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Supreme Court: Law firm can represent current, former Verizon employees

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A West Virginia law firm did not violate rules of professional conduct when it represented current and former Verizon employees in wrongful termination cases, West Virginia Supreme Court justices recently decided.

In their request for a writ of prohibition, Verizon West Virginia, Inc., and several employees asked the court to prevent the enforcement of a Harrison County Circuit Court order that permitted Steptoe & Johnson PLLC to continue representing employees in their cases against the company.

They wanted to disqualify Steptoe as counsel for employees because of Steptoe's representation of other Verizon employees in cases that were settled and dismissed.

In their March 7 opinion, West Virginia Supreme Court justices found that Verizon is not entitled to this type of relief because Steptoe's representation did not constitute a conflict of interest under the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.

"Moreover, the relief requested by Verizon would impermissibly restrict Steptoe's right to practice law in contravention of West Virginia Rule of Professional Conduct," the opinion states.

The cases stem back to 2009 when Steptoe attorneys filed a lawsuit against Verizon on behalf of a former employee alleging wrongful termination and violation of the West Virginia Humans Right Act.

A year later, Steptoe attorneys filed a similar lawsuit for another Verizon employee. Both employees worked at the Clarksburg call center.

Agreed protective orders were entered in both cases to ensure confidentiality of certain documents disclosed in discovery.

Both lawsuits were resolved through confidential settlement agreements and the terms prohibited parties from divulging the nature, substance or amount of the settlement agreements and further prohibited employees from disparaging Verizon in the future, court documents state.

The circuit court found Steptoe was not disqualified because employees had submitted affidavits allaying the concerns and reflecting employees' consent to continue representation by Steptoe.

"Because Steptoe is not acting as an advocate against its former clients in representing the plaintiff employees, this subsequent representation is not adverse," the opinion states.

The state's highest court also concluded that there was no conflict of interest.

"We conclude that neither Steptoe's representation of its former clients nor its agreement to be bound by the protective orders and confidential settlements entered in conjunction with such representation disqualify Steptoe from representing its current clients, the plaintiff employees, in their wrongful termination claims against Verizon," the opinion states.