By Nate Raymond
Oct 11 (Reuters) - A state judge in Minneapolis ruled
Thursday that Covington & Burling cannot represent the state of
Minnesota in an environmental lawsuit against the law firm's
onetime client 3M Co.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Robert Blaeser
disqualified Covington from the case due to the firm's prior
work for 3M on regulatory matters involving fluorochemical
products. The Minnesota lawsuit had likewise involved
fluorochemicals, creating a conflict, the judge said.
"Covington has exhibited a conscious disregard for its
duties of confidentiality, candor, full disclosure, and loyalty
to 3M by failing to raise its conflicts arising from the fact
that it previously advised and represented 3M on
(fluorochemical) matters," Blaeser wrote.
The ruling followed five months of legal bickering between
Covington, the prestigious Washington law firm, and 3M, the
Fortune 500 company behind Scotch Tape and Post-it products.
A separate lawsuit by 3M against Covington arising out of
the Minnesota case is pending in Minnesota state court.
The case has its roots in Covington's representation of 3M
in the 1990s, when it advised the company on regulatory matters
related to fluorochemicals in front of the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration. In 2010, Covington was retained by Minnesota to
represent it in a lawsuit accusing 3M of releasing
fluorochemicals into the state's waters.
During the course of the environmental litigation,
Covington had contended that its role with 3M and the FDA was
limited to advising on whether food packaging of products under
the Scotchban brand were microwave-safe. It also said that by
2010, the only matter it was handling for 3M involved employee
3M said Covington severed the relationship in December 2010,
a month after beginning discussions about taking on the 3M
lawsuit on behalf of Minnesota, which had been a firm client
In a 14-page decision, Blaeser said that 3M had met the
threshold to establish that Covington's prior representation of
the company was "substantially related" to the Minnesota
The judge said the record showed that Covington was
"specifically consulted on a number of confidential and
privileged matters regarding 3M's (fluorochemical) strategy."
"Covington has 'switched sides' by representing a client who
is now suing its former client," Blaeser said. "By representing
(Minnesota), Covington will benefit by contradicting the very
positions it had long advocated on 3M's behalf."
Blaeser said Minnesota had failed to overcome the
presumption that Covington received relevant confidential
information from 3M and shared it with the other lawyers in the
firm. Covington acknowledged not imposing any screens to
safeguard 3M's information, the judge said.
"Covington has even gone so far to seek discovery on the
very issues on which it previously counseled 3M," Blaeser said.
"Therefore, disqualification is the appropriate remedy in this
William Brewer of Bickel & Brewer, a lawyer for 3M, called
Thursday's ruling a "resounding victory" that underscored the
ethical duties lawyers owe their clients.
"This order confirms that Covington & Burling breached the
most fundamental duties inherent in the attorney-client
relationship -- the duties of loyalty and confidentiality,"
Timothy Hester, chair of Covington's management committee,
said in a statement the firm disagreed with the court.
"We believe 3M failed to identify an actual conflict of
interest and its attempt to disqualify the firm should in any
event be barred because it came 15 months after the case was
filed," Hester said.
Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General
Lori Swanson, said the state's attorneys were reviewing the
The case is State of Minnesota v. 3M Company, Hennepin
County District Court, Civil File No. 27-CV-10-28862.
For 3M: William Brewer III, Bickel & Brewer, and Michael
McCarthy, Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand.
For Minnesota: William Greaney, Covington & Burling.
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