Federal judge disqualifies lawyer who sued ex-client

A federal judge last week disqualified an attorney from representing a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging abusive debt collection practices in a case filed against a client of the attorney’s former law firm.

James Vlahakis of the Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd., represented Jamie Lynn Holmes in a suit she filed against Credit Protection Association, L.P. in the Southern Indiana District Court in Indianapolis. Holmes’ complaint alleged CPA violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by repeatedly calling her cellphone with an automatic dialing system trying to reach a different person. Holmes alleged the calls in 2015 and 2016 continued even after she demanded CPA quit calling because the phone did not belong to the person the company was trying to reach.

But CPA moved to disqualify Vlahakis from the suit because he formerly worked for Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, which represents CPA. Southern District Senior Judge William Lawrence agreed, issuing an order Friday disqualifying Vlahakis in Jamie Lynn Holmes v. Credit Protection Association, L.P., 1:17-cv-3995.

Lawrence noted Vlahakis had billed at least 60 hours representing CPA in a case in his court with similar issues, Lanteri v. CPA, 1:13-cv-1501, potentially in violation of Local Rule 83-5(e), which is made applicable by Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9. The rule forbids attorneys from representing a client “in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client… .”

“Holmes does not dispute that Vlahakis billed ‘sixty hours or so’ on the Lanteri case, but argues that his role on the case was ‘limited to writing a response brief,’ … and that the fact that he billed sixty hours is ‘meaningless’ because CPA does not identify how many total hours its lawyers have billed in Lanteri. The Court disagrees that the relevant inquiry — whether there is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in the course of Vlahakis’s representation of CPA in Lanteri will materially advance Holmes’s interest in this case — depends in any way on a comparison of the number of hours billed by Vlahakis to the total number of hours billed by CPA’s lawyers in Lanteri,” Lawrence wrote.

“Given the common factual allegations between the two cases and the fact that this case was filed just a few months after Vlahakis completed his work in Lanteri, the Court finds that there is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in Vlahakis’s representation of CPA would materially advance Holmes’s position in this case,” the judge wrote in granting CPA’s motion to disqualify Vlahakis.

Lawrence stayed the case 60 days to allow Holmes to obtain new counsel or proceed without counsel.

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