Mercer v. ReynoldsAnnotate this Case
The underlying case in this matter concerned a property dispute between BNSF Railway (BNSF) and Roy D. Mercer, LLC (Mercer) and the interpretation of an easement. BNSF claimed a right to construct large berms on Mercer's property (to divert water from railroad tracks) pursuant to a 1936 easement granted to BNSF's predecessor in interest by Mercer's predecessor in interest. BNSF hired Gandy Dancer, LLC to construct the new berms. Mercer objected and threatened to remove them. Relying upon its easement claim, BNSF filed suit in state court against Mercer seeking to enjoin Mercer from removing the berms and requesting damages. Mercer filed a counterclaim against BNSF for tort damages and inverse condemnation, and joined Gandy Dancer as a party defendant for trespass, negligence, and prima facie tort. Once joined as a party, Gandy Dancer, through its attorneys Riley, Shane & Keller, P.C. (Riley Law Firm), removed the matter to federal court. Upon removal, Mercer hired the Wagner Ford Law Firm. At that time, the firm consisted of attorneys Kenneth Wagner and Lisa Ford. Although the firm was named "Wagner Ford," Ford was only an associate. In January 2010, Mercer added another law firm, Law & Resource Planning Associates, P.C. (the LRPA Law Firm) to represent it in the state court proceeding because of water law issues involved in that case. The Wagner Ford Law Firm ceased representing Mercer in late 2010. In late June 2012, while the state court proceeding was ongoing, the LRPA law firm learned via the Riley firm's website that the Riley firm had hired Ford as a new associate. LRPA promptly sent a letter to the Riley firm raising Ford's conflict of interest and stating that the Riley firm could no longer represent Gandy Dancer in the litigation with Mercer, Ford's former client. The Riley firm filed a motion in the state case seeking judicial approval of a Rule 16-110(C) screening process for Ford that Riley believed would allow its continued representation of Gandy Dancer. The court found that Ford had previously represented Mercer in the same or a substantially similar matter, her role was substantial, and she had a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, the district court found that the equities favored Gandy Dancer and declined to disqualify the Riley firm. Mercer appealed the district court's decision not to disqualify the Riley Firm. In interpreting and applying the rule to this case, the Supreme Court held that when an attorney has played a substantial role on one side of a lawsuit and subsequently joins a law firm on the opposing side of that lawsuit, both the lawyer and the new firm are disqualified from any further representation, absent informed consent of the former client. "We also specifically conclude under the same rule that screening the new attorney from any involvement in the lawsuit is not an adequate response to the conflict."