When may an attorney represent in a new action a party adverse to former client he represented in previous actions?
The short answer is the attorney may represent the new client against his old client when the new case does not involve matters substantially related to the prior representations. A "substantial relationship" exists where " the attorney had a direct professional relationship with the former client in which the attorney provided legal advice and services on a legal issue closely related to the legal issue in the present representation. " (Jessen v. Hartford Casualty Ins. Co. (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 698, 710, 711.) More specifically, the focus is on "the legal and factual similarities of the two representations." (Farris v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 671, 679.) In Farris, the attorney had worked as coverage counsel for Fireman's Fund for over 10 years handling coverage claims and assisting the client in shaping the company's practices and procedures. Six months after his last representation of that client, counsel filed a bad faith claim against it in representing Farris. The appellate court reversed the trial court's denial of Farris' disqualification motion, finding disqualification was required. (Id. at pp. 685, 688.)
Against this backdrop, the Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Four, reviewed the disqualification of attorney Shahian in the recent case of Khani v. Ford Motor Company (publication ordered 4/25/13) 2013 DJDAR 5399. The motion to disqualify Shahian from representing Khani in Khani's lemon law action against Ford came in an action filed about 4 years after Shahian's last representation of Ford. A partner in Shahian's former law firm declared that Ford was a client of the law firm, Shahian had worked on 150 cases of this client, and Shahian was privy to confidential communications with Ford and information with respect to defense, prelitigation strategies and tactics in the handling of lemon law cases brought against client Ford. The trial court granted the disqualification motion.
The appellate court in Khani reversed the disqualification order. The court cited the above Jessen and Farris opinions approvingly for their legal analysis; but the court saw differences in their facts from the Khani case. For example, the attorney in Farris had "shaped the company's practices and procedures in handling California coverage case." These practices and procedures in Farris were said to likely be at issue in the bad faith case the attorney was now bringing against his former client some six months after he had stopped working for it.