Is there a triable issue of fact concerning company lawyer as a cause of termination of employee when company lawyer co-represents employer and employee?
In Yanez v. Plummer (filed & published 11/5/13) C070726, Plaintiff Yanez sued his former employer, Union Pacific, for wrongful discharge and its in-house counsel, Plummer for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. Yanez had witnessed the injury of a co-worker who filed a personal injury lawsuit under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) against Union Pacific. Yanez was twice asked to give the employer written statements about the accident, to which he complied (the employer request the second statement because the first statement "lacked details.") In the second statement, Yanez wrote that he saw the employee slip and fall on the greasy floor where they were working; the first statement merely observed the greasy condition of the floor and that the co-worker had slipped and fell on that floor. Plummer represented both Union Pacific and Yanez at Yanez's deposition, at which Yanez admitted he did not actually see the co-worker slip--that the second statement was a miswording on his part. Based on these circumstances, Union Pacific fired Yanez for dishonesty.
Plummer's motion for summary judgment in Yanez's lawsuit was granted by the trial court. Plummer convinced the court that Yanez could not prove that any conduct on Plummer's part could have caused the termination. The Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, disagreed, finding that Yanez had raised a triable issue of material fact that but for Plummer's conduct, Union Pacific would not have fired Yanez. The judgment was reversed, and Yanez's claims against Plummer were reinstated.
The appellate court found particular significance in facts set forth by Yanez concerning the pre-deposition meeting he had with Plummer. Plummer instructed Yanez to meet with him shortly before Yanez's deposition. Plummer confirmed with Yanez that he had not actually seen the co-worker fall down and asked about the work-site conditions at the time of the accident. There was no discussion about the two written statement. When Yanez expressed concern as to who would protect him during the deposition, and that he felt his job might be in jeopardy because his testimony would likely be unfavorable to Union Pacific, Plummer responded that Plummer was his attorney for the deposition and so long as he told the truth his job would not be affected. Plummer never advised Yanez about counsel's conflict of interest.
At the deposition, the attorney for the injured co-worker elicited testimony from Yanez that he did not witness the accident, but he did observe the unsafe, slippery conditions at the accident site. Plummer's questioning of Yanez essentially aimed at highlighting Union Pacific's safety culture and discrediting Yanez; Yanez offered that the second written statement was "worded wrong." Attending the deposition was a supervisor of Yanez, Magures, who obtained a transcript of the deposition. On the basis of the deposition testimony, Magures brought disciplinary charges against Yanez, leading to his termination.