Motion for Disqualification of Attorney in California

A trial court's ruling on a disqualification motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion, and the Court accepts as correct all express or implied findings that are supported by substantial evidence. (People ex rel. Dept. of Corporations v. SpeeDee Oil Change Systems, Inc. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 1135 at 1143-1145.) "However, the trial court's discretion is limited by the applicable legal principles. Thus, where there are no material disputed factual issues, the appellate court reviews the trial court's determination as a question of law. In any event, a disqualification motion involves concerns that justify careful review of the trial court's exercise of discretion. " (Id. at p. 1144.) A trial court has abused its discretion where it has applied an incorrect legal standard. (McPhearson v. Michaels Co. (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 843, 851; Farris v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 671, 689 (Farris).) Disqualification motions involve a conflict between clients' rights to counsel of their choice and the need to maintain ethical standards of professional responsibility. "The paramount concern is the preservation of public trust in the scrupulous administration of justice and the integrity of the bar." (Jessen v. Hartford Casualty Ins. Co. (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 698, 705-708.) This concept is sometimes broadly stated as prohibiting an attorney or law firm from doing "'anything which will injuriously affect his former client.'" (People ex rel. Deukmejian v. Brown (1981) 29 Cal.3d 150, 155, quoting Wutchumna Water Co. v. Bailey (1932) 216 Cal. 564, 573-574.) The legal standards for determining whether attorney disqualification must be ordered will require the application of a number of criteria, with attention to whether the challenged representation is simultaneous or successive, and within the context of identified policy concerns. In Flatt v. Superior Court (1994) 9 Cal.4th 275, the California Supreme Court distinguished among the circumstances in which attorney disqualification problems may arise, and stated that separate interests underlie the relevant ethical concerns, and therefore two distinct tests have been formulated for simultaneous versus successive representation cases. We reiterate that this is a successive representation case, in which the policy concerns of preserving client confidentiality are primarily implicated. By contrast, in simultaneous representation cases: "The primary value at stake in cases of simultaneous or dual representation is the attorney's duty--and the client's legitimate expectation--of loyalty, rather than confidentiality." (Id. at p. 284.) The test that applies to simultaneous representation is more stringent than that applicable to successive representations. (Ibid., Rule Prof. Conduct, rule 3-310(C).) In SpeeDee Oil, supra, 20 Cal.4th 1135, 1146-1147, the Supreme Court applied the rules for analyzing attorney-client confidentiality issues in a simultaneous representation case, in light of the "distinct fundamental value of our legal system that is the attorney's obligation of loyalty. Attorneys have a duty to maintain undivided loyalty to their clients to avoid undermining public confidence in the legal profession and the judicial process. The effective functioning of the fiduciary relationship between attorney and client depends on the client's trust and confidence in counsel. The courts will protect clients' legitimate expectations of loyalty to preserve this essential basis for trust and security in the attorney-client relationship." (Ibid.)