(Reuters) - Over the last several years, as Backpage.com was barraged with accusations that it enabled sex trafficking of teenagers, the online classified ad site has had no stauncher defenders than the lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine. The firm, which has a premier First Amendment practice, wielded the Communications Decency Act like a bludgeon for Backpage, killing suits by alleged trafficking victims, squelching attempts to intimidate credit-card companies that did business with Backpage, even fending off 2016 criminal charges in California.
Ultimately, even Davis Wright couldn’t halt the onslaught against Backpage, especially when the U.S. Senate subpoenaed Backpage documents on its ad screening policies. In early April, the U.S. Justice Department seized control of the website and unsealed an indictment against its principals. Days later, DOJ announced a plea agreement with Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, who admitted (among other offenses) that he and other Backpage executives helped advertisers mask ads so they wouldn’t be detected for selling sex services.
Davis Wright has informed Backpage and Ferrer that it will no longer defend the company or its erstwhile CEO in more than a dozen ongoing cases in state and federal court, according to a filing by Ferrer counsel Nanci Clarence of Clarence Dyer Cohen. The filing – a letter from Ferrer responding to Davis Wright’s April 20 notification of withdrawal – has been entered in the dockets in at least three of the federal cases in which Davis Wright was defending Ferrer and Backpage. Federal judges in an Illinois case in which a Chicago sheriff seeks sanctions against the company and its lawyers and in an Oregon case by an alleged trafficking victim have granted Davis Wright motions to withdraw.
The law firm did not provide many details about why it will no longer represent Ferrer and his company. Its withdrawal motion in the Oregon case said only that the decision was “based on professional considerations.” The Illinois motion provided no explanation. The Davis Wright partner who has long led Backpage’s defense, Robert Corn-Revere, did not respond to my phone message enquiring about the end of the relationship.
Ferrer is not happy about it, based on the April 27 letter he’s filed in three of the federal cases. Davis Wright’s “sudden withdrawal threatens to irreparably harm the Backpage clients’ interests,” he said, claiming that the firm has left him and Backpage.com dangling in cases with imminent deadlines. “I did not receive any advance notice of your intention to withdraw, and even if withdrawal were appropriate, I would expect a reputable firm like DWT to adhere to its professional duties when terminating the representation,” Ferrer told the firm.
Ferrer also demanded the return of whatever money remains in a $6.25 million trust established at the onset of Davis Wright’s representation of Backpage and hinted that he won’t allow Davis Wright to continue to represent two of his onetime Backpage colleagues, if that happens to be what the firm is planning. “I have reason to believe that DWT cannot terminate its representation of Backpage.com LLC in favor of those two individuals,” Ferrer said. He has not waived conflicts in advance, he said, and does not consent, as a co-defendant, to Davis Wright picking other clients over him.
Interestingly, Davis Wright did sign a May 1 motion for an extension of the deadline for Backpage to respond to a complaint by alleged sex trafficking victims in federal court in Boston and for postponement of a May 7 scheduling conference. Although the firm has not filed a motion to withdraw in that case, it’s on the list of pending cases that, according to Ferrer, it intends to pull out of. Citing the Ferrer letter, which has been filed in the Boston case, Davis Wright said “the ongoing issue of the legal representation of the defendants” requires a deadline extension. Ropes & Gray, which represents the plaintiffs suing Backpage and its executives, said in response that even if the deadline is pushed back, defense lawyers should still have to show up at next week’s scheduling conference. “The apparent internal maneuvering among defendants and their counsel is a matter of considerable concern, and the plaintiffs are entitled to reasonable assurance that the efficient resolution of this matter will not be compromised as a result,” the Ropes brief said.
I left a phone message for Ropes lawyer John Montgomery but didn’t hear back. Ferrer counsel Clarence said in an auto email reply that she is traveling and unavailable.