Rosenthal To Lobby BOE To Terminate Its Law Firm
Since the law practice Shipman & Goodwin was retained by the Board of Education four years ago, Newtown taxpayers have compensated the firm more that $678,000.
But as one of Connecticut’s preeminent land use litigation firms, Shipman & Goodwin is also currently suing Newtown, with the potential of representing others against the town in the future, according to First Selectman Dan Rosenthal.
This is a particularly sensitive point for the first selectman — and if he had his druthers, Shipman & Goodwin would be immediately terminated as the school district’s legal representatives.
After making several unsuccessful attempts, along with Superintendent of Schools Lorrie Rodrigue and school board Chair Michelle Embree Ku, to try and persuade the firm to refer any land use clients litigating against Newtown to other firms, Mr Rosenthal has “put his foot down,” he said. The first selectman plans to appear before the school board at 7 pm on February 19 and formally call for the firm to be “terminated in an orderly fashion.”
“We certainly would not want to disrupt any cases currently in process, but I want to see them released from their contract as soon as any open cases are resolved,” he told The Newtown Bee.
Mr Rosenthal shared his discovery with the Board of Selectmen during a regular meeting February 4, and said he is calling for other mayors and first selectmen across Connecticut whose school boards or municipalities are retaining the firm to check and see if they are also being sued by Shipman & Goodwin.
“Newtown taxpayers cover 95 percent of the legal bills for this firm, and now they’re paying to defend a lawsuit by the same firm,” Mr Rosenthal said.
In written correspondence between the town and the firm obtained by The Newtown Bee, Shipman & Goodwin has taken the position that local boards of education are actually agencies of the state, so suing municipalities whose school boards are also clients does not present a conflict.
“We acknowledge that our firm has historically had, and continues to have, client relationships with entities whose interest are adverse to [Newtown],” wrote Anne Littlefield, the firm’s deputy general counsel, in a December 26 memo to Mr Rosenthal. She added that representing the school district, as well as clients suing Newtown, “does not present a conflict of interest under Connecticut’s Code of Professional Conduct.”
She also pointed out that since 12/14, Shipman & Goodwin has represented numerous community members affected by the event pro bono.
But Mr Rosenthal contended in a January 2 letter of reply that while the issue does not represent an ethical conflict, he sees it as a business conflict.
“My chief responsibility is to the taxpayers of Newtown, and as a matter of principle, I think it is appropriate to expect our legal representation to serve only the town and not clients who choose to sue the town,” Mr Rosenthal replied. “I do not think there is a logical way to explain why the town pays a large sum to your firm, while at the same time having to expend resources to defend a lawsuit brought by your firm in representation of another client.”
The first selectman said he discovered the situation in December when reviewing documents related to a suit against the Newtown Water and Sewer Authority by 79 Church Hill Road LLC, the company hoping to build a large multifamily, multi-unit apartment complex off Walnut Tree Hill Road beside the westbound interstate Exit 10 ramps.
Mr Rosenthal said the school board would be within its scope of rights to terminate its relationship with Shipman & Goodwin, based on terms outlined in its retainer document from 2016, which state in part that termination may occur upon “discovery of a conflict with another client of the firm.”
“They are taking a stand; they have an ethical carve out. It satisfies the statewide grievance committee, but I think it’s wrong,” Mr Rosenthal told selectmen February 4. “So I’ll ask the Board of Ed to review it and move to terminate relationship unless there’s a change of heart at Shipman & Goodwin. Why they’re deciding to dig in here, I don’t know.”
The latest correspondence from the firm dated February 1 affirms that Shipman & Goodwin “will not initiate litigation against the town” for cases involving tort claims, employment claims, and tax appeals, but “the assurance does not extend to land use matters.” The firm said it will, however, “erect and maintain an ethical screen between all firm lawyers working on any land use matter averse to the town and all firm lawyers working on behalf of the [Newtown] Board [of Education].”
“I’d rather pay a handsome sum to another firm,” Mr Rosenthal said. “No Newtown taxpayer would like to learn we’re paying a firm that is suing us.”
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