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United States v. Shaffer Equipment Co

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Attorneys for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Plaintiff) deliberately concealed the misrepresented achievements and credentials of the EPA (Plaintiff) On-Site Coordinator responsible for preparing the administrative hearing documents.  The court sanctioned counsel for the concealment by dismissing the case in its entirety

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Zealous advocacy by an attorney representing a client may not include misrepresenting material facts to the court or opposing counsel.

    Facts.

    Robert E. Caron was the On-Site Coordinator for a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Plaintiff) clean-up site.  Caron claimed to have a B.S. in environmental science from Rutgers University and an M.S. in organic chemistry from Drexel, but neither university had records to show Caron had received such degrees.  J. Jarod Snyder, a Department of Justice attorney, represented the EPA (Plaintiff), including Caron, at depositions.  Snyder knew that Caron had not received a degree from Rutgers.  Caron testified at his deposition concerning his alleged educational background, and Snyder objected to the continued questions as irrelevant but he did not reveal the truth about Caron’s credentials.  When counsel for the defense suggested obtaining a court ruling on the objection, Snyder requested a recess and contacted his superior, William A. Hutchins.  Snyder was advised to inform Caron he may wish to stop answering and seek individual counsel.  Caron elected to continue answering and Snyder continued to state objections to the line of questioning regarding Caron’s credentials.  Defense counsel argued the questions were relevant because they regarded Caron’s credibility.  After research, Snyder determined the questions were relevant but still failed to alert defense counsel or withdraw the objections.  The Inspector General later began a criminal investigation into Caron’s misrepresentations, but no one alerted the court or defense counsel to the ongoing investigation.  In addition, Snyder based his motion for summary judgment on Caron’s administrative documents although he did not cite to Caron’s administrative documents although he did not mention Caron’s testimony or include Caron’s affidavit.  He still did not inform the court or defense counsel of Caron’s misrepresented credentials.  Hutchens continued to advise Snyder to delete reference to the criminal investigation in correspondence and avoid notifying the court or defense counsel.  Defense counsel then independently learned Caron falsely testified in another case and so informed the Assistant United States Attorney.  At that time, EPA (Plaintiff) informed the court and defense counsel of the “Caron problem†and requested a stay.  The district court held that Snyder and Hutchins violated their duty of candor to the court and failed to supplement discovery with material information.  The court sanctioned counsel by dismissing the action in its entirety and awarding costs to the defendant.  Plaintiff appealed

    Issue.

    May zealous advocacy by an attorney representing a client include misrepresenting material facts to the court or opposing counsel?

     

    Held.

    (Niemeyer, J.)  No.  Zealous advocacy by an attorney representing a client may not include misrepresenting material facts to the court or opposing counsel.  As officers of the court, attorneys must first safeguard the integrity of the judicial system by advancing honesty on behalf of their clients.  In this case, Rule 3.3 requires candor before the tribunal and Rule 3.4 requires candor to opposing counsel.  Snyder and Hutchins violated both rules as well as the general duty of candor and good faith.  Rule 3.3 requires “actual knowledge†of a falsehood as well as materiality of that falsehood.  EPA (Plaintiff) argues its counsel had suspicions of Caron’s misrepresentations, but that argument rings false when confronted with the extent and repetition of Caron’s fraudulent claims.  Snyder had direct knowledge that Caron did not have a degree from Rutgers, did not correct Caron’s false testimony in his deposition, did not correct Caron’s fraudulent employment application with the EPA (Plaintiff), and relied on Caron’s complied administrative record for the summary judgment motion.  The Plaintiff definitely had actual knowledge of Caron’s lack of credibility.  Next, the court must consider whether the falsehoods were material to the case.  The Plaintiff had to provide that its costs incurred in cleaning defendant’s site were because of defendant’s release or threatened release of hazardous waste.  The costs occurred because of Caron’s recommendations and the administrative record supporting the costs was put together at Caron’s direction.  Therefore, Caron’s credibility was relevant and material to the case.  In fact, Snyder discovered the relevancy in his own legal research.  The last factor to consider is whether Caron’s conduct is a fraudulent act of the EPA (Plaintiff).  It is characterized this way because Caron is an important witness for Plaintiff’s case, the Plaintiff covered up his misrepresentations made while employed with the EPA (Plaintiff), and did so in order to disguise a weakness in the case.  The attorneys placed themselves at risk for sanction in over-stepping the bounds of zealous advocacy on behalf of the EPA (Plaintiff).  However, a sanction of dismissal was too severe.  The defendants would benefit to a greater degree than the harm caused by the attorney’s breach.  The court affirms the existence of a breach but vacates the order of dismissal and remands for imposition of a sanction short of dismissal.  Affirmed in part; vacated in part; and remanded

    Discussion.

    The judicial system relies on the general honesty of its participants.  Justice is served when the truth is uncovered and the appropriate parties receive the appropriate relief; whether that is civil relief or criminal punishment.  When attorneys participate in putting forth misrepresentations, deceit, or outright lies, the judicial system fails.  When an attorney discovers a discrepancy in a client’s story, background, or credentials, typically the attorney has plenty of opportunity to correct the misrepresentation, counsel the client appropriately to avoid further harm, or find a replacement witness/expert/theory.  In this case, the attorneys let one opportunity after another pass them by while they engaged in the client’s deceit.  This undermines the overall integrity of the system and justice cannot be served.


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