Can a lawyer be sanctioned for revealing information that’s a matter of public record?

Today’s question: does the 1st Amendment prohibit the Supreme Court from sanctioning a lawyer who reveals client information that is public record?

Here’s how the issue would arise.

Rule 1.6 prohibits lawyers from revealing information relating to the representation of a client.  There are some exceptions.  They are:

  • disclosure is impliedly authorized to carry out the representation;
  • the client consents to disclosure;
  • disclosure is required by Rule 1.6(b); or,
  • disclosure is permitted by Rule 1.6(c).

As you see, “it’s public record” is not one of the exceptions.

Rule 1.6 applies to current clients.

With respect to former clients, Rule 1.9(c)(2) prohibits a lawyer from “revealing information relating to the representation as these rules would permit or require with respect to a client.”  Basically, the rule refers back to Rule 1.6 and does not include an exception for information that is “public record.”

Similarly, Rule 1.9(c)(1) prohibits a lawyer from using “information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client except as these rules would permit or require, or when the information has become generally known.” (emphasis added).  As I’ve blogged several times recently, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has opined that information that is in the public record is not necessarily “generally known.”  Here are the blog posts:

The October post includes cites to several cases that stand for the notion that the prohibition against disclosing information relating to a representation is not lessened by the fact that the information is public record.  Or, for a more detailed explanation how broad the confidentialy rules are, the ABA’s Litigation News ran this article by Edward Feldman.

But there’s an important case that holds otherwise.  The case is Hunter v. Virginia State Bar.

Attorney Hunter blogged.  His posts caught the attention of the Virginia State Bar and resulted in a disciplinary prosecution.  The  VSB charged Attorney Hunter with violating the advertising rules.  Those charges aren’t relevant here.

What is relevant is that the VSB also charged Attorney Hunger with violating Rule 1.6 “by revealing information that could embarrass or likely be detrimental to his former clients by discussing their cases on his blog without their consent.”

At a disciplinary hearing, the VSB put on evidence that Hunter’s former clients “believe that the information posted was embarrassing or detrimental to [them], despite the fact that all such information had been previously revealed in court.”

Hunter was publicly admonished following a conclusion that he had violated both the advertising rules and Rule 1.6.

In an intermediate-level appeal, a circuit court upheld the advertising violations, but dismissed the 1.6 charge on the grounds that the rule, as applied, violated the 1st Amendment. An appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court followed.

On appeal, the VSB conceded that the blog posts were about former clients, contained information that was public, and would have been protected speech if disseminated by the news media or anyone other than Hunter.

The Supreme Court noted that it had been “called upon to answer whether the state may prohibit an attorney from discussing information about a client or former client that is not protected by attorney-client privilege without express consent from that client.”

The Court’s answer:  no.  Specifically,

  • “To the extent that the information is aired in a public forum, privacy considerations must yield to First Amendment protections. In that respect, a lawyer is no more prohibited than any other citizen from reporting what transpired in the courtroom.”

The issue has gained some traction lately, largely in response to the ABA’s most recent formal advisory opinion.  Here’s an excerpt from a blog I posted last week.  It refers to criticism of the ABA’s opinion that “public record” is not necessarily “generally known.”

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“On that point, the opinion is not without criticism.  Check out the post from Above The Law.   Among other things, the author, Robert Ambrogi, writes:

  • “So a lawyer may not ‘reveal’ information that is contained in a public record. But how can someone reveal something that is already public? To reveal is to make something public that was secret.”

Interesting point.  I don’t necessarily disagree. However, on the flip side, what if you went through a messy divorce 10 years ago?

Imagine that it went to trial.  At trial, details emerged that remain embarrassing today.  Yes, the trial was public, but, really, in label only. Nobody went, certainly not the press.  The details are not, by any stretch of the imagination, generally known. The only way anyone could access the details would be by going to the great length of ordering a transcript.  Public? Yes.  Generally known? No.

How would you feel if your lawyer blogged the details tomorrow?”

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Josh King is Chief Legal Officer at Avvo.  He commented on my post:

“Having hired lots of lawyers over the last 20+ years, of course I wouldn’t want them blabbing about my matters without my consent.

But there’s a difference between a best practice and what the law can prohibit. I’m quite sure that Rule 1.6 can’t constitutionally be applied to discipline a lawyer for stating something that is in the public record.”

Josh runs a blog called Socially Awkward.  He posted a much more detailed response there. You can read it here.

Keith Lee has a blog at Associate’s Mind.  In response to Josh’s post, Keith tweeted a quote from the Hunter decision:

 

Lee Tweet

Michael Cicchini is a lawyer in Wisconsin.  In 2015, the Vermont Law Review published his article On The Absurdity Of Rule 1.9.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Rule 1.9 is an absurdly broad rule that perpetually bans attorney speech  for all purposes and with regard to all information, including information in the public domain. The rule has no rational, underlying policy, and is not even rooted in clients’ actual expectations regarding confidentiality . . . Instead, Rule 1.9 should be interpreted to permit an attorney to discuss, write about, or otherwise disclose publicly-available information relating to a former client’s case, provided the attorney does not contradict the former client’s position in that case.”

I don’t know that I have a position, mainly because I’ve never had to think about it.  I know that most bar counsel types believe in the idea that “public record” is not “generally known” and, therefore, is not an exception to the general prohibition against disclosure stated in Rules 1.6 & 1.9.  More practically, I simply believe that it’s a good idea not to talk about a former client’s matter, even if the matter received widespread media coverage.  Also, for lack of a better word, it makes me squeamish to think of a lawyer disclosing information about a former client that, while public, almost nobody else knows.

Still, I’m sensitive to the First Amendment argument. And, despite my personal opinion that one should take advantage of every single opportunity to keep one’s mouth shut, I feel like the pendulum has started to swing swung back towards the debate’s equilibrium.

So, what say you? I’m a piece of clay.  Mold me.  Again, here’s the scenario:

  • You went through a messy divorce 10 years ago.  Mike represented you. The divorce went to trial.  At trial, details emerged that remain embarrassing today.  Yes, the trial was public, but, really, in label only. Nobody went, certainly not the press.  The details are not, by any stretch of the imagination, generally known. The only way anyone could access the details would be by going to the great length of ordering a transcript.  Public? Yes.  Generally known? No.  Yesterday, Mike blogged about them.

Should Mike be sanctioned? Discuss in the comment section, but keep it civil.  Or, take this poll.

Be Quiet

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Can a lawyer be sanctioned for revealing information that’s a matter of public record?

  1. Horace Hunter could have posted public commentary about his former client matters without republishing information that is detrimental or embarrassing to his former client. Instead he chose to identify the client and state that she tested positive for cocaine. Since the case was tried in a court not of record there would not be any public record or transcript of the proceeding that would reveal this information and there is no order or judgment entered by the court that would have said that. Few members of the public attend these trials nor is the media present. The lab report would be in the court’s file buried among several hundred thousand documents. The case he blogged about was not newsworthy and garnered no public attention until Mr.Hunter chose to blog about her case without her knowledge or consent. The attorney’s right of free speech and to make public commentary about client and former client matters has limits. Certainly the lawyer should be held to a standard of not repeating information disclosed in public courtroom if doing so would prejudice or damage a client or former client. Mr. Hunter’s case that he chose to blog about was a “matter of public record” in name only and in a very ephemeral sense. Virginia’s rule is not “absurdly broad” and leaves room for lawyers to make public commentary without causing harm to current or past clients. ABA Formal Op. 480 (March 8, 2018) explains that: “Significantly, information about a client’s representation contained in a court’s order, for example, although contained in a public document or record, is not exempt from the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality under Model Rule 1.6. The duty of confidentiality extends generally to information related to a representation whatever its source and without regard to the fact that others may be aware of or have access to such knowledge.” ABA Comm. on Ethics & Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. 04-433 (2004) (“Indeed, the protection afforded by Rule 1.6 is not forfeited even when the information is available from other sources or publicly filed, such as in a malpractice action against the offending lawyer.”). As to disclosure of former client’s information, Rule 1.9(c) allows disclosure of a former client’s information that has become “generally known,” a term which the ABA Ethics Committee has defined in ABA Formal Op. 379: The “generally known” exception to the duty of former-client confidentiality is limited. It applies (1) only to the use, and not the disclosure or revelation, of former-client information; and (2) only if the information has become (a) widely recognized by members of the public in the relevant geographic area; or (b) widely recognized in the former client’s industry, profession, or trade. Information is not “generally known” simply because it has been discussed in open court, or is available in court records, in libraries, or in other public repositories of information. In fact, a concurring opinion by Justice Lemons in Turner v. Commonwealth, 284 Va. 198, 726 S.E.2d 325 (2012). Justice Lemons held the view that when the defendant’s former lawyer testified against his former client as to statements that were made in a preliminary hearing, the lawyer breached Rule 1.9 even thought the statements testified to were made in an open public courtroom. The statements made were not “generally known.” Quoting with approval from another decision: “Generally known” does not only mean that the information is of public record. The information must be within the basic understanding and knowledge of the public. The content of form pleadings, interrogatories and other discovery materials, as well as general litigation techniques that were widely available to the public through the internet or another source, such as continuing legal education classes, does not make that information “generally known” within the meaning of Rule 1.9(c). Turner, supra, 284 Va. at 212 (J. Lemons, concurring)(citations omitted).

    A lawyer’s first amendment right to beat his chest and post public commentary about how remarkable a lawyer he or she may be should be done in a manner in which the lawyer at least attempts to not cause harm to a former client and does not republish information that on its face is detrimental or embarrassing to a former client.

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