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Kayla Jean Kennedy v. Tyler Scott Eldridge

December 13, 2011

KAYLA JEAN KENNEDY, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
TYLER SCOTT ELDRIDGE, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment (order) of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, James M. Mize, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. 10FL04698)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Butz , J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

In a roiling support and custody dispute involving an infant child, did the trial court act within its discretion in disqualifying the child's paternal grandfather from representing his son, the father, against the mother of his grandson?

We hold that it did. A plethora of family entanglements, potential misuse of confidential information, a conflict posed by the near-certain prospect that counsel will have to testify, and the preservation of the integrity of the judicial system all coalesce to support the trial court's disqualification order.

Appellant Tyler Scott Eldridge (Tyler) appeals from an order of the family court granting the motion of plaintiff and respondent Kayla Jean Kennedy (Kayla) to disqualify Tyler's father, Richard Eldridge (Richard), from representing Tyler in this action involving the custody and support of Calvin Kennedy-Eldridge (Calvin), who is the child of Tyler and Kayla.*fn1 [1]

Tyler argues the disqualification order was erroneous because (1) Kayla was not a former client of Richard's and thus lacked standing to bring the motion; (2) Richard's firm did not acquire confidential information as a result of its representation of Kayla's father in an earlier family law case; and (3) the trial court misapplied the attorney-witness rule in concluding that Richard had a non-waivable conflict of interest.

We find none of these arguments persuasive and shall affirm the trial court's order.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The Birth of Calvin and Commencement of Litigation

Kayla is a recent graduate from college and Tyler is a college student. In November 2009, while the parties were in a dating relationship, Kayla learned she was pregnant. Each party was then living with his or her respective parents.*fn2 [2]

The parties' son Calvin was born in June 2010 (all further calendar dates are to that year). In July, Kayla filed a petition to establish paternity, and requested custody and support. She alleged that the parties were "close to a full agreement" regarding visitation, but she was troubled by Tyler's apparent use of marijuana.

Richard, acting as attorney for his son Tyler, filed a response to the petition, admitting paternity and requesting a visitation schedule.

The litigation quickly deteriorated into bitterness and acrimony. Tyler claimed that the air in Kayla's home was "fresh and thick" with the smell of marijuana during his visits with Calvin. In Kayla's reply, she alleged that everyone in Tyler's household except Richard regularly smoked marijuana. She requested supervised visitation due to Tyler's volatile personality, "drug" and "party" lifestyle, and highly inappropriate behavior during his visits with Calvin. Tyler and Kayla filed declarations accusing each other of behaving erratically and suffering from mental instability. Each made serious charges against the other's family.

The Motion to Disqualify

On September 7, Kayla brought a motion to recuse Richard from representing Tyler in the action. In her supporting declaration, Kayla alleged (1) Richard and his wife, Deborah Eldridge (Deborah), practiced law together and represented Kayla's father in his divorce case in Placer County; (2) during that representation both Eldridges consulted with Kayla's stepmother; (3) at Deborah's request, Kayla prepared declarations supporting her father in the divorce case; (4) Kayla herself once worked as a process server for the Eldridge firm; and (5) as a result of the foregoing, Richard has access to Kayla's confidential information. Kayla also stated that since the day she told them she was pregnant, both Richard and Deborah have been "emotionally involved" in their new grandson's legal case.

Tyler filed a declaration in opposition to the motion, contending that Kayla had brought the motion for an improper purpose. Richard filed points and authorities requesting that the motion to disqualify him be denied and asking that sanctions be imposed on Kayla's counsel for bringing it. The opposition claimed that Kayla's motion was procedurally defective, that she lacked standing to bring the motion because she was not a former client and that Richard owed Kayla no duty of loyalty or confidentiality that would be breached by his continued representation of his son.

On October 6, the motion was heard before Sacramento County Judge James M. Mize. Although no formal testimony was taken at the hearing, Richard, Kayla and Kayla's attorney made factual representations to the court. Richard conceded that his wife Deborah, with whom he practiced law had, in 2006, represented Kayla's father, Alan Kennedy, in a child custody dispute. Richard also admitted that Kayla had, at the firm's request, submitted a declaration on her father's behalf in that proceeding. However, Richard was adamant that Kayla had prepared the declaration herself, that she had never been a client of the Eldridge firm, and that she was never the firm's employee. Kayla told the court that it was her stepmother, Megan O'Hara Kennedy (Deborah's secretary), who advised her to write a declaration to be filed in her father's case. She said she submitted her declaration to Megan (who had worked at the Eldridge law office for six years), who then gave it to Deborah.

On November 10 the trial court granted Kayla's motion, ordering Richard's removal as attorney for Tyler. In its written ruling, the court found that Kayla had standing to bring the motion even though she had not been a client of Richard or his law firm; that Richard's dual role as witness and advocate compromised his ethical duty to maintain the integrity of the judicial process; and that the best interest of Calvin required that Richard not be put in the unseemly role of advocate for his son against the child's mother in a case involving custody and support. Tyler filed a timely notice of appeal from this order.

DISCUSSION

I. No Respondent's ...


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