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Oswell v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.

August 22, 2007

AUDREY OSWELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MORGAN STANLEY DEAN WITTER & CO., INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

[relates to Docket Item # 22]

This matter is before the Court upon the motion of Defendant Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Venture Holdings, Inc. ("Defendant") to disqualify counsel for Plaintiff Audrey Oswell ("Oswell") pursuant to New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 3.7 ("RPC 3.7"). RPC 3.7 can be used to disqualify an attorney on the grounds that the attorney will be a witness at trial. In this matter, Defendant seeks to disqualify four attorneys from the law firm representing Oswell (Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers, LLP) (the "Klehr Law Firm") but not the Klehr Law Firm itself.*fn1 Because members of the Klehr Law Firm Charles Ercole, Esq. and Lynn A. Collins, Esq. had a limited participation in earlier conversations surrounding this dispute, and other witnesses may be available to Defendant if it needs to establish the contents of those discussions at trial, Defendant has failed at the present time, to meet its burden of proving that either Ercole and Collins are "likely to be a necessary witness" at trial (as required by RPC 3.7(a)). Thus, the Court will deny Defendant's motion to disqualify as to Ercole and Collins for the reasons expressed below.

I. BACKGROUND

This matter involves two consolidated cases. The first is Oswell v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. et al. (Civil No. 06-5814), which arises out of discussions Oswell allegedly participated in with Defendant relating to the purchase of certain property in Atlantic City (the "Property") and the contemplated development of that Property into a casino. Oswell claims that she entered into a deal with Defendant in which Defendant would employ her as the chief executive officer of a new casino that she and Defendant would develop on the Property. Oswell claims that (1) Defendant's promise purportedly induced her to resign from her then current employment as chief executive officer of Resorts International, Inc. ("Resorts") and (2) that she provided contacts and information to Morgan Stanley and negotiated the purchase of the Property on Defendant's behalf.

The second action is Resorts Int'l Hotel, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. (Civil No. 07-105) in which plaintiff Resorts alleges that Defendant induced Oswell, during her tenure as chief executive officer of Resorts, to divert the opportunity to purchase the Property away from Resorts and for Defendant's behalf. Further, Resorts argues that Defendant induced Oswell to: (1) use her knowledge, experience and contacts in the Atlantic City casino industry to negotiate a purchase price of the Property; (2) resign from Resorts and (3) secure a release from Resorts under false pretenses. In this action, Defendant brought a third-party complaint against Oswell, asserting claims for indemnification, contribution and fraud (in the event Defendant is held liable to Resorts) arising out of representations Oswell made to Defendant, through her attorneys, that she had presented to Resorts the opportunity to develop the property and that they had rejected it. Defendant and Oswell ultimately stipulated that the third-party complaint should be dismissed without prejudice on July 17, 2007. [Docket Item No. 31, 36.]

Defendant claims that (1) the conversations between Oswell's attorneys, on the one hand, and Defendant's attorneys, on the other, relating to the legal impediments to the "deal" between Oswell and Morgan Stanley and (2) what, if anything, Oswell told Resorts regarding the opportunity to purchase the Property and what her attorneys told Defendant's counsel regarding these discussions, are highly material to the claims and defenses herein. Specifically, Defendant claims:

* Oswell's attorneys (Charles Ercole, Lynn Collins, Ira Gubernick and Leonard Klehr) participated in multiple telephone conversations and email exchanges relating to the topics with various attorneys from the law firm of Shefsky & Froelich (the "Shefsky firm") who were acting on behalf of Defendant in connection with the purchase of the Property;

* On February 14 and 16, 2006, Ercole and Collins participated in two half-hour, substantive conference calls with the Shefsky firm where the parties discussed "numerous legal impediments" to the deal arising due to Oswell's then-current employment with Resorts. (Def.'s Reply at 3.) According to lawyers at the Shefsky law firm, on February 14, Ercole and Collins (among others) represented that Oswell had advised a high-ranking executive at Resorts about the Property and that Resorts was not interested in purchasing the Property.

* On February 16, 2006, Ercole and Collins participated in a conference call and argued with representatives of the Shefsky firm that Morgan Stanley would not be at risk of a tortious interference action should it move ahead with the deal.

Oswell presents a version of events (and the role of Oswell's counsel) that is considerably different than the one presented by Morgan Stanley. For example:

* According to the affidavit by Lynn Collins, Collins and Ercole participated in one telephone call with attorneys for Defendant, which occurred on February 14, 2006. The call was "brief" and "only involved a very general and cursory discussion of New Jersey case law. on the issue of tortious interference." (Pl.'s Opp. Br. at 8.);

* After the call, Collins sent an email to a Shefsky attorney forwarding a few general case cites on New Jersey tortious interference and non-compete agreements under New Jersey law;

* Aside from this exchange, "at no time prior to the filing of the Complaint were either Mr. Ercole or Ms. Collins ever involved in (or witness to) any communications with [Defendant] or its attorneys related to the status of the agreement between [Oswell] and [Defendant], the terms ...


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