Clients often turn on their lawyers. The criminal conduct or tortious actions for which the client is being held responsible sometimes cannot be evaded. Especially in those situations the client will often blame their own lawyer for their predicament. The sad fact is that in by far the majority of cases, the client got all the help they could afford and probably more compassion than they deserved from their own lawyer. Such clients are usually turning on the only friend they may have left. For the client, it usually does not end well.
In Burri Law PA v Skurla, Slip Op. (9th Cir. 2022), the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed dismissal of a defamation case by a federal trial court sitting in Arizona. The Plaintiff law firm represented the Eparchy of Arizona. The law firm was called upon to investigate the ERISA benefits plan of the denomination. The law firm allegedly requested plan documents and was refused. The law firm, however, allegedly discovered and then in an ERISA based federal lawsuit sued upon illegally commingled Plan funds, converted Plan assets, and offshore accounts. To evade the claims, the denomination sought to merge the Plan of the Eparchy of Arizona with other plans held by other eparchies. Meanwhile, leadership of certain other eparchies allegedly defamed the law firm to induce the Eparchy of Arizona to terminate the representation of the law firm. The presiding officer, seemingly later, of the denomination ordered the Eparchy of Arizona to terminate the law firm and dismiss the ERISA lawsuit. The law firm sought payment of its fees and was sued for malpractice. The law firm began a second lawsuit alleging the eparchies and the denomination tortiously interfered with the law firm’s contract with the Eparchy of Arizona and defamed the law firm. The 9th Circuit reversed the trial court dismissal and held there was no ecclesiastical issue requiring abstention by the court. Turning on their lawyer did not end well because the lawsuit brought by the law firm was ordered to proceed.
While an “in house” lawyer may or may not be subject to ecclesiastical authority to the same extent as any other employee, an “outside” lawyer or law firm’s relationship is solely by secular contract even if one or more law firm members are members of the church or denomination represented. To make the outside law firm subject to canon law would require contractual language in the engagement agreement that is not customary or usual in contracts with lawyers. Indeed, another independent lawyer would have to draft or approve the language of the agreement. Defamatory statements about an outside lawyer or law firm, or any other third persons, should be avoided unless the truth of the statements cannot be reasonably disputed or there is no other way to resolve a schismatic incident.