Marc Becker’s sad tale: Casualty of BofA attack on Quinn Emanuel

December 7, 2011

Late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones of Manhattan federal court denied Bank of America’s motion to disqualify Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan from representing AIG in its $10 billion mortgage-backed securities case against BofA, Merrill, and other bank subsidiaries. BofA’s lawyers at Munger, Tolles & Olson had argued that a former Munger partner, Marc Becker, acquired confidential information about Merrill’s MBS litigation strategy before departing to join Quinn Emanuel in 2008, then proceeded to work on AIG’s case against BofA and Merrill. The judge faulted Quinn’s screening process for failing to identify Becker’s potential conflict. But she said Becker had performed only non-substantive editorial work on AIG’s complaint and remand motion, didn’t share any confidences, and took steps to segregate himself from the AIG case as soon as he was reminded of his previous work for Merrill Lynch and its former mortgage unit. “There is no meaningful showing here that the trial process will be tainted,” Jones wrote. “The court finds that it would be unduly prejudicial to disqualify Quinn.”

But what about Marc Becker?

In October, after learning that Munger Tolles had raised the issue of his previous work for Merrill Lynch and First Franklin Financial, Becker resigned from Quinn Emanuel’s London office. In a Nov. 3 declaration, Becker said that he hadn’t remembered working for First Franklin when he spent a total of 5.8 hours reviewing the two AIG documents. “Had I remembered it, I never would have had anything to do with the [BofA] action,” he wrote. “None of what I did during those 5.8 hours on the [BofA] action was in any way focused on, or specific to, First Franklin or Merrill Lynch. I did not use or disclose any confidential information of First Franklin or Merrill Lynch. In fact, I did not at that time, and do not now, recall any confidential information of First Franklin or Merrill Lynch.” Becker asserted that Munger’s account of his work for Merrill — which cast him as a lead partner in Merrill and First Franklin’s MBS defense strategizing — didn’t jibe with his refreshed recollection of a “far more limited” role.

Becker remained at Quinn Emanuel for a month after Munger first alerted the firm of his potential conflict. During that time, according to his declaration, he met with Quinn’s outside counsel, Gregory Joseph, to discuss his work for Merrill, without any Quinn partners present. “Thus, even if I had recalled any confidential information regarding Merrill Lynch or First Franklin, which I did not, Quinn Emanuel would not have been exposed to it,” he wrote. “I understand that defendants have suggested that I was aware of and deliberately ignored the existence of a conflict of interest arising from my work on the First Franklin matter. That is totally untrue.”

Nevertheless, on Oct. 19, Becker resigned from Quinn Emanuel. “The firm and I agreed to take this step because … we wanted to do everything in our power to eliminate any possible basis for disqualification,” Becker wrote. Quinn Emanuel name partner John Quinn had told Munger Tolles in an email when he first learned of the potential Becker conflict that Becker might have to resign if Munger pressed for Quinn’s disqualification. So Becker’s declaration includes a poignant paragraph hinting at his sense of betrayal: “I am deeply disappointed that my former partners at [Munger] — with whom I worked as a trusted and respected colleague and partner for almost 20 years — would contend that I improperly shared client confidences. I do not believe that they genuinely believe that I did or ever would do so. But by having claimed that there is a risk of future disclosure of confidences by me, they precipitated my departure from Quinn Emanuel, and have caused me great professional and personal hardship.”

Becker said in the declaration that he was planning to start up a solo practice as a solicitor in London, but hoped to be able to return to Quinn Emanuel when the conflict question was resolved. Quinn Emanuel, in its response to the disqualification motion, reiterated that Becker’s resignation was voluntary. “This step was not taken because of any doubt as to the fact that no confidences were or would be shared, or as to the efficacy of the firm’s screen,” the firm’s response said.

In fact, according to Jones’s decision denying the disqualification motion, Quinn Emanuel asked the judge to rule that the firm’s ethical wall between Becker and the AIG case is sufficient to permit Becker to return to the firm. Unfortunately for Becker, the judge said she “declines to do so.”

That would appear to leave Becker in limbo, unless BofA agrees he’s adequately walled off from the case against it. Quinn Emanuel, after all, is engaged in other cases against BofA and Merrill Lynch — most notably the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s suits — and the firm doesn’t want to face another disqualification motion based on Becker’s previous work for Merrill.

In a brief phone interview, Becker told me he’s pleased that Jones found he behaved ethically. “I am deeply gratified that the court agreed I did not share any client confidences,” he said, adding, “I believe this motion was a tactic move to [by Munger] to eliminate an adversary that they would prefer not to face.” Becker declined any additional comment, but it’s well-known that Munger Tolles and Quinn Emanuel have butted heads in two big trials in the last year: star bond-trader Jeffrey Gundlach’s dispute with his former employer TCW, which resulted in a split verdict in September; and Rambus’s antitrust trial against Micron and Hynix, in which a jury last month cleared Quinn client Micron.

Quinn Emanuel declined comment on the Becker matter. Munger partner Marc Dworsky didn’t respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

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