January 8, 2013
Law Firm Invoices For Representing County Are Public Records
In a matter in which a county was represented in litigation by a law firm pursuant to an insurance contract, a majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that the law firm's invoices are public records subject to disclosure:
Because the liability insurance policy is the basis for the tripartite relationship between the County, the insurance company, and the law firm and is the basis for an attorney-client relationship between the law firm and the County, we conclude that the invoices that were produced or collected during the course of the law firm's representation of the County pursuant to the liability insurance policy come under the liability insurance policy. Wisconsin Stat. § 19.36(3) therefor governs the accessibility of the invoices...
The invoices——the billings for the law firm's legal work performed as the County's defense counsel and the insurance company's retained counsel——were produced or collected in the course of the law firm's representation of the County and the insurance company under the liability insurance policy between the County and the insurance company. Because the liability insurance policy is the basis for the tripartite relationship between the County, the insurance company, and the law firm, and is the basis for an attorney-client relationship between the law firm and the County, we conclude that the invoices were produced or collected during the course of the law firm's representation of the County and the insurance company pursuant to the liability insurance policy; the liability insurance policy is a contract entered into by
the County and the insurance company. Thus, the requirements of Wis. Stat. § 19.36(3) have been met and § 19.36(3) governs the accessibility of the invoices.
There are several dissents, including this from the dissent of Justice Prosser:
The majority opinion permits Wisconsin's public records law to breach privileged communications, contrary to sound public policy and the text of the public records statute. The majority's assurance that the opinion "does not alter the rules governing confidentiality, attorney-client privilege, or lawyers' work product, or any other rules protecting against disclosure," majority op., ¶15, is unpersuasive given the opinion's analysis and its other declarations. Because I believe the opinion has serious negative ramifications for the practice of law, I respectfully dissent...
The stakes in this dispute are obvious. The Star-Times already has information on the names of the County's lawyers, the number of hours they worked, and the amount they were paid——not by the County with County tax dollars, but by the County's insurer. What the Star-Times wants are "detailed descriptions of the nature of the legal services rendered" and "the substance of [the] lawyer-client communications."
Any court that determines that these matters of substance are not present in the subject invoices must be prepared to rule that the circuit court's findings were clearly erroneous.
Deciding this case without discussing the lawyer-client privilege in relation to the limiting language of the public records law (in Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31, 19.35(1), 19.36(1), and 19.85(1)(g)) casts a dark shadow over the lawyer-client privilege and other privileges in Chapter 905.
An appellate court should reduce uncertainty, not magnify it. The likely result of this case will be to force changes in billing practice. In the future, legal invoices related to an "authority" may be sanitized so that they provide insurers and public entity clients with no information except the hours worked and the amount owed as well as an invitation to discuss the details orally.
The suit was brought the Star-Times. (Mike Rrisch)
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