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Murray v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

September 29, 2009

DARREN F. MURRAY, MARY A. DEVITO, KEVIN L. HYMS, HARRY S. PURNELL III, KATHY VANDERVEUR, AND MICHAEL A. GIANNATTASIO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY AND METLIFE, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Defendants-appellants Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and MetLife, Inc. appeal an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Platt, J.), disqualifying its counsel Debevoise & Plimpton LLP shortly before trial. On September 22, 2009, this Court reversed the disqualification order, with opinion to follow. This is that opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dennis Jacobs, Chief Judge

Argued: September 3, 2009

Before: JACOBS, Chief Judge, WESLEY and HALL, Circuit Judges.

Plaintiffs in this class action were policyholders of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company when it was a mutual insurance company. They complain that they were misled and shortchanged in the transaction by which the company demutualized in 2000. Nine years after the action was commenced and five weeks before trial was scheduled to begin, plaintiffs moved to disqualify the lead counsel for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and MetLife, Inc. ("MetLife"), Debevoise & Plimpton LLP ("Debevoise"). The grounds alleged related to that firm's representation of MetLife in the underlying demutualization. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Platt, J.) granted the motion to disqualify on September 1; the district court then stayed its order and immediately certified the issue to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). We accepted the certification on September 2, and on September 3 we heard oral argument. After time allotted for additional briefing, a short delay caused by the recusal of two judges, and the observance of national and religious holidays, we reversed the disqualification by order dated September 22, with opinion to follow. This is that opinion.

The district court disqualified Debevoise on the ground that its representation of MetLife in the 2000 demutualization made it counsel to the policyholders as well. On appeal, plaintiffs urge affirmance on that ground, and also on the independent ground that the witness-advocate rule requires disqualification because four Debevoise lawyers who worked on the demutualization will give testimony adverse to MetLife at trial.

We conclude that (i) Debevoise did not have an attorney-client relationship with the policyholders by virtue of its representation of MetLife; and (ii) plaintiffs have failed to establish that the purported violation of the witness-advocate rule in this case would warrant disqualification. Accordingly, we reverse.

I.

In 1915, MetLife converted from a stock life insurance company to a mutual insurance company. On April 7, 2000, MetLife completed a months-long process of demutualization back to a stock insurance company. Debevoise served as MetLife's corporate counsel in that transaction.

On April 18, 2000, plaintiffs filed this class action lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York, alleging that MetLife violated federal securities laws by misrepresenting or altogether omitting certain information from the materials provided to its policyholders during the demutualization process. In June 2007, MetLife invoked the attorney-client privilege to prevent plaintiffs' discovery of particular communications between MetLife and its in-house and outside counsel. The district court denied a protective order on the ground that the plaintiff policyholders were the owners of the mutual company and were therefore clients of Debevoise during the demutualization.

Following discovery and the usual preliminaries, the trial was set to begin on September 8, 2009. When last-minute settlement negotiations failed, plaintiffs moved to disqualify Debevoise on July 31, 2009--more than nine years after the action was commenced, more than two years after the court ruled that plaintiffs were clients of Debevoise, and five weeks before trial. Plaintiffs argued that disqualification was appropriate for the same reason articulated by the district court to support its 2007 discovery ruling: Debevoise had been counsel to plaintiffs in the demutualization and cannot now jump sides to become adverse to plaintiffs at trial. Plaintiffs also argued that disqualification was required by the witness-advocate rule, because four Debevoise lawyers are scheduled to testify about disclosures and documents related to the demutualization.

MetLife's response invoked the doctrine of laches; argued that as a matter of law the policyholders of a mutual insurance company are not a priori the clients of that company's corporate counsel; denied that the testimony of the Debevoise lawyers would be adverse to MetLife (or even significant); and charged that the motion was made for improper tactical purposes.

On September 1, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion and disqualified Debevoise. The following colloquy explains the court's decision:

[MetLife]: . . . [B]ut Debevoise represents in this litigation MetLife Inc. and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and not the shareholders of MetLife Inc.

The Court: I understand that and that's the result of the demutualization process, and I fully understand that. But the problem is whether your representation of the policyholders which turned into a representation of the corporation is tainted because of a conflict.

[MetLife]: And your Honor is aware that our position is that Debevoise & Plimpton never represented the policyholders of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ...


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