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Garland v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Northeastern Division

March 26, 2015

ROBERT J. GARLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

KEVIN H. SHARP, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendant Ford Motor Company's Motion to Disqualify Plaintiff's Counsel (Docket No. 100), to which Plaintiff Robert J. Garland has filed a response in opposition (Docket No. 103), and Defendant has replied (Docket No. 114). On March 3, 2015, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion to Disqualify. For the reasons that follow, the Court will exercise its discretion and deny Defendant's Motion.

I. FACTS

Based on a review of the record and the testimony at the evidentiary hearing, the Court finds the following to be the relevant facts:

1. This litigation involves Plaintiff's sale of Heritage Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., and the lease of the land on which it was located, to Ford through its Dealer Development Program.[1]

2. Plaintiff is represented by attorneys Robert J. Walker, Jason W. Cullen, and D. Gilbert Schuette, who previously worked for the law firm Walker, Tipps & Malone, PLC in Nashville, Tennessee. On February 9, 2015, those lawyer and ten others joined the law firm Butler Snow LLP.

3. Butler Snow's main office is in Jackson, Mississippi. It has numerous other offices around the United States, and the addition of the Walker Tipps lawyers increased its presence in Nashville.

4. For the past twelve years, Butler Snow has done work for Ford in Mississippi and has been paid approximately $1.3 million. The vast majority of the work has dealt with consumer and warranty matters for which Butler Snow was paid pursuant to a flat-fee retainer agreement that was renegotiated every year. As the number of consumer cases has decreased in Mississippi, the flat fee has likewise decreased, ranging from a high of $125, 000 to $25, 000 in 2014.

5. In September 2014, Richard M. Dye, a partner at Butler Snow and practice group leader of the firm's general litigation practice, emailed Ford stating that it would need to increase its retainer for the consumer cases in 2015. After some discussion, Ford agreed to pay Butler Snow $36, 000 ($3, 000 monthly) for the anticipated work in 2015, along with a $10, 000 bonus to cover the unanticipated increase in work in 2014.

6. On rare occasions, perhaps twice in the last three years, Butler Snow has been enlisted to perform non-consumer, non-warranty work for Ford. Ford was separately billed for those matters.

7. Given its relationship with Ford, the lawyers at Butler Snow have come to know various lawyers and paralegals at Ford and have a general understanding of how Ford handles certain matters, including how it defends its warranty cases and the uniform approach it takes to discovery requests.

8. At the time the Walker Tipps lawyers joined Butler Snow, the latter was handling the following cases for Ford:

Watson Quality Ford v. Forest River, et al., Hinds County Circuit Court, No. 25112114CIV;
Edmond Lindsey v. Ford Motor Company, DeSoto County Circuit Court, No. CV2012247RCD;
T&T Welding, Inc. v. Ford Motor Company, Smith County Circuit Court, No. 2013199;
George Sullivan v. Ford Motor Company, Mississippi Court of Appeals, Smith County Circuit Court, No. 2014150;
Gabriel Marcus Shemper v. Ford Motor Company, Perry County Circuit Court, No. 20140073;
Gary Goff v. Ford Motor Company, Jackson County Circuit Court, No. CO201420684.

All of the cases were filed in Mississippi, and five of the cases were being handled by Mr. Dye and involved consumer warranty claims brought by purchasers of Ford vehicles. The sole exception, Watson Quality Ford, involved a third party subpoena duces tecum issued by Carpenter Bus, LLC in a dealership suit in which Ford is not a party. That case was handled by Phil B. Abernethy, another Butler Snow partner.

9. Preliminary discussions about the possibility of the Walker Tipps lawyers joining Butler Snow began in the spring of 2014. Those discussions picked up that summer and, by late November or early December, the discussions became serious.

10. On December 5, 2014, the partners at Walker Tipps authorized the firm to engage in negotiations which would allow the its lawyers to ...


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