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Ethical Obligations When Interviewing Adverse Putative Class Members

Do defense lawyers owe any duty to putative class members when interviewing them on behalf of their employer prior to certification of the class? While there is still little guidance from the courts of appeal on the subject, if you've never read it before, you might consider reviewing a September 2005 order by Judge Brick (Alameda County Superior Court) in a case called Shahrokhshahi v. Round Table Pizza. Although Judge Brick denied the plaintiff's motion to disqualify the defense firm for conducting interviews of putative class members without making full and fair disclosures to them beforehand, he did rule that the firm had violated ethical rules by not disclosing to putative class members when they first contacted them that:

  • The class members' potential rights to overtime wages were at issue in the pending litigation;
  • Their interests were adverse to the corporation's in the litigation;
  • The defense firm represented only the corporation's interests, not those of the putative class members;
  • Information given to the defense firm was not confidential and could be used against the class members' interests in the overtime litigation; and
  • The managers may want to speak to independent counsel about their interests in the litigation.

Because the defense firm failed to make any such disclosures, he ordered the distribution of a curative letter, on employer letterhead, to all putative class members. The firm's writ petition was summarily denied in Round Table Pizza, Inc. v. Superior Court, Case No. A111674. We've had the issue come up several times recently, and our judges have all been receptive to Judge Brick's rationale.


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