ST. LOUIS — U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig has disqualified a law firm representing the city of Ferguson in a proposed class action involving the city's policies and practices of jailing individuals for failure to pay money owed from traffic and other municipal offenses.
Fleissig found that attorneys at Pitzer Snodgrass have a conflict of interest because the firm hired attorney Ryan McGinty, who had previously represented the plaintiffs in municipal matters that form the basis of the current litigation, the Aug. 7 ruling states.
The ruling further notes that the city also is represented by attorneys at Lewis Rice in St. Louis and stayed proceedings for 21 days to allow Ferguson time to obtain new counsel "if it so desires."
According to the ruling, attorneys at ArchCity Defenders and others filed suit on behalf of plaintiffs on Feb. 8, 2015. At the time, McGinty was employed as an attorney with ArchCity Defenders and worked there through Jan. 5 of this year.
The plaintiffs presented evidence that McGinty represented at least four of the 11 named plaintiffs while working at ArchCity Defenders in matters at the city's municipal court, including the particular matters that involve the current claims.
The Pitzer firm had entered its appearance on behalf of Ferguson on March 2, 2015, and it hired McGinty on April 6 of this year.
While the Pitzer firm presented evidence that McGinty has worked exclusively in the firm’s asbestos litigation group, a practice group “totally separate” from the municipal practice group, that he was "totally excluded" from accessing the files related to the city litigation and that computer records showed that he did not access or attempt to access the city files, Fleissig nonetheless disqualified Pitzer attorneys Peter Dunne, Robert Plunkert and Jessica Diamond.
"[A]lthough the Court does not lightly enter this decision to partially deprive the City of its choice of counsel, the Court has a duty 'to maintain public confidence in the legal profession and to ensure the integrity of judicial proceedings,'" Fleissig wrote.