98 Formal Ethics Opinion 16

January 15, 1999

Representation of Client Resisting an Incompetency Petition

 

Opinion rules that a lawyer may represent a person who is resisting an incompetency petition although the person may suffer from a mental disability, provided the lawyer determines that resisting the incompetency petition is not frivolous.

 

Inquiry #1:

 

Wife, who is elderly, was removed from the marital home. Husband, who is also elderly, contacted Attorney A because Husband did not understand why his wife was removed from the home. He asked Attorney A to investigate. Attorney A discovered that Wife was the subject of an involuntary incompetency proceeding. When Attorney A gained access to Wife, she indicated that she wanted Attorney A to represent her in resisting the involuntary incompetency petition. She repeatedly said that she wanted to go home to live with her husband.

 

Attorney A also learned that Husband was investigated by police relative to allegations of abuse and neglect of Wife. Attorney A met with Husband and told him that he could not represent Wife in resisting the incompetency petition and represent Husband in defending against an action in connection with Wife's care or treatment. Husband agreed that Attorney A's representation would be limited to representing Wife in resisting the incompetency petition and that Husband would be responsible for paying the legal fees for that representation. A written fee agreement memorializing this arrangement was executed. Although Wife was held in a hospital at this time, she continued to express unequivocally that she desired Attorney A to represent her.

 

When Attorney A visited Wife, he noticed abnormalities in her behavior but he also witnessed extended periods of apparent lucidity. She repeatedly told Attorney A she wanted to go home, that she did not want an appointed guardian, and that she did not want to be declared incompetent. Attorney A filed several motions in the incompetency proceeding, including a motion to remove the guardian and for a jury trial. At the incompetency hearing before the clerk, the attorney for the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the guardian ad litem who had been appointed for Wife by the clerk, contended that Attorney A had no "standing or authority" to pursue motions on behalf of Wife. They argued that Attorney A had a conflict of interest due to his initial representation of Husband and Husband's continued payment for the representation. The clerk found that Attorney A was without "standing or authority" to represent Wife and summarily denied all motions filed on Wife's behalf by Attorney A. Attorney A's motion to stay the incompetency proceeding was also denied.

 

During the incompetency hearing, Attorney A was not allowed to participate as counsel for Wife. Attorney A was called as a witness, however. Wife, when she testified, could not identify Attorney A as her lawyer. However, she expressed a desire to return home with her husband to avoid becoming a ward of the state. At the close of the evidence, the clerk declared Wife incompetent and appointed the director of DSS to be her legal guardian.

 

Thereafter Attorney A filed a notice of appeal seeking a trial de novo in superior court on the issues of right to counsel, incompetency, and right to a jury trial. The attorney for DSS now contends that Attorney A has no authority to represent Wife because she has been adjudicated incompetent and only her legal guardian may make decisions about her legal representation. The DSS lawyer now demands that Attorney A provide the guardian with a copy of every document in Wife's legal file.

 

Does Attorney A have a conflict of interest because he initially represented Husband?

 

Opinion #1:

 

No. The representation of Wife in the incompetency proceeding is not a representation that is adverse to the interest of Husband. Furthermore, Attorney A obtained the consent of Husband to represent only Wife in the incompetency proceeding. The exercise of Attorney A's independent professional judgment on behalf of Wife is not impaired by the prior representation of Husband. See Rule 1.7 and Rule 1.9.

 

Inquiry #2:

 

Does it matter that Husband pays for the representation of Wife?

 

Opinion #2:

 

No. Rule 1.8(f) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct permits a lawyer to accept compensation for representing a client from someone other than the client if the client consents after consultation; there is no interference with the lawyer's independent professional judgment or the attorney-client relationship; and the confidentiality of client information is protected.

 

Inquiry #3:

 

Wife has been declared incompetent by the state and a guardian appointed to represent her interests. Does Attorney A have to treat Wife as incompetent and defer to the decision of the guardian relative to the representation of Wife?

 

Opinion #3:

 

No. Wife is entitled to counsel of her own choosing particularly with regard to a proceeding that so clearly and directly affects her freedom to continue to make decisions for herself. Rule 1.14(a) provides as follows: "[w]hen a client's ability to make adequately considered decisions in connection with the representation is impaired, whether because of minority, mental disability, or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client." If Attorney A is able to maintain a relatively normal client-lawyer relationship with Wife and Attorney A reasonably believes that Wife is able to make adequately considered decisions in connection with her representation, Attorney A may continue to represent her alone without including the guardian in the representation. However, if Attorney A has reason to believe that Wife is incapable of making decisions about her representation and is indeed incompetent, the appeal of the finding of incompetency may be frivolous. If so, Attorney A may not represent her on the appeal. See Rule 3.1 (prohibiting frivolous claims and defenses).

 

Inquiry #4:

 

Once the guardian was appointed for Wife, did the guardian become Attorney A's client, or otherwise step into the shoes of Wife, such that Attorney A may only take directions from the guardian and not from Wife?

 

Opinion #4:

 

No. Rule 1.14(a) quoted above indicates that a lawyer may represent a client under a mental disability. The lawyer owes the duty of loyalty to the client and not to the guardian or legal representative of the client, particularly if the lawyer concludes that the legal guardian is not acting in the best interest of the client.

 

Inquiry #5:

 

Does Attorney A have to turn over Wife's legal file to Wife's appointed guardian?

 

Opinion #5:

 

No. When a guardian is appointed for a client, a lawyer may turn over materials in the client's file and disclose other confidential information to the guardian if the release of such confidential information is consistent with the purpose of the original representation of the client or consistent with the express instructions of the client. See, e.g., RPC 206 (attorney for deceased client may release confidential information to the personal representative of the estate). However, where, as here, the release of confidential information to a guardian is contrary to the purpose of the representation, the lawyer must protect the confidentiality of the client's information and may not release the legal file to the guardian absent a court order. See Rule 1.6(d)(3).


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