IN RE: NYASIA H.
Argued Sept. 9, 2013. -- September 27, 2013
Joshua Michtom, assistant public defender, for the appellant (respondent father).Benjamin Zivyon, assistant attorney general, with whom were Carolyn Signorelli, assistant attorney general, and on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, and Susan T. Pearlman, assistant attorney general, for the appellee (petitioner).
The respondent father, Steven H., appeals from the judgment of the trial court terminating his parental rights as to his minor child, Nyasia H.1 On appeal, the respondent claims that the court erred when it denied a motion to disqualify Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Signorelli, the attorney representing the petitioner, the Commissioner of Children and Families, and that he is entitled to a new termination hearing because of this error. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to disqualify Attorney Signorelli. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.2
The relevant factual allegations presented to the trial court in the motion to disqualify are as follows. Attorney Signorelli was the Chief Child Protection Attorney at the time this case was initiated against the respondent in 2010, and, in that capacity, she was in charge of all attorneys awarded contracts to represent children and indigent parents in actions initiated by the Department of Children and Families. The respondent previously had sent an e-mail directed to Attorney Signorelli requesting that she investigate this case in her capacity as Chief Child Protection Attorney.3 On January 4, 2013, the mother's attorney became aware that Attorney Signorelli, who had worked at the Office of the Attorney General prior to her appointment as Chief Child Protection Attorney, had returned to the Office of the Attorney General, and she had been assigned to the present case for the petitioner. It was not until March 2, 2013, however, that the mother's attorney learned that the respondent had sent an e-mail directed to Attorney Signorelli while she was the Chief Child Protection Attorney. The mother's attorney then immediately requested that the court consider disqualifying Attorney Signorelli on the basis of rules 1.7, 1.9, 1.10 and 1.11 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.4
The court heard argument on the motion on March 4, 2013, at which time the respondent verbally supported5 the mother's motion to disqualify Attorney Signorelli.6 Although in his brief the respondent appears to fault the court for not taking evidence at this hearing, there is nothing in the record to indicate that the respondent or the mother's attorney ever requested an evidentiary hearing on the matter, much less that the court denied such a request. Following the argument of counsel, the court denied the motion to disqualify. The trial proceeded, and the court rendered judgment terminating the parental rights of the respondent and the mother on March 28, 2013. The respondent then filed the present appeal.
On appeal, the respondent claims that the court erred in denying the motion to disqualify Attorney Signorelli because of the appearance of impropriety7 and because her representation of the petitioner was a violation of rule 1.11 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. He further argues that he is entitled to a new hearing on the termination of his parental rights due to the court's error in denying the motion. We are not persuaded.
“The standard of review for determining whether the court properly denied a motion to disqualify counsel is an abuse of discretion standard. The Superior Court has inherent and statutory authority to regulate the conduct of attorneys who are officers of the court․ In its execution of this duty, the Superior Court has broad discretionary power to determine whether an attorney should be disqualified for an alleged breach of confidentiality or conflict of interest․ In determining whether the Superior Court has abused its discretion in denying a motion to disqualify, this court must accord every reasonable presumption in favor of its decision. Reversal is required only where an abuse of discretion is manifest or where injustice appears to have been done.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Smigelski v. Kosiorek, 138 Conn.App. 728, 739–40, 54 A.3d 584 (2012), cert. denied, 308 Conn. 901, 60 A.3d 287 (2013).
“Disqualification of counsel is a remedy that serves to enforce the lawyer's duty of absolute fidelity and to guard against the danger of inadvertent use of confidential information․ In disqualification matters, however, we must be solicitous of a client's right freely to choose his counsel ․ mindful of the fact that a client whose attorney is disqualified may suffer the loss of time and money in finding new counsel and may lose the benefit of its longtime counsel's specialized knowledge of its operations․ The competing interests at stake in the motion to disqualify, therefore, are: (1) the [respondent's] interest in protecting confidential information; (2) the [petitioner's] interest in freely selecting counsel of [her] choice; and (3) the public's interest in the scrupulous administration of justice.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) American Heritage Agency, Inc. v. Gelinas, 62 Conn.App. 711, 725, 774 A.2d 220, cert. denied, 257 Conn. 903, 777 A.2d 192 (2001).
In the present case, after counsel argued the motion to disqualify Attorney Signorelli, the court issued its ruling from the bench. The court found that the respondent's e-mail directed to Attorney Signorelli did not disclose any substantial and confidential matters, that all the information provided by the respondent in the e-mail was a matter of record, and that Attorney Signorelli had not been acting in an adversarial role with the respondent, nor had she been representing him. The court also stressed that the case had been pending for 987 days, with the children having been in placement since June, 2010,8 and that trial was due to start that very day. On these bases, the court denied the motion.
On appeal, the respondent specifically argues that Attorney Signorelli's representation of the petitioner in this case created the appearance of impropriety and violated the section of rule 1.11(a) that provides: “Except as law may otherwise expressly permit, a lawyer who has formerly served as a public officer or employee of the government ․ (2) shall not otherwise represent a client in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a public officer or employee, unless the appropriate government agency gives its informed consent, confirmed in writing, to the representation.” Assuming, without deciding, that this rule could be implicated under the facts of this case, we, nonetheless, are not persuaded by the respondent's argument.
Pursuant to statute, Attorney Signorelli, as the Chief Child Protection Attorney, was responsible for managing a system of legal representation, where such representation was handled by not-for-profit legal services agencies and private independent contract attorneys who, themselves, provided direct legal services to clients. See General Statutes (Rev. to 2010) § 46b–123d, repealed by Public Acts 2011, No. 11–51, § 223, effective July 1, 2011. Under § 46b–123d, the role and duties of the Chief Child Protection Attorney were administrative in nature, and thus she did not personally or substantially participate in or provide any legal representation in individual cases. The rule of professional conduct that the respondent complains was violated in this case, rule 1.11(a)(2), is addressed to public officers or employees of the government who have “participated personally and substantially” in a matter. The court found that Attorney Signorelli did not participate personally and substantially in the respondent's case and that there was no basis on which to disqualify her. On the basis of the court's findings, the record before us, and the clearly defined statutory scope of the Chief Child Protection Attorney's role and duties, we are not persuaded that the court abused its discretion or that the denial of the motion to disqualify amounted to a manifest injustice. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the respondent is entitled to a new trial on the petition to terminate his parental rights.
The judgment is affirmed.
In this opinion the other judges concurred.