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The former general counsel of a Greenwich-based shipping firm may wish he’d become a Connecticut lawyer. Paul E. O’Brien is waging a wrongful-discharge suit against Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group and its CEO, Samuel Cooperman, charging he was ethically and legally forced to quit the $200,000-a-year job because SNTG would not stop criminal conduct, including international price-fixing and trading with the enemy. The company is attempting to have the case tossed out on grounds that O’Brien is obligated to keep client secrets, and couldn’t present the evidence to make a case if he had one. O’Brien is admitted in New York, but not in Connecticut. Stamford Superior Court Judge Taggart D. Adams has previously declined to grant O’Brien broad permission, by injunction, to divulge client secrets in the case. In a Jan. 30 ruling, Adams took up the issue of which state’s ethics rules apply. Unfortunately for O’Brien, New York’s code doesn’t allow an in-house lawyer to divulge client secrets when waging a wrongful-discharge suit, while Connecticut’s apparently does. O’Brien’s lawyer, David S. Golub of Stamford’s Silver, Golub & Teitell, has opposed ongoing STNG efforts to have the file sealed and contends his client will be able to make his case in court, regardless of restrictions on divulging client secrets. O’Brien’s expert is Charles Wolfram, an emeritus professor at Cornell Law School. The company’s expert is Ralph G. Elliot, of Tyler Cooper & Alcorn’s Hartford office. Under New York Disciplinary Rule 4-101(C), a lawyer may reveal client confidences only if necessary to collect a fee or defend the lawyer against an accusation of wrongful conduct. Rule 1.6 of Connecticut’s Rules of Professional Conduct allows a lawyer to “reveal such information to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client.” While Connecticut hasn’t made case law on this point, Adams noted in his decision that, in 2001, the American Bar Association’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility ruled that the word “claim” includes “a retaliatory discharge or similar claim by an in-house lawyer against [an] employer.” O’Brien argued that the choice of ethics codes controls the admissibility of evidence, and that the Connecticut court should apply local law. But after analyzing the choice-of-law provisions for lawyers, Adams concluded that O’Brien’s sole source of authority to act as a lawyer — and the source of his claim that his status as a lawyer forced him to leave SNTG — “was his good standing as a lawyer in New York.” The judge pointedly outlined what his decision did not decide. There has been no determination what facts in the case are client secrets, or what secrets can be divulged under New York’s rule allowing a defense against wrongful conduct. O’Brien’s ex-employer is also seeking summary judgment on the grounds that he wasn’t forced out, and that he failed to properly take the matter up the company chain before leaving. In response to that charge, O’Brien served SNTG with an affidavit explaining in detail his efforts to discuss matters with upper management. The company contends the affidavit contains improper client secrets and must be sealed.

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