The Indiana Court of Appeals declined to decide whether a trial court erred in concluding an ex-city attorney violated the Rules of Professional Conduct when he acted as the lawyer for a defendant in a suit brought by the city.
The city of Hammond Inspection Department sued Alfonoso Aguayo in small claims court in 2015 seeking to recover rental registration fees. At first, Aguayo did not respond and default judgment was awarded in favor of the city. He then hired William O’Connor as his attorney, who spent years working as the city’s corporation counsel. He retired from this position in July 2013.
The city objected to O’Connor serving as Aguayo’s attorney, citing a conflict of interest. The city’s attorney said it wouldn’t object to Aguayo, pro se, filing a motion to set aside the judgment. O’Connor filed an appearance and the city sought to have him disqualified. At a hearing in the matter, the judge expressed disappointment with both parties, noting the animosity that the two attorneys displayed toward each other.
The judge entered an order disqualifying O’Connor in the instant case and any other private clients in similar transactions in the future involving the city. Ten days later, it dismissed the case against Aguayo.
The Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s order disqualifying O’Connor in the instant case was within the trial court’s discretion. But to the extent that the order tries to limit his ability to represent clients in other cases, this portion of the order exceeds the authority of the trial court. His ability to represent clients in future cases on similar matters will need to be decided by the trial courts hearing those cases, Judge Paul Mathias wrote.
The judges found the issue of his disqualification isn’t moot because the city had not yet filed to dismiss the case against Aguyao when the trial court entered its order.
O’Connor argued the trial court erred in concluding he violated the Rules of Professional Conduct such that he should have been disqualified from representing clients with interests adverse to the city. The COA also declined to address the issue because it is moot as it pertains to the present case, and the judges can render no effective relief.
“This does not leave O’Connor without recourse. As noted above, when and if this issue is presented again, the trial court in that case will have to determine whether O’Connor should be disqualified based on the facts and circumstances of that case. If the trial court disqualifies O’Connor, then O’Connor should seek to have the trial court’s order certified for interlocutory appeal. If the trial court denies the request to certify its order for interlocutory appeal, so long as the City does not again dismiss the case against O’Connor’s client, he may still appeal the issue in a case in which we would be able to afford the injured party effective relief,” Mathias wrote.
The case is Alfonso M. Aguayo and William O’Connor v. City of Hammond Inspection Department, 45A05-1510-SC-1719.