A Minnesota appellate court has upheld a ruling disqualifying Covington & Burling from handling an environmental case against its former client 3M Company. In a 15-page opinion filed Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with 3M, finding that Covington’s former representation of the company’s perfluorochemical (PFC) business was substantially related to the state’s environmental case. 

The Minnesota case is a study in modern big firm conflict management. From 1992 to 2000, Covington had advised 3M on getting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food packaging products that contained PFCs. In late 2010, shortly after wrapping up an employee benefits matter for 3M, Covington signed on to represent the Minnesota AG’s Office on contingency in a suit accusing 3M of contaminating the state’s waterways with PFCs. 

In May 2012, 3M moved to disqualify Covington, filing statements from a half dozen ethics experts criticizing the firm. As we previously reported, 3M’s lawyers at Bickel & Brewer also filied a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit against Covington in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Williams & Connolly’s John Villa represents Covington in both the disqualification appeal and the pending federal suit.

In an interview last August, Timothy Hester, the head of Covington’s management committee, called the disqualification bid “an obvious litigation tactic,” asserting that internal emails proved that 3M knew about Covington’s role in the AG’s case in early 2011.

But Monday the three-judge panel threw out Covington’s appeal for lack of standing. It reasoned that because the state could discharge the firm at any time, Covington didn’t have a legally protected right to continue representing the client. It also rejected the state AG’s appeal because Covington had failed to get the informed consent of 3M. The court stopped short, however, of adopting the lower court’s view that Covington showed “conscious disregard” of its duties to 3M.  

Writing for the panel, Judge Randolph Peterson said the timing of 3M’s motion to disqualify—which was made 15 months after the admission of Covington’s attorneys and after substantial discovery—”might well be perceived as tactical maneuvering.” But the judge still upheld the disqualification.

“3M’s knowledge of the conflict, by itself, is not sufficient to avoid disqualification ,” Peterson wrote. “Covington had the duty to avoid conflicts and to obtain the informed consent of its former client, and it failed to obtain this consent.”

3M’s lead counsel, William Brewer III at Bickel & Brewer, said in a statement that the ruling “underscores the importance of the confidentiality surrounding attorney and client communications as fundamental to the integrity of our legal system.”

A spokesperson for Covington & Burling declined to comment.

A Minnesota appellate court has upheld a ruling disqualifying Covington & Burling from handling an environmental case against its former client 3M Company . In a 15-page opinion filed Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with 3M, finding that Covington’s former representation of the company’s perfluorochemical (PFC) business was substantially related to the state’s environmental case. 

The Minnesota case is a study in modern big firm conflict management. From 1992 to 2000, Covington had advised 3M on getting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food packaging products that contained PFCs. In late 2010, shortly after wrapping up an employee benefits matter for 3M, Covington signed on to represent the Minnesota AG’s Office on contingency in a suit accusing 3M of contaminating the state’s waterways with PFCs. 

In May 2012, 3M moved to disqualify Covington, filing statements from a half dozen ethics experts criticizing the firm. As we previously reported, 3M’s lawyers at Bickel & Brewer also filied a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit against Covington in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Williams & Connolly ‘s John Villa represents Covington in both the disqualification appeal and the pending federal suit.

In an interview last August, Timothy Hester, the head of Covington’s management committee, called the disqualification bid “an obvious litigation tactic,” asserting that internal emails proved that 3M knew about Covington’s role in the AG’s case in early 2011.

But Monday the three-judge panel threw out Covington’s appeal for lack of standing. It reasoned that because the state could discharge the firm at any time, Covington didn’t have a legally protected right to continue representing the client. It also rejected the state AG’s appeal because Covington had failed to get the informed consent of 3M. The court stopped short, however, of adopting the lower court’s view that Covington showed “conscious disregard” of its duties to 3M.  

Writing for the panel, Judge Randolph Peterson said the timing of 3M’s motion to disqualify—which was made 15 months after the admission of Covington’s attorneys and after substantial discovery—”might well be perceived as tactical maneuvering.” But the judge still upheld the disqualification.

“3M’s knowledge of the conflict, by itself, is not sufficient to avoid disqualification ,” Peterson wrote. “Covington had the duty to avoid conflicts and to obtain the informed consent of its former client, and it failed to obtain this consent.”

3M’s lead counsel, William Brewer III at Bickel & Brewer , said in a statement that the ruling “underscores the importance of the confidentiality surrounding attorney and client communications as fundamental to the integrity of our legal system.”

A spokesperson for Covington & Burling declined to comment.