Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fischer on Unintended Disclosure of Privileged Information

Professor James Fischer (Southwestern University School of Law) has posted "How Should Lawyers Handle the Unintended Disclosure of Possibly Privileged Information" on SSRN.  

The abstract states:

The inadvertently sent email that contains opposing counsel’s settlement strategy, the opposing party’s client opinion letter negligently included in a discovery response, and the opposing party’s work papers taken by a whistle blowing client all share a common theme – the materials were not intended to be disclosed by the opposing party to the recipient lawyer. Notwithstanding the similarities, case law, commentary, and ethics opinions have tended to treat the issues as separate. This separation has not, however, helped lawyers who are subjected to conflicting and inconsistent opinions as to how they should respond in situations when they have received information that may possibly be privileged.

This article makes two contentions. First, with respect to the privileged status of the disclosed materials, all disclosures unintended from the standpoint of the privilege holder should be treated under a single standard that asks whether the privilege holder exercised reasonable care in maintaining the confidentiality of the materials. Second, with respect to the receiving lawyers professional obligations, lawyers who receive materials that are possibly privileged should be allowed to read the materials (1) to determine whether the materials are privileged and (2) to better argue the contention to the court that the materials are not privileged. A lawyer who reads the materials, even past the point when the privileged status of the materials is arguably apparent, should not be deemed to have engaged in professionally improper behavior as long as (1) the lawyer notifies opposing counsel of receipt of the materials and (2) makes no surreptious use of the materials until their status has been clarified by the court.


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