2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 16

January 27, 2012

Responding to Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim Questioning Representation

Opinion rules that a criminal defense lawyer accused of ineffective assistance of counsel by a former client may share confidential client information with prosecutors to help establish a defense to the claim so long as the lawyer reasonably believes a response is necessary and the response is narrowly tailored to respond to the allegations.


Inquiry #1:


The ABA recently issued Formal Opinion 10-456, which holds that a criminal defense lawyer accused of ineffective assistance of counsel by a former client cannot share confidential information with prosecutors to help establish a defense to the former client’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel unless the disclosure is made in a court-supervised setting.


Our Rule 1.6(b)(6) provides that a lawyer may reveal information protected from disclosure by Rule 1.6(a) to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary:


to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client; to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved; or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer's representation of the client.

This exception, also found in ABA Model Rule 1.6, allows a lawyer to reveal confidential information to respond to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, provided the lawyer narrowly tailors the disclosure to that which is reasonably necessary to respond to the facts of the specific claim.


Under the ABA opinion, however, a lawyer would not be permitted to make such limited disclosure outside of a "court-supervised setting." The opinion provides that disclosure may not occur until a court directs the lawyer to disclose, presumably after considering any objections or claims of privilege raised by the former client. The opinion states:


Although an ineffective assistance of counsel claim ordinarily waives the attorney-client privilege with regard to some otherwise privileged information, that information still is protected by [Model] Rule 1.6(a) unless the defendant gives informed consent to its disclosure or an exception to the confidentiality rule applies. Under [Model] Rule 1.6(b)(5), a lawyer may disclose information protected by the rule only if the lawyer “reasonably believes [it is] necessary” to do so in the lawyer's self-defense. The lawyer may have a reasonable need to disclose relevant client information in a judicial proceeding to prevent harm to the lawyer that may result from a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. However, it is highly unlikely that a disclosure in response to a prosecution request, prior to a court-supervised response by way of testimony or otherwise, will be justifiable.


Outside of the court-supervised setting contemplated by the ABA opinion, may a North Carolina lawyer accused of ineffective assistance of counsel disclose information about the former representation to the extent that lawyer believes it is reasonably necessary to establish a defense to the accusation? For example, in response to prosecutors' inquiries, but before a court has ordered the lawyer to do so, may the lawyer disclose information about the representation of a former client that the lawyer believes is reasonably necessary to respond to a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in the former client's post-conviction motion for appropriate relief?


Opinion #1:


Yes. We decline to adopt ABA Formal Op. 10-456 (2010).


Rule 1.6(b)(6), which applies to state and federal criminal representations, specifically provides that a lawyer may reveal confidential information protected from disclosure by Rule 1.6(a) to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to respond to allegations concerning the lawyer's representation of the client. Rule 1.6(b)(6) also affords the lawyer discretion to determine what information is reasonably necessary to disclose, and there is no requirement that the lawyer exercise that discretion only in a "court-supervised setting."


We take additional guidance from the North Carolina General Assembly in reaching this conclusion. Regarding state court post-conviction actions, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1415(e) provides that where a defendant alleges ineffective assistance of prior trial or appellate counsel as a ground for the illegality of his conviction or sentence, the client “shall be deemed to waive the attorney-client privilege with respect to both oral and written communications between such counsel and the defendant to the extent the defendant's prior counsel reasonably believes such communications are necessary to defend against the allegations of ineffectiveness.” The statute further provides that the waiver of the attorney-client privilege “shall be automatic upon the filing of the motion for appropriate relief alleging ineffective assistance of prior counsel, and the superior court need not enter an order waiving the privilege.”


Adoption of the ABA opinion would contradict the legislature's determination that lawyers should have the discretion, without court direction or supervision, to disclose privileged information in response to such claims in the narrowly-tailored fashion contemplated by Rule 1.6(b)(6). Adoption of the opinion would also contradict the language of Rule 1.6(b)(6) itself, which does not require a court-supervised setting to make a narrowly-tailored disclosure of confidential information in response to such claims. We decline to adopt an opinion that contradicts existing state law and rules governing disclosure of otherwise confidential and privileged information under these limited circumstances.


In reaching this conclusion, however, we are also relying on the fact that both N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1415(e) and Rule 1.6(b)(6) clearly admonish lawyers who choose to respond to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, regardless of the setting, to respond in a manner that is narrowly tailored to address the specific facts underlying the specific claim. Simply put, the pursuit of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim by a former client does not give the lawyer carte blanche to disclose all information contained in a former client’s file. Comment [15] to Rule 1.6 emphasizes that Rule 1.6(b) permits disclosure only to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to accomplish one of the purposes specified in the exceptions set out in paragraph (b). Disclosure should be no greater than what is reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose. Therefore, once a lawyer has determined that disclosure of confidential or privileged information is necessary to respond to a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, and once the lawyer has decided to make that disclosure, the lawyer still has a duty to avoid the disclosure of information that is not responsive to the specific claim. In the same vein, a prosecutor requesting information from defense counsel in relation to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim must limit his request to information relevant to the defendant’s specific allegations of ineffective assistance. See Rule 3.8; Rule 4.4.

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