Does An SEC Attorney Commit An Ethical Violation By Encouraging Whistleblowing Lawyers?

by Allen Matkins

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation included a comprehensive post by Lawrence A. West which tackles the question of whether attorneys can be award seeking whistleblowers.  I want to approach the topic from the other direction.  May an SEC attorney actively solicit disclosure of client confidences from an member of the California State Bar?

California lawyers are governed by the State Bar Act (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 6000 et seq.) and the California Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of California and approved by the Supreme Court of California pursuant to Sections 6076 and 6077 of the Business and Professions Code.  The federal District Courts located in California have adopted California’s statutes, rules and decisions governing attorney conduct.  Central District Local Rule 83-3.1.2, Eastern District Local Rule 180(e), Northern District Local Rule 11-4, and Southern District Local Rule 83.4(b). 

Section 6068(e) provides that members of the California bar must “maintain inviolate the confidence, and at every peril to himself or herself to preserve the secrets, of his or her client”.   The only statutory exception permits, but does not require, an attorney to ”reveal confidential information relating to the representation of a client to the extent that the attorney reasonably believes the disclosure is necessary to prevent a criminal act that the attorney reasonably believes is likely to result in death of, or substantial bodily harm to, an individual”.  

Rule 1-120 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a member “shall not knowingly assist in, solicit, or induce any violation of these rules or the State Bar Act,” including Section 6068(e).   Thus, an SEC attorney who is a member of the California State Bar (or subject to the local rules of the U.S. District Court) could be found to violate Rule 1-120 if she actively induces an attorney to violate of Section 6068(e). 

Of course, the SEC has taken the position that its attorney conduct rules (aka “Part 205 Rules”) preempt conflicting state law.  However, there is a real question of whether the SEC acted in excess of its authority in purporting to immunize lawyers.  More importantly, it is questionable whether the SEC can preempt state law in this regard.  In 2004, I co-wrote a law review article for the Corporations Committee of the Business Law Section of the State Bar that considered these questions in detail, Conflicting Currents: The Obligation to Maintain Inviolate Client Confidences and the New SEC Attorney Conduct Rules, 32 Pepp. L. Rev. 89 (2004).  The other authors were James F. Fotenos, Steven K. Hazen, James R. Walther, and Nancy H. Wojtas.

If you think it is ok to violate your client’s confidences, you may want to reflect on the case of Dimitrious P. Biller.  In 2011, an arbitrator order Mr. Biller to pay his former employer $2.6 million in damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.   According to the arbitrator, Hon. Gary L. Taylor (Ret.), Mr. Biller “did the professionally unthinkable: he betrayed the confidences of his client.”  The arbitration award was confirmed by the trial court and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Biller v. Toyota Motor Corp., 668 F.3d 655 (9th Cir. 2012).  You may also want to consider what Justice Shinn had to say about an attorney that disclosed confidential client information after being ordered to do so by a trial court:

Defendant’s attorney should have chosen to go to jail and take his chances of release by a higher court

People v. Kor, 277 P.2d 94, 101 (Cal. Ct. App. 1954) (emphasis added). 

Finally, you may want to put yourselves in the position of a client.  How effectively represented would you feel if you knew that your lawyer could be rewarded for violating your confidences?  How would you feel about a government agency that believes it is permissible to encourage lawyers to do the “professionally unthinkable”?


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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