California Court of Appeal Casts Doubt on Ability of Howard Rice's Sean SeLegue to Be Impartial Based on His Failure to Disclose

*TLR urges the readers to exercise caution and not jump to conclusions regarding misconduct by Sean SeLegue. The Court of Appeal decision is predicated on how circumstances "appear" rather than real and actual bias on the part of Howard Rice's Sean SeLegue.

California’s First District Court of Appeal recently ruled that the failure of attorney Sean SeLegue of Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin to disclose at the time of an arbitration (in which he served as arbitrator) that he generally defended attorneys and law firms in cases involving professional responsibility, and that he was actively representing a firm in a case before the California Supreme Court in a dispute over legal fees, created sufficient doubt as to SeLegue's impartiality in his role as an arbitrator.

In a decision issued on October 12, 2010 in Benjamin, Weill & Mazer v. Kors (2010) 189 Cal.App.4th 126, Presiding Justice Anthony Kline expressed concern that the lack of full disclosure on the part of SeLegue, coupled with his business relationships with large law firms, might create unease regarding the possibility that SeLegue's impartiality may be compromised by economic considerations in wishing to maintain a stream of "steady customers" – a reference to the law firms SeLegue normally represents in fee disputes.

Sean SeLegue, director of Howard Rice’s litigation department and the firm's Attorney Liability and Appellate Practice Groups. According to SeLegue's profile, "Attorneys who face charges of misconduct – whether in a civil case for malpractice or malicious prosecution, in a disciplinary investigation by the State Bar or in a motion to disqualify – often turn to Mr. SeLegue and his colleagues in the Attorney Liability Group." Recently, SeLegue as well as Jerome Falk, Shaudy Danaye-Elmi, and Noah Rosenthal represented Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in their bid to rescind a prior settlement agreement the Winklevosses had entered into with Facebook. (Photo: Courtesy of Facebook)

Specifically, after a fee dispute erupted between Benjamin, Weill & Mazer and Dr. Kors, a firm client, the matter was referred to the Bar Association of San Francisco for mandatory arbitration. The arbitration panel, which included Sean SeLegue, issued a ruling in favor of the firm and against Dr. Kors.

A Superior Court judge adopted the ruling and issued a judgment against Kors, who promptly appealed.

In a written opinion, Kline found that SeLegue failure to inform the parties that he regularly represents law firms in fee disputes against clients and SeLegue’s involvement in such a case created "a doubt that the arbitrator would be able to be impartial.”

Specifically, the Court wrote:

"Kors is not seeking disclosure of all matters that might make her prefer a different arbitrator or asking us to depart from the standard of an objective person. Her contention is simply that an objective person could reasonably question the impartiality of an arbitrator in a dispute over legal fees who, at the time of the arbitration, was engaged generally in the defense of attorneys and law firms in cases involving professional responsibility and was actively representing a law firm in a case before the California Supreme Court involving a dispute over legal fees."

“For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that upon his appointment SeLegue had a duty to timely disclose to the parties the nature of his legal practice, including the fact that he was then representing a law firm engaged in a fee dispute with a former client.”

According to SeLegue, "The reason people agree to binding arbitration in the first place is it's cheaper, quicker, and more private. It's only fair to enforce it," he stated to the Civil Justice Blog.

The appellate court decision made no mention of the fact that Sean SeLegue and Noah Rosenthal of Howard Rice, as well as Diane Karpman and JoAnne Earls Robbins of Karpman & Associates, are all members of the Association of Discipline Defense Counsel.

According to the Association of Discipline Defense Counsel's website, SeLegue practice area include: State Bar Defense, Ethics Advice, Expert Testimony, Civil Litigation Defense, Disqualification Motions, Appeals. JoAnne Earls Robbins's practice area include: State Bar Discipline and Ethics Consultations.

Click here to view a copy of the decision:

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