United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana
THOA T. NGUYEN, ET AL.
LOUISIANA STATE BOARD OF COSMETOLOGY, ET AL.
RULING AND ORDER
BRIAN A. JACKSON, Chief District Judge.
Before the Court is Defendant Celia Cangelosi's (Defendant's) Motion to Disqualify Attorney Ahn Cao as an Advocate at Trial (Doc. 41). In this Motion, Defendant avers that Ahn Quang Cao, counsel of record for Plaintiffs, will likely be a necessary witness and is thus barred from acting as an advocate pursuant to Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct ("LRPC") 3.7. Plaintiffs oppose this Motion. (Doc. 45). The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1367. Oral argument is not necessary. For reasons fully explained below, Defendant's Motion is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
Plaintiffs, on their own behalf and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated, filed suit against Defendants on February 6, 2014. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants engaged in racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment, and further allege that Defendants committed false imprisonment. Attorney Ryan Beasley, of Cao Law Firm, was the only counsel of record listed on the initial Complaint. Subsequently, on June 19, 2014, this Court granted Plaintiffs' motion to enroll attorney Anh Quang Cao, partner of Cao Law Firm, as additional counsel of record for Plaintiffs. (Docs. 32, 33).
On July 30, 2014, Defendant Celia Cangelosi filed the instant Motion seeking to disqualify attorney Ahn Cao from serving as an advocate to Plaintiffs. Defendant Cangelosi moves for the disqualification of Cao from acting as Plaintiffs' advocate, pursuant to LRPC 3.7, due to "[t]he seeming inevitability that Cao will be a necessary witness in this matter." (Doc. 41 at ¶ 7).
Upon being granted leave, Plaintiffs amended and supplemented their initial Complaint on August 13, 2014. (Doc. 44). Plaintiffs then filed a response in opposition to Defendant's instant Motion on August 20, 2014. (Doc. 45).
II. LEGAL STANDARD
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that "disqualification cases are governed by state and national ethical standards adopted by the Court." FDIC v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 50 F.3d 1304, 1311-12 (5th Cir. 1995) ( In re Am. Airlines, Inc., 972 F.2d 605, 605 (5th Cir. 1992)). Accordingly, at least four ethical canons should be consulted in a district court's consideration of disqualification issues: (1) the local rules of the district; (2) the American Bar Association's (ABA's) Model Rules of Professional Conduct; (3) the state rules of conduct; and (4) the ABA's Model Code. See id. at 1312.
"Motions to disqualify are substantive motions affecting the rights of the parties and are determined by applying standards developed under federal law." In re Dresser Indus., Inc., 972 F.2d 540, 543 (5th Cir. 1992). "Federal courts may adopt state or ABA rules as their ethical standards, but whether and how these rules are to be applied are questions of federal law." In re Am. Airlines, 972 F.2d at 610.
When a motion to disqualify is lodged by an opposing party, as in the instant case, disqualification "presents a palpable risk of unfairly denying a party the counsel of his choosing." FDIC v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 50 F.3d at 1316. Thus, the Fifth Circuit has held that "notwithstanding the fundamental importance of safeguarding popular confidence in the integrity of the legal system, attorney disqualification... is a sanction that must not be imposed cavalierly." Id. "All of the facts particular to a case must be considered, in the context of the relevant ethical criteria and with meticulous deference to the litigant's rights." Id. at 1314.
Defendant argues that attorney Cao's continued representation of Plaintiffs would violate the LRPC. The Middle District of Louisiana has specifically adopted the LRPC in its Local Rules. See LR 83.2.4. Local rules, however, are "not the sole' authority governing motions to disqualify counsel" and "[t]he norms embodied in the Model Rules and the Model Code are relevant." FDIC v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 50 F.3d at 1312.
Regarding the lawyer as witness, LRPC 3.7 provides:
A lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness unless: (1) the testimony relates to an uncontested issue; (2) the testimony relates to the nature and value of legal services rendered in the case; or (3) ...