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In Connecticut’s first case on the subject, a judge has ruled that a lawyer should not be fired for trying to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct, because doing so constitutes an “important public policy” exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. New Haven Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez rejected the arguments of Guilford, Conn.-based Delaney, Zemetis, Donahue, Durham & Noonan, which fired associate Bruce Matzkin after he sought to grieve another lawyer for suspected witness tampering. “Because the legal profession is self-regulated and relies upon its members to police itself, no lawyer’s employment should be conditioned upon turning a blind eye to violations of the Rules which are applicable to all lawyers,” Lopez wrote. Matzkin claimed a firm partner told him, “We do not grieve other lawyers,” when he attempted to get permission to report to bar authorities that a trial opponent called witnesses Matzkin had subpoenaed, telling them they need not come to court. Matzkin says he considered it witness tampering and believed he had a duty under Rule 8.3(a), which requires reporting any violation of the ethics rules “that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer …” SPECIAL RESPONSIBILITY The firm, represented by name partner Patrick M. Noonan, argued in its motion to strike that the ethics rule “does not rise to the level of ‘an important public policy’” that would warrant making an exception to employers’ basic right to fire an employee without any grounds. Noonan noted that no Connecticut court had ever found the Rules of Professional Conduct are significant enough to create a public policy exception and provide grounds for a wrongful termination suit. He noted they do not give rise to a civil claim for money damages and contended the public was only indirectly impacted by Matzkin’s alleged inability to report another lawyer’s ethical misconduct. In her July 29 opinion, Lopez found otherwise. She quoted the preamble to the Rules, which says, “A lawyer is a representative of clients, and officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” If a lawyer could be fired with impunity for following the self-policing requirement of the professional rules, Lopez concluded, “this would compromise the autonomy of the profession.” The judge rejected the idea that it mattered whether Matzkin followed through and actually filed a grievance. In the leading case on “public policy” exceptions to the at-will rule, Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Foods, there was no evidence in the record that the plaintiff ever reported his employer to health authorities. But the majority concluded that the important part of the Sheets case is that the employee confronted his employer as a whistleblower and was fired for it.

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