Unless otherwise indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the court’s opinion.
Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals
State v. Eady, No. M2021-00388-CCA-R3-CD, p. 48 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 14, 2022).
A trial court’s decision to disqualify an attorney for a conflict of interest and to impute an attorney’s conflict of interest upon the attorney’s firm is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Orrick, 592 S.W.3d 877, 882 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2018) (citing Clinard v. Blackwood, 46 S.W.3d 177, 182 (Tenn. 2001)); State v. Mark Steven Treuchet, No. E2019-00663-CCA-R3-CD, 2020 WL 4346756, at *15 (Tenn. Crim. App. July 29, 2020); State v. Derek T. Grooms, No. W2019-01324-CCA-R10-CD, 2020 WL 9171956, at *9 (Tenn. Crim. App. Nov. 25, 2020).
Discretion is abused by applying an incorrect legal standard or reaching a decision which is against logic or reasoning that caused an injustice to the party complaining. Orrick, 592 S.W.3d at 882 (citing Shirley, 6 S.W.3d at 247). In determining whether the trial court has applied an incorrect legal standard, “appellate courts are not required to defer to a trial court’s interpretation of the Code of Professional Responsibility or to its decisions regarding legal standards applicable to a particular disqualification motion.” State v. Coulter, 67 S.W.3d 3, 28 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2001) (citations omitted), abrogated on other grounds by State v. Jackson, 173 S.W.3d 401 (Tenn. 2005).
State v. Adams, No. W2020-01208-CCA-R3-CD, p. 59 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Sept. 9, 2022).
A party moving to disqualify an attorney in a criminal case must establish a conflict of interests by a preponderance of the evidence. State v. White, 114 S.W.3d 469, 476 (Tenn. 2003). A trial court’s decision to disqualify an attorney for a conflict of interests and to impute an attorney’s conflict of interests upon the attorney’s firm is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Clinard v. Blackwood, 46 S.W.3d 177, 182 (Tenn. 2001); see State v. Culbreath, 30 S.W.3d 309, 312-13 (Tenn. 2000). A court abuses its discretion by “apply[ing] an incorrect legal standard, or reach[ing] a decision which is against logic or reasoning that caused an injustice to the party complaining.” State v. Shirley, 6 S.W.3d 243, 247 (Tenn. 1999); see Clinard, 46 S.W.3d at 182.
Jones v. State of Tennessee, No. W2020-01347-CCA-R10-PD (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 1, 2022).
However, the “involuntary removal of any attorney is a severe limitation on a defendant’s right to counsel and may be justified, if at all, only in the most flagrant circumstances of attorney misconduct or incompetence when all other judicial controls have failed.” State v. Huskey, 82 S.W.3d 297, 311 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2002). Once counsel is appointed, a trial court can remove counsel on its own motion “on a very limited basis.” Id. at 306. Reasons justifying removal include conflicts of interest, “objective evidence of counsel’s physical incapacity to continue[,] or serious misconduct by counsel.” See Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153, 164 (1988); Husky, 82 S.W.3d at 309. Disqualifying an attorney from a case has been described as the “most drastic” of “options available to insure that [a court’s] proceedings are fair in both appearance and in fact.” In re Ellis, 822 S.W.2d 602, 605 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991). Naturally, “[t]he public has a strong interest in the prompt, effective, and efficient administration of justice; the public’s interest in the dispensation of justice that is not unreasonably delayed has great force.” United States v. Burton, 584 F.2d 485, 489 D.C. Cir. 1978). It stands to reason then that a trial court’s ruling on the disqualification of counsel will be reversed only upon a showing of an abuse of discretion. Husky, 82 S.W.3d at 309.
The supreme court has described the abuse of discretion standard of review as follows:
The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the [postconviction court] . . . or to substitute their discretion for the [post-conviction] court’s. The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court’s decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny.
Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence.
To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a [trial] court’s discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the [trial] court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the [trial] court’s decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.
Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524 (Tenn. 2010) (citations omitted). Even more recently, however, the court “emphasize[d] that the abuse of discretion standard of review does not permit an appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court.” State v. McCaleb, 582 S.W.3d 179, 186 (Tenn. 2019) (citing State v. Harbison, 539 S.W.3d 149, 159 (Tenn. 2018)). Instructing reviewing courts not to “‘second-guess a trial court’s exercise of its discretion simply because the trial court chose an alternative that the appellate courts would not have chosen,’” the lower court’s decision should be affirmed if the reviewing court determines that “reasonable minds can disagree with the propriety of the decision.” McCaleb, 582 S.W.3d at 186 (quoting White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 223 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999); Harbison, 539 S.W.3d at 159).