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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rules that class action attorney did not owe any heightened duty of loyalty and confidentiality to class representative distinct from duty owed to rest of class

On December 1, 2020, in Medical & Chiropractic Clinic, Inc. v. Oppenheim, et al., No. 18-13714, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that legal counsel for the plaintiffs in a class action did not owe a fiduciary duty to class representatives that was distinct from the fiduciary duty owed to the rest of the class. The issue arose because a lawyer who had previously been employed by a law firm representing the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit left the firm and at his new firm started a competing class action lawsuit with a different class representative.  After he settled the latter class action lawsuit, his prior law firm and prior representative client filed a lawsuit against him claiming they gave him confidential information about settlement negotiations in the earlier class action which assisted him in settling the latter class action quickly and to the detriment of the class.  The Eleventh Circuit noted that to prove a breach of fiduciary duty under Florida law, a plaintiff must prove three elements: the existence of a fiduciary duty, a breach of that duty, and that the plaintiff’s damages were proximately caused by the breach, citing Gracey v. Eaker, 837 So.2d 348, 353 (Fla. 2002).  The Eleventh Circuit stated that that while Florida law holds that an attorney owes a duty of loyalty and confidentiality to former clients with respect to matters that are substantially related, there is no class action-specific authority extending duties of loyalty or confidentiality to an attorney’s representation of a class representative in a class action. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the defendant attorney did not violate any duty of loyalty and confidentiality to the original class representative because the duties owed to a class representative do not differ from the duties owed to a class.

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