Opinion 2001-3
(February 2001)

The inquirer consulted with husband concerning a contract dispute over a used car several years ago. After the initial interview, the inquirer turned the case over to his associate. The matter was heard in small claims court and some type of resolution was reached. The inquirer has now been contacted by husband's wife and brother-in-law who have asked for representation in a protection from abuse action and custody matter in family court. The inquirer asks if there is any impermissible conflict of interest. He advises that he has no confidential information concerning any domestic matter from husband.

Husband is a former client. Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9a governs conflicts of interest with former clients, and provides that:

A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter:

represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person's interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client consents after a full disclosure of the circumstances and consultation;...

Since the contract matter does not in any way relate to the issues of domestic abuse and child custody, the prohibition in Rule 1.9a is not triggered and there is no impermissible conflict of interest. Thus, the Committee finds that the inquirer is free to undertake the present representation.

However, should the wife request representation of the inquirer in a divorce that includes a claim for equitable distribution, and should the automobile that was the basis of the small claims action in which the inquirer's firm previously represented the husband still be marital property under Pennsylvania law, the rule might bar representation of wife in a divorce action.

The Philadelphia Bar Association's Professional Guidance Committee provides, upon request, advice for lawyers facing or anticipating facing ethical dilemmas. Advice is based on the consideration of the facts of the particular inquirer's situation and the Rules of Professional Conduct as promulgated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Committee's opinions are advisory only and are based upon the facts set forth. The opinions are not binding upon the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or any other Court. They carry only such weight as an appropriate reviewing authority may choose to give it.