MEMPHIS (CN) - A federal magistrate ruled Monday that a former Memphis city attorney can't represent a group suing the city for the alleged mishandling of rape evidence kits.
Robert L. J. Spence had "substantial involvement" in policymaking and leadership with the City of Memphis, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charmiane Claxton found, but his firm can still handle the case.
The Jane Doe class action was filed in December 2013. Doe says she was raped by a home intruder in March 2001, and provided bodily fluid samples at a rape crisis center, but the Memphis Police Department ignored the evidence.
The lawsuit alleges that the city didn't test more than 15,000 evidence kits for reported sexual assaults and caused spoliation of the evidence.
The City of Memphis claims that Spence not only had access to confidential information, he was actually part of a group that "turned a blind eye" to the allegations in the class action lawsuit.
"The city argues that Mr. Spence acquired confidential information about it that would be highly relevant to the claims of systematic wrongs alleged by plaintiffs," the ruling states, citing Memphis' motion to disqualify counsel. "The city further argues that plaintiffs' allegations call Mr. Spence's own conduct directly into question, as he was one of the 'persons with final policymaking authority with the City of Memphis.'"
But Spence said in his affidavit that he never dealt with rape evidence kit issues while working as a city attorney.
"The issue of testing sexual assault evidence kits was never discussed or made known to Mr. Spence in any context whatsoever while he served as city attorney," his affidavit states. "Mr. Spence never received any confidential information, or participated personally or substantially, in the MPD's policies pertaining to criminal investigations."
Claxton granted the city's motion to disqualify for Spence himself but denied it in regard to The Spence Law Firm. She ruled that his former city leadership role disqualifies him, regardless of his alleged lack of knowledge about the rape evidence matter.
"The scope of Mr. Spence's role as city attorney was exceptionally broad, and its relationship to the former matter is closely intertwined because of his role in policymaking and leadership - both of which are at issue in plaintiff's case," Claxton wrote. "Thus, simply because Mr. Spence did not have specific knowledge of the failure to test the sexual assault evidence kits or was not involved in other ways with this issue does not suffice to permit him to represent plaintiffs when he previously had such a broad policymaking and leadership role with the city.
Attorney Ricky Wilkins, who also represents the class, told Courthouse News that the legal team plans to appeal the disqualification ruling by next week.
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