[UPDATE: The WSJ Law Blog has copies of the letters submitted to the Delaware Chancery Court. Professor Hazard is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent experts in the field, and he makes a compelling argument that Cravath violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Yet, showing a violation of the Rules is not enough — to disqualify counsel under Chancellor Chandler’s standard, Airgas will have to show the violation will "materially advance" Air Product’s position or undermine the fair and efficient administration of justice. So far, I haven’t seen anything demonstrating that. The vague references made so far to Cravath’s insider knowledge of Airgas’s finances isn’t enough, since a firewall within Cravath can likely cure that problem.
UPDATE II: As predicted, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania declined to enter an injunction against Cravath, and the Delaware Chancery Court did not disqualify them.]
As has been reported all over the legal media,
… Air Products filed a complaint on Thursday in Delaware’s Chancery Court against Airgas, claiming that the smaller company improperly blocked its board of directors from considering previous Air Products takeover offers. Cravath litigation partners Francis Barron, David Marriott and Gary Bornstein are representing Air Products in the Delaware litigation along with local counsel Kenneth Nachbar (he of sports gambling notoriety) and Jon Abramczyk from Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell. (Click here for the Chancery Court complaint, courtesy of The Times‘ Dealbook.)
Airgas responded by retaining Cozen O’Connor chairman Stephen Cozen, litigation chair Jeffrey Weil and litigation partner Thomas Wilkinson Jr., for a civil suit against Cravath in state court in Pennsylvania. In the suit, Airgas claims that Cravath has a conflict of interest and breached its fiduciary duty by representing Air Products because it previously advised Airgas on several financings. According to Airgas’ complaint against Cravath, the company has had a client relationship with the firm for 10 years and has paid Cravath about $2 million, including a $320,000 payment last October.
There’s an obvious question dangling over the Pennsylvania suit filed by Airgas: what basis — or power — does a state court in Pennsylvania have to preclude a New York law firm from representing a Delaware-registered company in Delaware state court litigation against another Delaware-registered company?
Unsurprisingly, that’s just what Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (Commerce Court) Judge Albert Sheppard Jr. wondered before denying Airgas’ petition for a temporary restraining order:
In essence, I would be saying to a lawyer you can’t go to Delaware and represent your client. I find that difficult. I don’t want to do that.
Judge Sheppard only had it for two weeks, though, since Cravath, like virtually every out-of-state defendant, promptly removed the case to Federal court, i.e. the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where it was assigned to Judge Eduardo Robreno (whose work in the Philadelphia Inquirer bankruptcy I’ve covered before).
Cravath (represented by a team at Conrad O’Brien*) has responded to the suit and has asked Judge Robreno to abstain from hearing the case at all:
First, whatever this Court may ultimately decide with respect to Airgas’s claim for money damages, Airgas’s request for a preliminary injunction is the functional equivalent of a motion to disqualify Cravath from appearing before the Delaware Chancery Court. With all due respect, Cravath submits that a motion precluding counsel from appearing in Delaware Chancery Court is more appropriately decided by Chancellor William B. Chandler III, who presides over the firstfiled Delaware litigation. Just as this Court has full authority over proceedings here, judicial comity warrants according Chancellor Chandler due authority over proceedings in his courtroom. …
Second, the Delaware Chancery Court is aptly suited to decide the key issue presented by Airgas’s petition to this Court—whether Cravath should be disqualified. Indeed, the dispute concerning Cravath’s ability to represent Air Products is intertwined with the merits of the (firstfiled) Delaware litigation. …
Third, whereas this Court’s ruling on Airgas’s petition for preliminary relief would be, by definition, provisional, the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling on the question of whether Cravath should be disqualified will be a final decision on the merits.
It’s hard to argue with that; whatever the merits of the conflict-of-interest allegations, it seems they all relate to the Delaware litigation and so should be decided there.
Of course, there’s a reason Cravath wants the case decided in Delaware’s Chancery Court (and why Airgas wants it decided elsewhere). As Francis G.X. Pileggi notes:
[Airgas’] separate suit alleging a conflict was filed in Philadelphia. One might speculate that the suit was not filed in Delaware and it was not filed as a motion to disqualify, because the Delaware decisions recently have not granted many motions to disqualify. See, e.g., cases summarized on this blog here.
Indeed, one might speculate that. More on that in a moment.
Back in Delaware, it seems a war of correspondence has broken out:
Airgas (which has retained Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz) began the exchange of correspondence Monday, when it sent a letter to Chancellor William Chandler at Delaware’s Court of Chancery … In its Monday letter to Chandler, Airgas argues that a Pennsylvania courtroom is the proper place for the Cravath hearing. In response, Air Products and local counsel Kenneth Nachbar of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell drafted their own letter to Chandler, urging him to decide on Cravath’s fate in Delaware and accusing Airgas of trying to "circumvent" Chandler’s authority by suing in Pennsylvania.
Airgas also has enlisted a legal ethics expert who has issued an opinion letter in which he claims Cravath was working under "a clear and serious conflict of interest" while it was helping Air Products formulate its takeover bid last fall, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Am Law Daily. In his letter, Geoffrey Hazard Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says Cravath … violated the so-called "hot potato" rule, which holds that a firm cannot get out of a conflict simply by dropping one client on short notice, Hazard wrote.
Like I wrote before, the hot potato rule lives. Here’s a recent recitation of the rule:
Courts that have considered the issue have held that a firm will not be allowed to drop a client in order to shift resolution of the conflicts question from Rule 1.7 dealing with current clients, to the more lenient standard in Rule 1.9 dealing with former clients.
El Camino Res., LTD. v. Huntington Nat’l Bank, No. 1:07-cv-598, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67813, at *39–40 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 13, 2007).
On the surface, that’s not good for Cravath — if Chancellor Chandler applies a similar analysis, then Cravath will be evaluated as if it was simultaneously representing Airgas and Air Products on both sides of the litigation, which is expressly prohibited by the Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York rules.
But the final analysis is a practical one:
The finding of an ethical violation, however, does not automatically require disqualification. The court should order disqualification only where some specifically identifiable impropriety has actually occurred and the balance of relevant factors requires vindication of the integrity of the legal profession over defendant’s interest in retaining counsel of its choice.
Returning again to why Cravath wants the issue decided in Delaware by Chancellor Chandler, it bears mention here that Chancellor Chandler took a strongly disqualification-unfriendly view in a similar case a year ago, in which Dow Chemical attempted to disqualify Wachtell from representing Rohm and Haas:
I am not persuaded that Wachtell’s access to this information will materially advance Rohm and Haas’s position or undermine the fair and efficient administration of justice. Dow’s defense to specific performance is that conditions in the market and within Dow have changed significantly since December 2008 and that it is no longer feasible for the merger to close. Dow has failed to convince me that the information Wachtell had access to regarding Dow’s strategies and asset values in 2006 and 2007 will substantially advance the interest of Rohm and Haas in this litigation. Additionally, Wachtell has assured the Court that its attorneys who obtained confidential Dow information have not and will not share Dow’s client confidences with the Wachtell attorneys working on this matter. While Dow is correct that the ethical rules impute knowledge of one attorney to other attorneys in the firm, the issue before the Court is not whether there was a violation of the ethical rules. To justify disqualification, the Court must find that allowing the representation to continue would threaten the fair and efficient administration of justice, a threat that is greatly reduced by a credible representation to the Court that the firm will ensure that the attorneys working on this matter do not have access to Dow’s client confidences. Dow has failed to point to information or confidences obtained by Wachtell in its 2006-2007 work for Dow that will have a material influence on the proceedings before me today.
Rohm and Haas Co. v. Dow Chem. Co., No. 4309-CC, 2009 WL 445609, at *3 (Del. Ch. Feb. 12, 2009)(also courtesy of Pileggi).
Truth be told, there’s not much distinguishing the Rohm and Haas v. Dow situation from the present case with Cravath, except for the "hot potato" rule aspect, given how Cravath’s work for Airgas was much more recent than Wachtell’s work was for Dow. Indeed, it seems Cravath’s work for Airgas unambiguously overlapped its work for Air Products.
As noted above, though, a mere violation of the rules isn’t enough; the question is what prejudice the former client will suffer and if that prejudice can be avoided. Cravath’s work for Airgas was comparatively small, and if Cravath sets up an ethical firewall that keeps the former Airgas attorneys away from the Air Products lawsuit, that will likely be enough to satisfy Chancellor Chandler.
– – –
* True story: when I interviewed at Conrad O’Brien, they took me to a nearby fancy seafood restaurant, where I was served a shrimp étouffée with a staple hidden in it. The following exchange ensued me and an attorney who was ‘of counsel’ with the firm:
Of counsel: Did you bite down on it?
Me: No, I noticed something was wrong and spit it out.
Of counsel [with a grin]: You know, I used to represent personal injury plaintiffs. So let me ask you again: did you bite down?
Other than the joke, however, all we got out of the experience was a free round of a coffee from the restaurant.