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Preston v. City of Oakland; Deanna Santana

United States District Court, N.D. California

February 11, 2015

DARYELLE LAWANNA PRESTON, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF OAKLAND; DEANNA SANTANA, in her individual capacity; and DOES 1 through 10, inclusive, Defendants.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR DISQUALIFICATION OF PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEYS AND FOR ORDER REQUIRING RETURN OF DOCUMENTS Re: Dkt. No. 37

NATHANAEL M. COUSINS, Magistrate Judge.

Before the Court is defendants' motion seeking disqualification of plaintiff's counsel and return of documents. Dkt. No. 37. The question presented is whether plaintiff may use for purposes of pursuing her claims in this action documents to which she had access in the course of her employment with the City that are protected by the City's attorney-client privilege. Because the Court believes the answer to this question is yes, defendants' motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Daryelle Lawanna Preston was employed as the Employee Relations Director of the City of Oakland at the time of the alleged violations. Dkt. No. 2-1. Plaintiff alleges that defendants violated California Labor Code § 1102.5 and her First Amendment right to free speech by terminating her employment after she reported violations of state and local law and declined to follow her superior's instructions to provide false reports and conceal information from the City Council. Id. The allegations of the complaint were previously summarized in the Court's order denying defendants' motion to dismiss, and will not be repeated here. Dkt. No. 16.

Defendants assert that, while working at the City of Oakland, plaintiff communicated with the City's legal counsel regarding the issues that she raises in her complaint. Dkt. No. 37. As City management internally discussed those issues, the City Attorney provided legal opinions to plaintiff and others about those issues. Id. Defendants now move for an order (1) disqualifying plaintiff's attorneys Siegel & Yee (and all lawyers and paralegals associated with the firm) from serving as counsel for plaintiff or otherwise assisting plaintiff in her prosecution of the action; and (2) requiring plaintiff and her attorneys to return and/or permanently delete all documents of any kind that plaintiff took from the City of Oakland when she was terminated from employment with the City. Id.

The Court finds this motion suitable for resolution without oral argument. See Civ. L.R. 7-1(b).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Whether to disqualify counsel is a decision conveyed to the discretion of the district court. Concat LP v. Unilever, PLC, 350 F.Supp.2d 796, 814 (N.D. Cal. 2004) (citing Gas-A-Tron of Ariz. v. Union Oil Co. of Calif., 534 F.2d 1322, 1325 (9th Cir. 1976)). California law applies in determining matters of disqualification. In re Cnty. of Los Angeles, 223 F.3d 990, 995 (9th Cir. 2000); see Civ. L.R. 11-4(a) (providing that attorneys before this Court must comply with the standards of professional conduct required of members of the State Bar of California).

Because "[a] motion to disqualify a party's counsel may implicate several important interests... judges must examine these motions carefully to ensure that literalism does not deny the parties substantial justice." People ex rel. Dep't of Corporations v. SpeeDee Oil Change Sys., Inc., 20 Cal.4th 1135, 1144 (1999). "Depending on the circumstances, a disqualification motion may involve such considerations as a client's right to chosen counsel, an attorney's interest in representing a client, the financial burden on a client to replace disqualified counsel, and the possibility that tactical abuse underlies the disqualification motion." Id. at 1144-45. "Ultimately, disqualification motions involve a conflict between the clients' right to counsel of their choice and the need to maintain ethical standards of professional responsibility." Id. at 1145. However, "[t]he paramount concern must be to preserve public trust in the scrupulous administration of justice and the integrity of the bar." Id. "A motion for disqualification of counsel is a drastic measure which courts should hesitate to impose except when of absolute necessity." In re Marvel, 251 B.R. 869, 871 (N.D. Cal. 2000) (citing Schiessle v. Stephens, 717 F.2d 417 (7th Cir. 1983)).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Defendants' Motion for Disqualification

Defendants contend that the following facts justify disqualification:

• Plaintiff took possession of almost two dozen attorney-client privileged documents in the course of her employment at the City and left with them after she was discharged;
• Some of the documents at issue include confidential legal analyses of issues that are at the core of ...

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