Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Court of Appeal Issues Mixed Ruling on CLC Disqualification Issues
By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner’s order disqualifying Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles from representing siblings with potentially conflicting interests in dependency proceedings was partially affirmed and partially reversed yesterday by this district’s Court of Appeal.
Div. Five, ruling on the third of eight appeals resulting from the restructuring of the agency that contracts with the state court system to represent children in dependency proceedings, held that one unit of CLC may represent an allegedly abused child, but that another unit has an actual conflict and should not be permitted to represent the child’s siblings.
CLC lawyers are divided into three independent legal units. CLC maintains that each of those units should be treated as a separate law firm for the purpose of enabling the representation of children with conflicting interests.
In yesterday’s ruling, the court upheld that position for the third time, rejecting Commissioner Stanley Genser’s finding of a “structural” conflict that would require treating CLC as a single entity. Unlike in the other two cases, however, the court found that an actual conflict existed within one of the units with respect to the representation of siblings.
Under a structure originated in 1990, CLC—formerly Dependency Court Legal Services—represented both parents and children, through separate units. Under the restructuring initiated by the center’s former executive director, Miriam Krinsky, CLC no longer represents parents, whose counsel are appointed from an independent panel, and two of the units have been reduced in size, with cases assigned to the surviving “core” unit—designated as Unit 1—unless CLC management determines that a conflict exists among siblings.
Leslie Starr Heimov, one of four lawyers who are running CLC while its board searches for a permanent successor to Krinsky, recently told the MetNews that a proposal to phase out one of the units was never implemented and that CLC remains committed to the three-unit structure in order “to maintain all appropriate ethical walls while still providing consistent high quality representation to the vast majority of Los Angeles County’s dependent children.”
Yesterday’s case involved a child identified as Zamer G., who was living with his mother and four half-siblings, and with Nahendra H., the father of the two youngest children in the household.
Children at Risk
Social workers took custody of all five children last year after determining that Zamer, then three years old, had been physically abused and that all of the children were at risk of future harm.
In an amended petition, it was alleged that the two oldest children had also been abused. While there was no allegation of abuse of the two youngest, the Department of Children and Family Services recommended that reunification services be denied their father.
Genser initially appointed Archana Gupta of CLC Unit 2 to represent Zamer and Kevin Feldman of Unit 1 to represent the others after Gupta suggested there was a conflict. At a subsequent hearing, however, Genser, over CLC’s objections, disqualified both units on the basis of a “systemic conflict”—in which CLC, he found, had failed to vigorously enforce the ethical walls separating the units—and appointed attorneys from the court’s conflicts panel to represent the children.
Justice Richard Mosk, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Genser did not abuse his discretion in disqualifying Unit 1.
He explained that in order to obtain reunification services for Nahendra H., the father of the two youngest children, counsel would have to impeach statements by the two oldest children regarding the alleged violence within the family.
This created an actual conflict that the commissioner could have reasonably found to preclude the same firm from representing all four children, Mosk said.
Justice Orville Armstrong concurred, but Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner dissented in part, saying the disqualification orders should be reversed as to both units in the absence of evidence that the attorneys would actually assert conflicting positions and in the absence of a judicial finding of an actual conflict.
The case is In re Zamer G., B194885.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company