Involuntary Removal of Counsel

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).



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