Law School Case Brief
Hawkes v. Lewis - 255 Neb. 447, 586 N.W.2d 430 (1998)
Standing relates to a court's power, that is, jurisdiction, to address the issues presented and serves to identify those disputes that are appropriately resolved through the judicial process. Because the requirement of standing is fundamental to a court's exercising jurisdiction, a litigant or court before which a case is pending can raise the question of standing at any time during the proceeding. In order to have standing to invoke a tribunal's jurisdiction, one must have some legal or equitable right, title, or interest in the subject of the controversy. The purpose of a standing inquiry is to determine whether one has a legally protectable interest or right in the controversy that would benefit by the relief to be granted. As an aspect of jurisdiction and justiciability, standing requires that a litigant have such a personal stake in the outcome of a controversy as to warrant invocation of a court's jurisdiction and justify the exercise of the court's remedial powers on the litigant's behalf.
A patient brought a medical malpractice action against two physicians. The patient filed a motion to have the law firm of one physician disqualified from representing the physician, based on an alleged conflict of interest with the law firm's former client and the physician's co-defendant. The District Court granted the motion The physician appealed, alleged that the trial court erred in granting the patient's motion to disqualify because the patient did not have standing to raise the issue. The patient argued a perceived conflict of interest existed between the codefendants and argued that the law firm's continued representation of the physician violated Neb. Ct. R., Code Prof. Resp. DR 5-105(A) and (C) and Neb. Ct. R., Code Prof. Resp. DR 5-108(A).
Did the medical malpractice plaintiff patient, who sought the disqualification of defendant physician's counsel, have standing to claim a conflict of interest, which did not directly implicate her interests, against an attorney of whom she was not a former client?
The Supreme Court of Nebraska concluded that the patient lacked standing to seek disqualification of the physician's counsel. The court found that if the physician chose not to exercise his right to seek disqualification and, in fact, specifically waived that right after full disclosure, then the patient had no standing to seek disqualification on the physician's behalf. The patient's argument was based on an ethical rule that was intended to protect former clients. In order to have standing, however, a litigant must assert the litigant's own legal rights and interests, and could not rest his or her claim on the legal rights or interests of third parties. The patient failed to establish how any conflict of interest between the co-defendants would have been prejudicial to the patient's interests. Thus, the court reversed the order of the trial court that granted the disqualification and remanded the cause for further proceedings.
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