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Obermayer Terminates Partner in Wake of Family Court FlapObermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel has terminated real estate partner Jeffrey Rotwitt after it emerged that he served as an attorney for the courts and co-developer of a plan to build a family court facility in Philadelphia, the firm said Thursday. Rotwitt has been splitting the development fees with the developer along with taking advance payments on his fee agreement with the court. Rotwitt has said everything he did was known and above-board.
The Legal Intelligencer2010-06-01 12:00:00 AM
Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel terminated real estate partner Jeffrey Rotwitt after it emerged that he served as both an attorney for the courts and co-developer of the plan to build a family court facility in Philadelphia, the firm said Thursday.
"The management committee of the law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP today unanimously voted to terminate Jeffrey Rotwitt's partnership in the firm, effective immediately," the firm said in a statement. "The Management Committee had no knowledge of Mr. Rotwitt's involvement as a developer of the proposed Philadelphia Family Court Facility until the investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer ."
Obermayer Rebmann said it will fully cooperate with any investigation related to the development of the family court. A firm spokeswoman said there would be no further comment beyond the statement.
The decision to terminate Rotwitt came less than a week after the Inquirer reported he had not only served as an attorney for the state courts in their efforts to find a developer for the building, but then teamed up with the developer, Donald W. Pulver. Rotwitt has been splitting the development fees with Pulver along with taking advanced payments on his fee agreement with the court.
The court terminated its agreement Wednesday with Pulver's group, Northwest 15th Street Associates. The court has said it hired Ballard Spahr partner Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. to investigate the Rotwitt-Pulver relationship. According to media reports, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who led the court's efforts to create a family court facility, said he knew nothing of the dual role Rotwitt had played. According to those same reports, Rotwitt has said everything he did was known and above-board.
Rotwitt had already been removed from the firm's Web site as of Thursday afternoon.
Kevin Feeley, president of Bellevue Communications and spokesman for Rotwitt, said clearly Rotwitt is disappointed. He said the firm's decision is "unfortunate but not surprising" given the publicity regarding this case. Feeley said Rotwitt was not brought into any of the conversations regarding his future employment with the firm.
"Mr. Rotwitt continues to maintain that his role in the family court project was at all times open, transparent and understood by all of the parties," Feeley said.
He said the Inquirer knew of the relationship because Rotwitt told the paper. Feeley said Rotwitt had two distinct roles in the case -- one as a tenant representative for the court and one later as a co-developer to help ensure the building came to fruition. Feeley said the second role didn't begin until the first one ended.
Rotwitt had been affiliated with Obermayer Rebmann for 35 years in what Feeley called "a very effective and prosperous affiliation for all involved," Feeley said.
He said Rotwitt is a "highly successful, highly respected" professional with a long-term track record in the region.
"I'm sure that he will be able to affiliate himself elsewhere, and, in fact, there has been some discussion about that already," Feeley said.
Aside from serving as a real estate attorney, Rotwitt has his own real estate development company, Deilwydd Property Group F.C., which was created in 2008.
Whether Rotwitt's actions in the family court deal crossed any ethical lines is very fact-dependent and isn't something anyone outside of the deal wanted to determine one way or the other.
Fox Rothschild Co-chairman Abraham C. Reich focuses a portion of his practice on professional responsibility and attorney ethics. He said last week he has high regard for Rotwitt and Obermayer Rebmann and couldn't comment as to the specifics of these cases without knowing all of the details.
In general, he said Wednesday, whether a conflict exists will depend in part on how much was disclosed to the client -- in this case court officials -- and whether the potential conflict was cleared by that client. What was known when is an issue for debate between Castille and Rotwitt, according to their comments in media reports.
Rules of Professional Conduct 1.7 and 1.9 could be in play, with the first governing conflicts regarding current clients and the other regarding conflicts over former clients. Rotwitt has repeatedly said his work with the court ended before he signed on as a co-developer.
But that wouldn't end the analysis, Reich said, because the question then needs to be asked of whether there is "significant risk" that representing either of the clients will be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibility to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
Under Rule 1.9, if the matter is substantially related to or the same matter as what an attorney handled for a former client, the question raised is whether the new representation is materially adverse to the former client. That is often used in litigation matters, but Reich said it can be equally applied in transactions in which the attorney knows the terms his former client is willing to meet and then represents the other side.
In the matter of the family court facility, Rotwitt was an investor in the other side, not representing it, according to press reports. Reich said lawyers serving multiple roles can present challenges.
"That's where many lawyers get themselves into trouble because how do you know what hat you're wearing at the time," Reich said.