Thursday. June 21, 2007
C.A. Reverses Second Conflict Ruling Against Children’s Law Center
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 overturned yesterday by this district’s Court of Appeal.
Div. Five said the nonprofit agency that represents children under contract with the Administrative Office of the Courts should not have been removed in the absence of a “material, ongoing breach” of its ethical responsibilities or an actual conflict between the interests of the two children.
It was the second ruling overturning a CLC disqualification order by Commissioner Stanley Genser. A total of eight such orders have been appealed by CLC.
The orders all result from conflicts allegedly caused by the controversial restructuring of CLC, formerly Dependency Court Legal Services, Inc.
Under the previous structure, initiated in 1990, the center—which represents a large majority of children over whom the local dependency courts have assumed jurisdiction—was divided into three independent legal units. Each unit functioned as a separate law firm for the purpose of enabling the representation of clients with conflicting interests, including parents and their children.
Under the restructuring initiated by the center’s former executive director, Miriam Krinsky, two of those units are being phased out; CLC no longer represents parents, whose counsel are appointed from an independent panel; and cases have been transferred to the surviving “core” unit—designated as Unit 1—when CLC management has determined that no conflict exists.
Yesterday’s ruling reinstates CLC, and specifically Unit 1, as counsel for Jasmine S., who was 14 years old when the county Department of Children and Family Services last July petitioned the court to take jurisdiction over her and her half-brother, Lou, who was 11.
The department alleged that the children’s mother had neglected them and that she and Lou’s father had a history of drug abuse and violent domestic altercations, and that Lou’s father had a history of drug-related criminal convictions. The petition was later amended to add an allegation that the mother had used inappropriate physical discipline on the children.
The court appointed Jody Liebman of Unit 1 to represent Jasmine and later appointed Jennifer Lorson of Unit 2 to represent Lou, whose whereabouts were unknown when the petition was filed but who was subsequently surrendered by his mother.
No conflicts were raised at the time of either appointment, but the case was on calendar for a pretrial resolution conference on the same day Genser granted the disqualification order in the case that led to the previous reversal, In re Charlisse C..
When Lorson noted that Krinsky was on the “email list for CLC2’s supervisors,” an issue that had concerned the commissioner in the Charlisse C. case, Genser set a hearing for a week later to determine whether a conflict existed with respect to Jasmine and Lou.
That hearing was continued to October, when Genser ruled that while there was “no actual conflict between the children,” there was a “systemic conflict” because the “ethical walls” that had been put in place to avoid conflicts of interest were not being uniformly respected.
He cited, among other things, Krinsky’s admission that she occasionally received e-mails containing confidential information about cases. Krinsky said the e-mails had been sent inadvertently and contrary to policy, that she routinely deleted them, and that she had no recollection of the contents of any e-mail related to Jasmine and Lou.
The commissioner disqualified Unit 1, but Justice Richard Mosk, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Genser abused his discretion. The justice explained that and appearance of conflict is not enough to disqualify a lawyer, and said there was no substantial evidence from which the commissioner could conclude that “an actual, disqualifying conflict” existed.
Mosk said it was unclear why the commissioner appointed separate counsel to begin with. He noted that a Judicial Council rule specifically provides that there is no presumption that the interests of siblings conflict in dependency court, that the attorneys for both children insisted there was no conflict between them, and that no evidence was presented to contradict that assertion.
The jurist acknowledged Genser’s concerns that e-mails containing confidential information have occasionally been seen by attorneys outside the unit handling a particular case.
But while CLC “can and should do more to protect the security of confidential e-mails,” he wrote, there was “no evidence, however, of a material breach of the Center’s ethical screens relating to this case, or of persistent, material breaches indicating that the Center’s ethical screens have broken down” and therefore no basis for disqualification.
Justice Orville Armstrong concurred in the opinion. Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner, who dissented in Charlisse C., concurred separately, saying that while there was a potential conflict based on the children’s conflicting factual accounts and placement preferences, there was no showing of an actual conflict.
The case is In re Jasmine S., B194714.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company