The Second District concludes a firm is disqualified if one of its members previously received confidential information as a volunteer settlement officer, even if the firm establishes screening procedures.
Jesus Castaneda sued his employer for wrongful termination and related claims. He participated in a mandatory settlement conference where Elsa Bañuelos, senior counsel at the law firm of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt (“Ballard”), served as a volunteer. Subsequently, Linda Miller Savitt, a Ballard partner, substituted in to represent the employer. Castaneda moved to disqualify Ballard.
Plaintiff argued Bañuelos received confidential information during the settlement conference, and all Ballard attorneys should be disqualified. Ballard argued no confidential information was disclosed. Bañuelos was screened from the litigation.
The trial court denied Plaintiff’s motion without resolving whether Bañuelos received confidential information, reasoning the screening was sufficient. The Court of Appeal disagreed, citing precedent disallowing the law firm of a former judicial officer, who had presided over a settlement conference and received confidential information, from continuing to represent one of the parties despite screening procedures.
Although Bañuelos served as a volunteer attorney, the case was not distinguishable from a case involving a judicial officer. Screening procedures are not sufficient where a member of a firm serves as a settlement officer and receives confidences from a party. There was nothing to suggest Bañuelos acted improperly, but the court was concerned with public perception and the need to preserve public trust in the justice system.
The Court directed the trial court to determine whether Bañuelos received confidential information.
Comment: This case illustrates the importance of careful conflict checks for all attorney services.