In a case testing the bounds of attorney conflicts of interest, a New Jersey court is allowing a lawyer to represent both a hacker who stole online social media account information and the victim he targeted.
The Thursday ruling pits the international World Mission Society, Church of God against a church attendee who alleges a plot in which the church sought to investigate dissenters. The lawsuit claims the hacker—a third party defendant—was coerced by the church into creating web message boards for criticizing the organization and then using posters’ log-in information to access their social media accounts and find out their identities.
The decision is a win for lawyers who seek joint-representation agreements, allowing them to coordinate between diverging, but not adverse, parties in litigation. The unanimous ruling took a narrow view of what could make these seemingly conflicting parties “directly adverse,” which can bolster litigators’ arguments for wide latitude to represent multiple players in a broader dispute.
There’s “no ‘significant risk,’” that the plaintiff or the hacker “will be ‘materially limited’” by the attorney’s responsibility to the other, the court’s unauthored opinion said.
The church argued that if it’s found liable, it will turn around and blame the hacker, and this would make the attorney’s representation of the hacker and plaintiff at odds. The church used the example of a car crash—an attorney can’t represent both an injured passenger plaintiff and the driver of the car she was injured in unless the driver isn’t at fault for the damage.
The court rejected this reasoning.
“If plaintiff prevails against defendants on liability, it does not automatically follow” that the hacker “will be held liable by a finder of fact if defendants pursue the third-party complaint against him to completion.”
The case is: Colón v. World Mission Society, Church of God, N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div., No. A-3336-21, 8/17/23.