A Houston lawyer resigned from litigation firm MehaffyWeber in September, but can’t join Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz as planned because USA Gymnastics, a MehaffyWeber client, has refused to waive a conflict of interest.
Efrain Gonzalez Jr. has filed a petition in state district court in Houston, seeking a declaratory judgment that there is “no actual or imputed” conflict of interest based on his previous employment as an associate at MehaffyWeber and potential future employment at Abraham Watkins, which represents individuals who have sued USA Gymnastics.
Gonzalez seeks a court order to restrain USA Gymnastics from impeding his ability to work at Abraham Watkins, including the filing of any motion to disqualify him or the firm in litigation against USA Gymnastics.
A spokeswomen for USA Gymnastics could not be reached for comment. The Indianapolis-based organization faces numerous lawsuits around the country relating to a sex abuse scandal. A former team doctor, Larry Nassar, is serving a life sentence on a sexual abuse conviction.
Gonzalez alleges in a petition filed Nov. 21 in state district court in Harris County that in September, Abraham Watkins—the oldest plaintiffs firm in Texas—offered him an associate’s position, and he shortly afterward put in his notice at MehaffyWeber. He alleges in Gonzalez v. USA Gymnastics that after he informed MehaffyWeber of his intention to move to Abraham Watkins, he was “immediately screened from all cases in which adverse parties were represented by Abraham Watkins, including those cases involving defendant USA Gymnastics.”
Gonzalez alleges that he worked at MehaffyWeber for about a year-and-a-half, but a lawyer who represents USA Gymnastics in litigation with Abraham Watkins on the opposing side did not join the firm until three months prior to his resignation. Gonzalez alleges in the petition he signed an affidavit that he had never worked on any matter for USA Gymnastics or acquired any confidential information about it.
Despite that affidavit, Gonzalez alleges that USA Gymnastics, through its acting chief legal officer Christopher Schneider, informed him on Oct. 18—well past his final day at MehaffyWeber—that the organization would not grant the waiver. Gonzalez alleges Schneider, a partner at Miller Johnson in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did not provide any reason “aside from stating ‘[g]iven the circumstances.’” Schneider could not be reached for comment.
On Nov. 2, Gonzalez alleges, he sent a formal demand stating that without the waiver, he would be forced to file a suit seeking a declaratory judgment. USA Gymnastics responded Nov. 9, informing Gonzalez it would not sign a waiver, would file a grievance against him with the State Bar of Texas in connection with the request for the waiver, and would fight the declaratory judgment action.
On Nov. 21, the day Gonzalez filed the suit, 281st District Judge Sylvia Matthews held a hearing on Gonzalez’s request for a TRO. Matthews denied the request, but Gonzalez said she set a hearing for next month on his request for a permanent injunction.
Gonzalez said he is not working at a firm and is anxious to join Abraham Watkins. Randy Sorrels, managing partner of Abraham Watkins, said the firm would like to hire Gonzalez, but not without the waiver.
“The law as we understand it is that if a person worked at a law firm and doesn’t work on a case, and goes to work for another law firm that has that case and [the lawyer] is shielded from the case … there’s no conflict,” Sorrels said.
Sorrels said he joined Abraham Watkins in 1990 and does not recall any situation where a lawyer could not join the firm because a client would not waive a conflict.
He questions why USA Gymnastics is taking such a hard line.
“We’ve never had an issue before. This one surprises me a little bit,” he said.