Tuesday, April 13, 2010
The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the state Attorney General's claims of privilege with respect to advice received from the National Association of Attorneys General and reversed an order complelling disclosure. The facts:
In 1998, South Carolina was one of many states to enter into a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with certain tobacco companies to settle litigation brought by the states to recover tobacco-related health care expenses. The MSA contained a Model Escrow Statute that South Carolina adopted and codified as the South Carolina Escrow Fund Act at S.C. Code Ann. § 11-47-10, et. seq. (Supp. 2008). The Escrow Fund Act provides that a "tobacco product manufacturer" (TPM) that sells cigarettes to consumers within the state must either: (1) join the MSA and make settlement payments required under the MSA, or (2) remain a "non-participating member" and make payments each year to a qualified escrow fund. Id. § 11-47-10.
Tobaccoville is an importer and distributor of Seneca brand cigarettes, which are manufactured by Grand River Enterprises Six Nations, Ltd. (Grand River) in Canada. Tobaccoville asserts that it is the exclusive "off-reservation" importer of the Seneca brand, and that Native Wholesale Supply is the exclusive "on-reservation" importer. Based on these and other assertions by Tobaccoville, the AG certified Tobaccoville as a TPM for the Seneca brand in November 2003. Tobaccoville was recertified as a TPM for years 2004 through 2006.
Since that certification, "on-reservation" Seneca cigarettes manufactured by Grand River and distributed by Native Wholesale Supply improperly were being sold "off-reservation" in South Carolina. In April 2007, the AG determined Tobaccoville no longer qualified as a TPM, and that Grand River would have to be certified as a TPM instead if Seneca cigarettes would continue to be sold lawfully in South Carolina. Tobaccoville appealed the AG's determination to the ALC. In the course of discovery, the AG produced thousands of documents and submitted a privilege log indicating numerous documents were confidential and not subject to production. Tobaccoville sought to compel production of some of those documents, arguing that the documents were necessary to properly litigate the case.
The ALC found that the documents at issue were properly discoverable and were not privileged. The AG moved for reconsideration and was denied. The AG then appealed to the court of appeals, which dismissed the appeal. The court of appeals, however, later certified this case to this court pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR after the AG's petition for rehearing.
The court held the the documents sought were privileged:
The AG asserts the documents in question were covered by the attorney-client privilege, and thus were confidential communications not subject to discovery. The ALC found that because neither the National Association of Attorneys General (the NAAG) nor the other state attorneys general were retained as counsel then there could be no attorney-client relationship upon which to premise the privilege. We disagree.
"The attorney-client privilege protects against disclosure of confidential communications by a client to his attorney." State v. Owens, 309 S.C. 402, 407, 424 S.E.2d 473, 476 (1992). "This privilege is based upon a wise policy that considers that the interests of society are best promoted by inviting the utmost confidence on the part of the client in disclosing his secrets to this professional advisor . . . ." Id. In State v. Doster, this Court explained the attorney-client privilege as follows:
(1) Where legal advice of any kind is sought (2) from a professional legal adviser in his capacity as such, (3) the communications relating to that purpose (4) made in confidence (5) by the client, (6) are at his instance permanently protected (7) from disclosure by himself or by the legal adviser, (8) except the protection be waived.
276 S.C. 647, 651, 284 S.E.2d 218, 219-20 (1981) (citation omitted).
While the relationship the AG has with the NAAG is not the traditional attorney-client relationship envisioned in Doster, we nonetheless find that these communications may be covered by the attorney-client privilege. As the ALC noted, the AG has not "retained" the NAAG attorneys in this matter or with respect to the disputed documents. However, the AG is a paid member of the NAAG, and NAAG staff attorneys are available to provide legal advice relating to the MSA and tobacco regulation and enforcement. We find it instructive that one court has previously held that similar documents between a state attorney general and the NAAG were protected by the attorney-client privilege. See Grand River Enterprise Six Nations, Ltd. v. Pryor, No. 02 Civ. 5069(JFK)(DFE), 2008 WL 1826490, at *3 (Apr. 18, 2008 S.D.N.Y.).
Thus we hold that the attorney-client privilege may apply to this very narrow factual scenario because the AG, as a paid member, has solicited the NAAG attorneys for legal advice and consultation on matters relating to the tobacco litigation, the MSA, subsequent enforcement of the MSA, and tobacco regulation. We remand the matter to the ALC to determine if the allegedly privileged documents are confidential communications pertaining to the above legal matters.