In the 1962 decision of Link v. Wabash Railroad Co.,1 the United States Supreme Court reviewed a district court's sua sponte dismissal of a diversity negligence action. Six years after the plaintiff filed the matter, the district court scheduled a pretrial conference and gave counsel two weeks notice of the scheduled conference. On the day of the conference, plaintiffs counsel called the court to say that he would be unable to attend the conference, giving the impolitic reason that he was busy preparing some documents for the state supreme court. The attorney did not attend the conference, and the district court dismissed the matter for failure to appear and prosecute the claim. In reviewing the district court dismissal, the Supreme Court stated the following: There is certainly no merit to the contention that dismissal of petitioner's claim because of his counsel's unexcused conduct imposes an unjust penalty on the client. Petitioner voluntarily chose this attorney as his representative in the action, and he cannot now avoid the consequences of the acts or omissions of this freely selected agent. Any other notion would be wholly inconsistent with our system of representative litigation, in which each party is deemed bound by the acts of his lawyer-agent and is considered to have "notice of all facts, notice of which can be charged upon the attorney." 2 When discussing the attorney-client relationship, the legal community and society at large commonly refer to attorneys as "representing" clients. Such statements informally recognize the formal relationship lawyers and clients have as agents and principals. There is no disagreement on this basic premise.3 In the usual and customary manner of legal reasoning, identifying lawyers as the agents of their client-principals invokes the established body of agency law that has developed from-and applies to-other agent-principal relationships. This body of law generally leads to the result reached by the Supreme Court in Link: that the client is responsible for the attorney's actions in the context of the representation. Yet, some modern courts have not found the client responsible for the attorney's actions. These courts do not treat the attorney-client relationship as they do other agent-principal relationships. For example, courts often do not apply the standard agency concepts in addressing whether the client should be responsible for the attorney's tortious actions. Likewise, courts often do not apply standard agency doctrine, or they do so very conservatively, when the question is whether a settlement agreed to by the attorney binds the client. Finally, some courts seem to apply a modified agency doctrine to the question of whether an attorney has waived the attorney-client privilege. In each of these settings, courts disregard traditional agency principles, breaking the link between client and attorney and insulating the client from responsibility for the attorney's actions.
Grace M. Giesel,
Client Responsibility for Lawyer Conduct: Examining the Agency Nature of the Lawyer-Client Relationship,
86 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol86/iss2/3