Court Disqualifies State’s Law Firm In Case Against 3M
Dealing a setback to the State of Minnesota’s years-long case against 3M Company over alleged environmental damage, an appeals court on Monday disqualified the state’s law firm from the case, saying it represents a conflict of interest.
The state sued 3M in 2010 over alleged damage caused by the Maplewood-based company’s disposal of chemicals called perfluorochemicals (PFCs). 3M used PFCs in the production of several consumer, commercial, and industrial products, and the lawsuit claims that decades of disposal of PFC waste in Minnesota polluted ground and surface water.
But last summer, 3M sued the state’s law firm, Washington, D.C.-based Covington & Burling, LLP, alleging that because the firm had previously worked with 3M on issues pertaining to its PFC business, Covington should be disqualified.
Last fall, a Hennepin County district judge ruled in favor of 3M, granting the company’s motion to disqualify Covington. In his 14-page order, the judge said that Covington, during its representation of 3M, “received privileged and confidential information from 3M” that was relevant to the state’s case against the company, and “Covington did not disclose the nature of its conflicts to 3M.”
Minnesota Solicitor General Alan Gilbert had questioned why 3M waited 17 months after the original complaint was filed, and until more than 6 million documents had been exchanged, before filing its motion. Covington and the state appealed the court’s decision.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Covington’s work for the state does indeed represent a conflict of interest, and it reaffirmed the lower court’s disqualification of the firm.
The court wrote in its ruling that Covington should have obtained the consent of its former client before representing the state. The court acknowledged that “the timing of 3M’s motion to disqualify, 15 months after the admission of Covington’s attorneys, after production of several million pages of documents and more than 50 depositions, and shortly before the discovery deadline, might well be perceived as tactical maneuvering”—but that does not mean Covington should be immune to disqualification.
“This decision confirms what 3M has alleged all along—that Covington & Burling failed to discharge its obligations,” William Brewer III, a partner at Dallas-based Bickel & Brewer and lead counsel for 3M, said in an e-mailed statement. The decision also “underscores the importance of the confidentiality surrounding attorney and client communications as fundamental to the integrity of our legal system,” he added.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office told the Star Tribune that the state is reviewing the ruling.
The state’s options appear to be appealing Monday’s ruling to the state Supreme Court (which could take months), finding a new law firm, or handling the case on its own, the Minneapolis newspaper reported.