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Crossroads Residents Organized for Stable and Secure ResiDencieS (CROSSRDS) v. MSP Crossroads Apartments, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 13, 2017

Crossroads Residents Organized for Stable and Secure ResiDencieS (CROSSRDS), an unincorporated association; Linda Lee Soderstrom, Maria Johnson, Craig Goodwin, Donna Goodwin, Jurline Bryant, Claire Jean Lee, Viky Martinez-Melgar, Aurora Saenz, Deborah Suminguit, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated; Norma Ziegler, Darlene Fisher, Samuel Graham, Carlos Hines, Kenneth Orr, Bernard Campbell, Lisa Brown, David Moffet, Quaintance Clark, Khadijah Abdul-Malik, Kevin Vaughn, Maria de Lourdes Vargas-Pegueros, Julio Stalin de Toumiel, Rocillo Rodriquez, Sandra Ponce, Kerly Rios, Juan Martinez, Mercedes Melgar, Tamara Ann Bane, Charles Ward, Tressie Neloms, Dorothy Pickett, Sylvia Anderson, Guadalupe Rodriguez Bonilla, Tyrus Johnson, Leticia Barban, Alice Joiner, Beverly Griffin; and
v.
MSP Crossroads Apartments LLC, and Soderberg Apartment Specialists, Defendants. HOME Line, Plaintiffs,

          Kirsten G. Marttila, Esq., Charles N. Nauen, Esq., Kate M. Baxter-Kauf, Esq., and Sahr A.M. Brima, Esq., Lockridge Grindal Nauen P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, MN; and Timothy L. Thompson, Esq., and John D. Cann, Esq., Housing Justice Center, Saint Paul, MN, on behalf of Plaintiffs.

          Claire Jean Lee, pro se.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN D. MONTGOMERY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the undersigned United States District Judge on named Plaintiff Claire Jean Lee's (“Lee”) Objection [Docket No. 91] to Magistrate Judge Katherine M. Menendez's January 11, 2017 Order [Docket No. 82] granting counsel's Motion to Withdraw as Individual Counsel for Plaintiff Claire Jean Lee [Docket No. 62].[1] For the reasons set forth below, the Objection is overruled.

         II. BACKGROUND

         This putative class action lawsuit, filed in February 2016, alleges that defendants' conduct at the Crossroads at Penn Apartments in Richfield, Minnesota resulted in violations of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., and Minn. Stat. § 504B.315. The Complaint names a total of 39 plaintiffs: 9 putative class representatives who seek to represent a class of tenants, as well as 28 tenants and 2 organizational plaintiffs who are each pursuing individual claims. Compl. [Docket No. 1]. Lee is named as a class representative in the Complaint. Id.[2]

         At the time the case was filed, Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys at the Housing Justice Center. Marttila Aff. [Docket No. 65] ¶ 1. In July 2016, the Court denied in large part a motion to dismiss by Defendants. Mem. Op. & Order [Docket No. 41]. In October 2016, the law firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen P.L.L.P. joined the Housing Justice Center in representing Plaintiffs. See Notice Appearance [Docket No. 57]. Shortly thereafter, in the course of discovery and considering the configuration of an Amended Complaint, counsel became aware for the first time of a concurrent conflict of interest between Lee and the class she seeks to represent. Marttila Aff. ¶ 2. Plaintiffs' counsel describes the conflict as follows:

[I]t is highly likely that, in drafting and litigating an Amended Complaint, a difference in Ms. Lee's and the rest of the Class's interests will materialize that will significantly limit counsel's ability to both: (1) consider or pursue certain reasonable courses of action that should be pursued on Ms. Lee's behalf, and also (2) do the same on behalf of the Class. Counsel does not reasonably believe that we would be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client if simultaneous representation were to continue.

Id.

         Plaintiffs' counsel scheduled a telephonic status conference with Judge Menendez to inform the Court of the situation. Lee was informed of and participated in the telephonic conference, which was held on November 22, 2016. Marttila Aff. ¶ 3; Min. Entry, Nov. 22, 2016 [Docket No. 60]. During the conference, Plaintiffs' counsel explained the nature of the conflict that prevented them from drafting and litigating an Amended Complaint. Marttila Aff. ¶ 4. Plaintiffs' counsel stated that they would move to withdraw from representing Lee as an individual, but that they believed they could ethically continue to represent the class based on their duties to Lee as a former client and their obligations to the class. Id.

         On December 5, 2016, Plaintiffs' counsel filed the motion to withdraw as individual counsel for Lee. Plaintiffs' counsel argued that continuing to represent Lee while also representing the class would violate Minnesota Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7(a)'s requirement that “a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest.” Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 1.7(a).

         Lee filed a response in opposition, arguing that Plaintiffs' counsel had provided no facts or evidence to support a conflict of interest. Pl.'s Resp. [Docket No. 80]. Lee also argued that she would be prejudiced by counsels' withdrawal because she lacked the knowledge or expertise to represent herself in this complex case, and because she has physical and mental disabilities that would likely be exacerbated if she were to represent herself.

         On January 5, 2017, Judge Menendez held a hearing on the motion for withdrawal as Lee's individual counsel. Min. Entry, Jan. 5, 2017 [Docket No. 81]. Lee was present at the hearing and responded to Plaintiffs' counsel's arguments. Id.; Obj. at 1. The court minutes state that “[p]art of the argument covered issues of privilege. For those parts of the ...


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