April 12, 2011
Tripartite Attorney-Client Relationship
The North Carolina Supreme Court recognized the existence of an attorney-client relationship between an association member, the association and an attorney retained by the association on the member's behalf. The court reversed and remanded a decision of the Court of Appeals.
The member was a police officer who was demoted after reporting a fellow officer's misconduct. He also alleges that he was assaulted by the chief of police. He contacted the legal department of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association and spoke to an attorney there. Ultimately, he was referred to outside counsel.
The court held that the tripartite relationship created an attorney-client relationship much like in an insurer-beneficiary situation. The interests of the member and the association are "closely aligned."The policy interests that favor the privilege prevail:
Recognizing an attorney-client relationship in this context is essential to the role of advocacy and benevolence associations like the SSPBA. Without such a relationship confidential statements made by individuals seeking assistance from advocacy organizations would be unprotected and discoverable in litigation. The possibility of disclosure of such communications would chill the flow of information to these groups and hinder their purpose of promoting and protecting the interests of members and individuals.
The court remanded for an in camera review by the trial court to determine the applicability of the asserted claims of privilege. (Mike Frisch)
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