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Attorney Conflict of Interest; Disqualification of Legal Counsel

State of Minnesota, et al v. 3M Company, A12-1856, April 30, 2014, reversed the Court of Appeals in part and remanded to the trial court several rulings that had disqualified the Covington & Burlington law firm from providing legal counsel to the State of Minnesota in environmental litigation commenced against the 3M due to its manufacture and disposal of perfluorochemicals (PFCs). Prior to representing the State in the environmental litigation, the Covington law firm had represented 3M in regulatory matters involving the health effects resulting from exposure to fluorochemicals (FCs).

The Covington law firm appealed the Court of Appeals’ holding that the law firm lacked standing to assert any legally protected right to continue representing the State; the State of Minnesota appealed the rulings that a violation of Rule 1.9(a) of the Rules of Professional conduct mandated disqualification and was not subject to waiver by the former client.

The Minnesota Supreme court held that when a district court has disqualified an attorney from representing a client, the attorney has standing independent of the client to seek review of the disqualification order. The Supreme court also held that while a violation of Rule 1.9(a) usually mandates disqualification, this matter needed to be remanded to the trial court for its specific findings as to whether the information Covington had obtained from its representation of 3M was no longer confidential due to disclosure in a concurrent lawsuit commenced by 3M against Covington for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract, and whether 3M had waived its right to seek disqualification by its delay in moving for disqualification.