PHILADELPHIA, June 30 – A policyholder’s attorney has been disqualified from serving in a breach of contract and bad faith case by a Pennsylvania federal judge, because he will be a necessary fact witness in that case, the Court held.
The Plaintiff in the underlying case, Susan Adeniyi-Jones was allegedly injured by an underinsured driver on Oct. 11, 2011. After receiving the offending driver’s liability policy limits of $25,000, Adeniyi-Jones, through her attorney, Rhonda Hill Wilson, contacted State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Adeniyi-Jones’ own insurer, and had communications regarding a claim for underinsured motorist benefits.
State Farm offered Jones $15,000 to settle but Adeniyi-Jones demanded $1.5 million. Adeniyi-Jones sued State Farm in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, alleging breach of contract and bad faith, after which State Farm removed the action to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa..
During discovery in the federal action District Court granted State Farm’s motion to compel the deposition of Adeniyi-Jones’ lawyer, Wilson, but the deposition was limited to pre litigation dealings between the parties. Ultimately, State Farm filed a motion for summary judgment regarding the bad faith claim which was denied, in part because of what the Court felt were genuine issues of fact regarding communications among the parties.
Eastern District Judge Harvey Bartle III also held that the plaintiff’s lawyer, Wilson, had to be removed from serving as trial ounsel:
“With regard to all of the plaintiffs’ allegations, since her testimony ‘is central to the plaintiffs proving and State Farm defending against the claims that State Farm acted in bad faith in failing to request a statement under oath or independent medical examination.’”
Judge Bartle also found that Wilson’s testimony was also central to the plaintiff’s claim of bad faith delay, and to the Plaintiff’s claim that State Farm’s $15,000 settlement offer was unreasonable and unjustified, further holding:
“[t]he reasonableness of the $15,000 settlement offer depends on the content of the information State Farm had before it at the time it made that offer. . .
As the individual who supplied all relevant documents and oral representations concerning medical bills, treatment, and wage loss to State Farm, Wilson is a necessary fact witness as to whether the settlement offer was reasonable. Wilson is the only fact witness who can respond on behalf of the plaintiffs to Lukens’ claims.”
Judge Bartle further held that Wilson’s testimony was also relevant to the Plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, calling Wilson a “key fact witness.” Judge Bartle recognized that although disqualifying Wilson “burdens the plaintiffs with obtaining new trial counsel,” the “balance of interests favors disqualifying Wilson as trial counsel in this action.” Judge Bartle’s analysis was based in Part on Pa. Rule of Professional Conduct 3.7 and Eastern District Local Rule 83.6 regarding disqualification of counsel.
Susan Adeniyi-Jones v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., No. 14-7101, E.D. Pa.; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85053