirmed in Miami Bus. Servs., LLC v. Davis2013 OK 20299 P.3d 477, a trial court considering such a motion must follow the procedure set forth in Piette v. Bradley & Leseberg1996 OK 124, ¶ 2, 930 P.2d 183, andArkansas Valley State Bank v. Phillips2007 OK 78171 P.3d 899, before ruling whether an attorney should be disqualified based on conflict of interest or improper possession of confidential information. Miami Bus, ¶ 24. The trial court must hold an evidentiary hearing, and then make a specific factual finding in its order that the attorney either had, or did not have, knowledge of material and confidential information. Id. Without such findings, we cannot review the correctness of the courts' disqualification decision, or any exercise of discretion in refusing to vacate the disqualification.

¶8 The district court relied on District Court Rule 4e (motion may be deemed confessed if not responded to) and Rule 4h (motions may be decided by the court without a hearing). We find no current case law holding that Miami Bus andPiette place motions to disqualify counsel outside of the provisions of Rule 4e and Rule 4h. Nevertheless, those decisions are clear that the right to choose counsel is fundamental, and counsel cannot be disqualified without the required hearing and findings, even when a disqualification motion goes unanswered. We therefore remand this matter for a hearing consistent with the Miami Bus decision.