Richard Spencer’s attorney declined to explain why he seeks to withdraw as counsel during a recent telephonic hearing in a long-running lawsuit related to the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Sines v. Kessler, filed on behalf of a number of Charlottesville-area residents, names more than a dozen defendants who helped to organize the white supremacist rally.
The lawsuit continues to hit snags as it heads toward a multi-week trial in October, which has not yet been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spencer, a University of Virginia alum and white supremacist who led torch rallies in Charlottesville during 2017, is among the defendants. Last month, John DiNucci, Spencer’s attorney, filed a motion requesting to withdraw. No reason was cited and DiNucci declined to expound during a hearing May 29, citing client privilege and requesting a closed video hearing.
Spencer was given 14 days to respond and given the option to sign a consent form allowing DiNucci’s departure but has done neither. DiNucci’s motion has not been opposed by the plaintiffs’ counsel.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe told DiNucci that he would have to provide a reason for withdrawing, but agreed to hold another hearing at an unset date.
“You have to provide something more than, ‘I want to withdraw as his attorney, and there’s good cause,’” Hoppe said.
If DiNucci is allowed to withdraw and Spencer does not find another attorney, he will be among numerous other defendants representing themselves during the trial.
On May 26, defendants Elliott Kline, Matthew Heimbach and Vanguard America collectively were fined $41,300 in attorneys fees for repeatedly refusing to meet discovery requirements. The order came after years of difficulties that saw Kline temporarily jailed for contempt of court earlier this year.
“My prior memorandum opinion details what Kline, Heimbach, and Vanguard America did — or, more accurately, did not do — in this case over the next sixteen months,” Hoppe wrote in the order. “For now, it is enough to say that each defendant disobeyed at least four separate orders to provide or permit discovery of materials within his control ‘while the litigation slowed and everyone else’s costs piled up.’”
Later Friday, Hoppe also issued an order denying a motion to enjoin Chris Cantwell for allegedly making threats against plaintiffs’ counsel.
The motion — which has seen several supplemental filings — was filed nearly a year ago after Cantwell posted an article on a message board about Roberta Kaplan, the lead lawyer on the case, referring to her with a racial slur and writing that after the lawsuit “…we’re going to have a lot of f—— fun with her.”
In January, Cantwell was arrested in New Hampshire for sending threats and has remained incarcerated while awaiting trial.
Because Cantwell is in custody, he is already on notice not to make unlawful threats and engage in illegal activity, Hoppe wrote.
“There is no reason for this Court to issue an order telling him the same thing— particularly considering that Cantwell is incarcerated and likely will have extremely limited, if any, opportunity to use social media during the next several months,” he wrote.
Plaintiffs’ counsel continues to file motions citing difficulties with discovery from defendant James Alex Fields Jr. Fields, who is serving multiple life sentences for the murder of Heather Heyer and maiming of dozens on the day of the rally, has continued not to provide documents, plaintiffs’ counsel writes.
A supplemental motion filed May 20 details the refusal of Fields’ state trial attorneys — Denise Lunsford and John Hill — to produce documents responsive to the case. The attorneys have argued that the documents are non-privileged and are unable to be produced because of a confidentiality agreement they signed with Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania.
However, according to the supplemental motion, Platania agreed to waive the confidentiality requirement but Lunsford, a former Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney, and Hill still have not provided the documents, citing a portion of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.
The rule states that a lawyer cannot reveal information protected by the attorney-client privilege the disclosure of which would be “embarrassing or would be likely to be detrimental to the client unless the client consents after consultation.”
Describing Lunsford and Hill’s interpretation as “extreme,” plaintiffs’ counsel argues against the reading of the law.
“While the rule generally prohibits a lawyer from disclosing certain information about their client, the rule includes an important exception to the lawyer’s duty of non-disclosure: A lawyer can reveal ‘information to comply with law or a court order,’” the motion reads. “This means a lawyer must disclose information if required by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.”
No orders or responses to this supplemental motion have been filed yet.