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On May 21, 2020, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously held in Plein v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 97563-9, 2020 WL 2568541 (Wash. May 21, 2020), that a former client seeking to disqualify the adverse party’s lawyer has the burden of showing that matters were substantially related, and that a matter is not “substantially related” to representation of the former client if it is not factually related to any representation of the former client.

In this case, the law firm Keller Rohrback LLP (“Keller”) represented homeowners in a lawsuit against USAA Casualty Insurance Company (“USAA”) alleging that USAA refused to pay for expenses after a house fire in bad faith. Keller had previously represented USAA for many years in various cases, including a suit with similar allegations involving a house fire. As part of this former representation, Keller had gained information regarding USAA’s policies and practices, thought processes, and business and litigation philosophies and strategies. Keller’s representation had included matters involving allegations similar to those made by the homeowners. On this basis, USAA alleged a conflict of interest disqualifying Keller under Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9, which states that a lawyer may not represent a new client against a former client “in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client.”
The Washington Supreme Court, siding with the majority of jurisdictions, first determined that the burden for showing that matters are “substantially related” rests with the former client. In that context, the court then concluded that the facts of this case and those of prior USAA cases, including the prior house fire case, were distinct and unrelated. Likewise, the court concluded that the information Keller gained when it represented USAA did not preclude Keller’s representation of the homeowners. As such, the court held that Keller was not disqualified from representing the homeowners against USAA.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Soha & Lang, P.S. or its clients.