Thursday, November 10, 2016
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has in the main affirmed findings that a defendant in civil litigation could not claim attorney-client privilege with respect to certain communications that had included a third party.
Paul Coulombe and two LLCs under his control—PGC1, LLC, and PGC2, LLC—appeal from discovery orders entered in the Business and Consumer Docket (Murphy, J.) that required the disclosure of specific communications over the assertion that those communications were protected by the attorney-client privilege. Coulombe contends that the court erred in determining that (A) Coulombe’s communications with his attorney that included a third party were not privileged and (B) the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applied to allow the disclosure of other communications between Coulombe and counsel. We affirm the judgment except with respect to one communication that we conclude the trial court must consider further on remand.
The case involves a broken promise to hire the plaintiff to manage a golf course
Relevant here, Harris alleged that Coulombe, with assistance from his attorneys, Hawley Strait and John Carpenter, was secretly seeking a different golf course manager while Coulombe was simultaneously reassuring Harris that Harris was to manage the golf course. Harris alleged that it did not learn until March 2013—after ceasing independent efforts to purchase the Club, selling nearby JJR property to Coulombe at a discount, and beginning to manage Coulombe’s golf course after Coulombe purchased the Club—that someone else, Dan Hourihan, would be hired as the manager of the course.
The court applied the crime-fraud exception
In this context, fraud must be understood broadly “as [a] generic term, embracing all multifarious means which human ingenuity can devise, and which are resorted to by one individual to get advantage over another by false suggestions or by suppression of truth, and includes all surprise, trick,cunning dissembling, and any unfair way by which another is cheated.”
... Ultimately, in determining what must be proved for the crime-fraud exception to apply in Maine, we must balance the need for clients to have the protection of privileged communications with their attorneys in order to obtain effective representation regarding current legal concerns or any past wrongdoing, against the need to prevent attorneys in the honorable practice of law from being used to perpetrate ongoing or future wrongdoing. Striking the proper balance is critical in assuring that attorneys can serve their clients effectively without having their legal services used for fraudulent or criminal purposes.
In order to strike that balance, and to maintain the high standards of the legal profession, the focus in determining whether the fraud portion of the crime-fraud exception applies must be on the elements within the control of the client that involve either the engagement in or the planning of a fraud. Because proof of planned fraudulent activity can result in the exception being applied, fraudulent activity may, for purposes of the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, be activity that, although deceptive and fraudulent, falls short of the fully realized civil tort of fraud.
Although proof of the complete tort is not necessary for the exception to apply, a party seeking to establish that a client was engaged in or planning fraudulent activity must offer evidence of the client’s intention and expectation that the party alleging injury would rely on the client’s misrepresentations, omissions, or other deceptive actions...
Here, the court’s findings demonstrate that it applied the proper legal test. It found, for purposes of the discovery motion, that Harris had demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that (a) Coulombe was engaged in or planning fraudulent activity when the attorney-client communications took place and (b) Coulombe’s communications with counsel were intended by him to facilitate or conceal the fraudulent activity.
The evidence was sufficient for discovery with a caveat
There is one possible exception to our decision affirming the trial court’s determination, however. Although Coulombe does not specifically argue that any particular pages of the materials submitted for the court’s review were improperly included in the court’s disclosure order, one email exchange appears to be unrelated to Coulombe’s dealings with Harris and may have been inadvertently ordered disclosed. We therefore remand for the court to clarify whether it intended to include that email exchange, which appears at pages 15626 through 15633 of the materials submitted for review, in its order requiring disclosure.
Monday, October 10, 2016
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals denied a writ of prohibition brought by a criminal defendant to prevent disclosure of a report prepared at the behest of the defendant and her counsel.
The limited record in this proceeding indicates that the Petitioner was charged...with two counts of child neglect creating a risk of injury, and two counts of child neglect causing injury. In September of 2015, the Petitioner pled guilty to all the charges. Prior to the scheduled sentencing hearing, a psychological evaluation and risk assessment was arranged for the Petitioner by defense counsel. To facilitate the psychological assessment, the Petitioner wanted the psychologist to review the medical records of her two children, which had been generated during a prior child abuse and neglect proceeding. The Petitioner also wanted to have her attorney discuss with the psychologist the specifics of her case and other confidential information that involved the victims...
The Petitioner underwent the psychological assessment. After the Petitioner had the psychological assessment done, she refused to disclose the report to the trial court and State. A hearing was held over the Petitioner’s refusal to disclose the psychological report. At the end of the hearing, the trial court ordered the Petitioner to disclose the report to the State and court. The Petitioner thereafter filed this proceeding to prevent enforcement of the disclosure order.
The court majority was sharply critical of defense counsel
In this proceeding the Petitioner contends that disclosure of her psychological report would violate the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine. Assuming, without deciding, that the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine would prevent disclosure of the psychological report, we find that the doctrine of judicial estoppel prevents the application of those doctrines...
After obtaining a favorable ruling from the trial court allowing disclosure of confidential information to the psychologist, in exchange for a specific promise to turn over the psychological report for sentencing purposes, the Petitioner now asserts for the first time that the psychological report is protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine. We are gravely concerned by the Petitioner’s blatant attempt to insult the integrity of the judicial process by pretending that her promise to the court did not exist. It is precisely this type of shenanigan that judicial estoppel cuts off at the knees. “The doctrine estops a party from playing ‘fast-and-loose’ with the courts or to trifle with the proceedings.”
...The Petitioner came to the trial court with a promise to disclose the psychological report to the court, if the court allowed the Petitioner to reveal certain information to the psychologist. In making this promise to the court, the Petitioner implicitly waived any attorney-client privilege and work product protections the psychological report may have had. However, now that the report has been generated, the Petitioner has changed her mind about disclosure and is seeking the protection of those privilege doctrines. We will not allow this.
Justice Benjamin dissented
The criminal defense bar ought to be able to confidently develop expert services and opinions on behalf of their clients for sentencing purposes without fear that the information thereby derived, if proved harmful instead of useful, will fall into the hands of the prosecution. The adversary process and its attendant safeguards, including time-honored privileges and the work-product doctrine, does not cease to exist once a criminal defendant has pleaded guilty or is found to be so. Unfortunately, the majority’s well-intentioned efforts in this instance to improve the flow of relevant information to the circuit court will, in the longer term, perversely and inevitably impede the truth-seeking function of sentencing proceedings and render them less accurate by chilling the efforts of criminal defense lawyers to effectively advocate for their clients.
Friday, September 9, 2016
Should the interests of history create an exception to a lawyer's duty of confidentiality?
No, according to an opinion of the Maine Professional Ethics Committee
Bar Counsel has inquired whether, and under what circumstances, a law firm may consider donating old, inactive legal files that may have historical significance to a library or educational institution. As a matter of background, the attorney holds a variety of client files, many of which were generated by a single family, dealing with a public undertaking of significant historical interest in the attorney’s area. The files range back as early as the mid- to late 1800s, and run through the early to mid-1900s. The single family referenced above has indicated their consent, but for many of the other files, both the clients as well as the attorneys who were involved in the legal work generating the files are long since deceased, and it may be difficult to find a representative of either the attorneys or the families. Given the passage of time, and the historical import of the files, may the firm turn over these client files to a library or educational institution?
The obligations imposed by Rule 1.6 extend indefinitely. They survive the death of the attorney, as well as the client, and may continue after the dissolution of a corporate client. Absent informed consent from the affected clients or some other applicable exception, a lawyer may not divulge information that constitutes a “confidence” or “secret” as defined above. This would mean that an individualized, document-by-document assessment would need to be undertaken in order to determine whether the particular document and the information within it constituted a “confidence” or “secret” of the client at the time it was made.
The Commission is not unmindful that this opinion may well restrict information that may have independent historical value. However, those values, though significant, do not trump the attorney’s obligation to keep the client’s confidences and secrets confidential. See, e.g., Oregon Formal Opinion 32005-23 (revised 2014); Virginia Legal Ethics Opinion #1307, dated November 13, 1989; Opinion #128, Committee of Legal Ethics of the District of Columbia Bar, dated July 19, 1983; and Oklahoma Bar Association Ethics Opinion #301, adopted June 16, 1983.
If the attorney believes that the files may contain a variety of matters that do not constitute confidences or secrets, the attorney nonetheless must make that determination consistent with Rule 1.6(d). A waiver by the family, the Personal Representative of an estate (to the extent one still exists) or similar person appearing to stand in the shoes of a deceased client is not sufficient to constitute a waiver of the attorney’s obligations of confidentiality. See Professional Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion # 192: Deceased client: Confidential information requested by Personal Representative, dated June 20, 2007.
We would note that to the extent the materials maintained by the attorney and that attorney’s law firm include files that are clearly segregated and marked in a manner that would make them non-legal (for example, copies of ancient and public documents, information that was directed to others outside of the attorney/client privilege, such as correspondence to third parties, and similar documents), those items may fall outside of the definition of “confidence” or “secret.” However, the attorney must be mindful, in making an analysis under Rule 1.6(d), that the determination of whether a client considered materials to be a “confidence” or “secret” is a subjective one unique to the client. Absent the attorney being able to make a reasonably reliable determination that the client did not consider the information to be confidential, disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6. See Board of Overseers of the Bar v. Turesky, File No. 93-S-124, Report dated April 26, 1995.
Lastly, it should be noted that in the event that a review is contemplated, it must be undertaken by the attorney and at that attorney’s direction. It would not be proper to allow any non-lawyer or other personnel not affiliated with the lawyer’s practice to review the files regardless of whether the outside party (such as a representative of a charitable or educational institution) agreed to hold any questionable materials confidential. See Virginia Legal Ethics Opinion 1307, supra.
In short, absent a reasonably reliable indication of informed consent or some other exception to the requirements of Rule 1.6 or a meaningful ability to determine that the materials held by the attorney were not client “confidences” or “secrets,” the attorney may not divulge the confidential materials in that attorney’s possession despite the passage of time and the potential historical significance of the materials.
Monday, August 29, 2016
A decision today from the Connecticut Supreme Court
Clients call upon attorneys to provide advice on a range of matters, some that may be purely legal, some that may be purely nonlegal, and others where the line between legal and nonlegal advice is more nuanced. This case provides an opportunity to address the circumstances under which communications relating to both nonlegal and legal advice may be covered by the attorney-client privilege.
The plaintiff, Michael C. Harrington, appeals from the trial court’s judgment dismissing his appeal from the decision of the Freedom of Information Commission, which concluded that e-mails that the plaintiff sought from the defendant Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority fall within the exemption from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (act) for communications subject to the attorney-client privilege. See General Statutes § 1-210 (b) (10). We conclude that the commission failed to apply the proper standard for assessing the communications at issue, which include communications that the commission characterized as containing a mix of business and legal advice. Therefore, the case must be remanded to the commission for further proceedings.
Although the plaintiff raises numerous arguments, our threshold, and ultimately dispositive, consideration is the proper approach for assessing the applicability of the attorney-client privilege when business or other nonlegal professional advice is provided. This is a legal rather than factual question. We therefore must consider whether the commission acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally, or in abuse of its discretion in concluding that all of the communications that the defendant withheld are covered by the attorney-client privilege...
Just as this court has never specifically distinguished business advice offered by an attorney from legal advice, it has not addressed the application of the privilege to communications containing or seeking both legal and business advice, as was found to exist in the present case. The primary flaw in the commission’s approach to this question lies in its exclusive reliance on the ‘‘inextricably linked’’ standard...
When the legal aspects of the communication are incidental or subject to separation, the proponent of the privilege may be entitled to redact those portions of the communication.
In the present case, the commission’s decision cited to cases from other jurisdictions that apply this standard, but it did not determine whether the primary purpose of the communications was seeking or providing legal advice. Nor did it consider whether incidentally privileged matters could be redacted to allow disclosure of nonprivileged matters. Indeed, Hunt stated that redaction would have been possible as to some documents, but she lacked sufficient time to do so. Our review of a sample of the communications reveals that proper application of these considerations undoubtedly would yield a different result as to a substantial number of the communications examined
The court remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, June 9, 2016
An attorney-client privilege decision from the New York Court of Appeals limits the common interest doctrine.
This discovery dispute involves certain attorney-client communications that defendant Bank of America Corporation and defendant Countrywide Financial Corporation shared when the two entities were in the process of merging. Generally, communications between an attorney and a client that are made in the presence of or subsequently disclosed to third parties are not protected by the attorney-client privilege. Under the common interest doctrine, however, an attorney-client communication that is disclosed to a third party remains privileged if the third party shares a common legal interest with the client who made the communication and the communication is made in furtherance of that common legal interest. We hold today, as the courts in New York have held for over two decades, that any such communication must also relate to litigation, either pending or anticipated, in order for the exception to apply...
The question presently before us is whether to modify the existing requirement that shared communications be in furtherance of a common legal interest in pending or reasonably anticipated litigation in order to remain privileged from disclosure, by expanding the common interest doctrine to protect shared communications in furtherance of any common legal interest. We adhere to the litigation requirement that has historically existed in New York...
We conclude that the policy reasons for keeping a litigation limitation on the common interest doctrine outweigh any purported justification for doing away with it, and therefore maintain the narrow construction that New York courts have traditionally applied
The court reversed the order of the Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department.
Justice Rivera dissented
Whether this privilege should extend to confidential communications between separately represented parties, in which they have a common legal interest in a transaction, not involving pending or reasonably anticipated litigation, is the question posed in this appeal, and one which I would answer in the affirmative under the circumstances presented here. Given that the attorney-client privilege has no litigation requirement and the reality that clients often seek legal advice specifically to comply with legal and regulatory mandates and avoid litigation or liability, the privilege should apply to private client-attorney communications exchanged during the course of a transformative business enterprise, in which the parties commit to collaboration and exchange of client information to obtain legal advice aimed at compliance with transaction-related statutory and regulatory mandates.
The attorney-client privilege is a long-standing exception to the general rule promoting discovery as part of the truth-finding process, and one tolerated because it serves the individual and societal goals of furthering the proper administration of justice by encouraging the free flow of information essential to legal representation. It has never been limited to client communications involving pending or anticipated litigation. Even so, the privilege is deemed waived where a client shares information with a third party, under circumstances that reflect the client's disinterest in the continued protection of the confidences. However, where parties to a merger seek to comply with legal requirements and agree to treat as confidential any exchanges of information made for purposes of seeking legal and regulatory advice to complete the merger, the parties cannot be assumed to have vitiated the private nature of the information, or to harbor an unreasonable expectation of privacy in these exchanges. Therefore, extension of the attorney-client privilege to these communications is fully in line with the goals of our common law and the needs of our complex system of commercial regulation.
This decision will, as Justice Rivera's dissent suggests, likely have a significant impact on legal advice in commercial transactions. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
The North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that the attorney-client privilege was inapplicable when a successor in interest purchases assets
This appeal requires us to consider the common interest doctrine, which extends the attorney-client privilege to communications between and among multiple parties sharing a common legal interest. We hold that an indemnification provision in an asset purchase agreement, standing alone, is insufficient to create a common legal interest between a civil litigant indemnitee and a third-party indemnitor.
The case involves a rent dispute
The record reflects that when faced with a specific request for their communications with Blast, Defendants promptly asserted the attorney-client privilege. During the 11 February 2015 deposition, counsel for Plaintiff asked the deponent, Mid-Atlantic’s General Counsel Earl Acquaviva, to describe “all of the conversations that you have had personally with Blast or any representatives of Blast about this lawsuit.” Defendants’ counsel immediately objected on the basis of attorney-client privilege and advised the deponent not to answer. Plaintiff’s further attempts to probe the issue were all met with similar objections by Defendants’ counsel, and the deponent refused to answer such questions...
we hold that Defendants properly asserted the attorney-client privilege in a manner that is neither frivolous nor insubstantial and that this interlocutory appeal affects a “substantial right” of Defendants. We therefore deny Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss.
The tripartite privilege
The linchpin in any analysis of a tripartite attorney-client relationship is the finding of a common legal interest between the attorney, client, and third party. See Raymond, 365 N.C. at 100, 721 S.E.2d at 927 (tripartite attorney-client relationship existed between attorney, client, and benevolence organization due to the common interest of “protecting and promoting the livelihood” of the client). “[T]he parties must first share a common interest about a legal matter.” United States v. Aramony, 88 F.3d 1369, 1392 (4th Cir. 1996)
...To extend the attorney-client privilege between or among them, parties must (1) share a common interest; (2) agree to exchange information for the purpose of facilitating legal representation of the parties; and (3) the information must otherwise be confidential. Schwimmer, 892 F.2d at 243–244. Although prudent counsel would always put a representation agreement in writing, there is no requirement that the agreement be in writing.
...The indemnification provision in the asset purchase agreement requires Blast to defend and indemnify Defendants from “[l]osses incurred or sustained . . . on account of or relating to . . . the use of the [a]ssets by [p]urchaser and the operation of the . . . [h]ealth [c]lubs . . . .” This language, and the nature of the asset purchase agreement, are most similar to the purchase agreement which was held to be insufficient in SCR-Tech to create a tripartite privileged relationship.
...We hold that Defendants and Blast shared a common business interest as opposed to the common legal interest necessary to support a tripartite attorney-client relationship. Consequently, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in compelling Defendants to produce the documents.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Dan Trevas reports a case decided today by the Ohio Supreme Court
When attorney-fee billing statements with detailed information about the tasks undertaken by a law firm representing a city are intertwined with summaries of the legal work performed, the detailed information is not a public record, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to affirm a Ninth District Court of Appeals decision to release redacted copies of invoices from a law firm representing Avon Lake to James E. Pietrangelo II. The records are connected to pending litigation between Avon Lake and Pietrangelo. In a per curiam decision, the Court majority reasoned that Pietrangelo may acquire information useful in his litigation strategy against the city if provided more details than what the Ninth District permitted to be released.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that only the narrative summary portion of the bills describing the work the firm did can be withheld and that Pietrangelo is entitled to more information as well as damages from Avon Lake.
Detailed Information Sought
Pietrangelo requested from the city and its law director the invoices from a law firm for services it rendered concerning his lawsuit. The city provided copies of invoices with the name of the firm, the general matter for which services were provided, the date of the invoice, the total fees billed for the period, and itemized expenses.
The city redacted the remaining information on the invoices citing exemptions for attorney-client privilege and attorney-work product. The information that was redacted included narrative descriptions of the particular legal services rendered, the name of each attorney in the firm providing services along with the service provided, the time spent, the billing rate, the total number hours billed, and the total fee attributed to each attorney.
Pietrangelo filed a writ of mandamus with the Ninth District to compel the city to provide unredacted invoices and requested statutory damages and attorney fees. Pietrangelo and Avon Lake both filed for summary judgment, but the Ninth District determined it could not side with a party without more information and ordered the city to file unredacted copies of the billing statements for the judges to review under seal.
After review, in March 2015 the Ninth District concluded the city disclosed all the records not exempt from disclosure by the Ohio Public Records Act, which is R.C. 143.43, except for one portion. The Ninth District found the part of the invoice titled “professional fee summary,” that described the hours, rates, and money charged for services was not exempt. It ordered the city to provide Pietrangelo with copies of the billing statements that included the professional fee summary.
The Ninth District denied Pietrangelo’s request for the fully unredacted records plus damages and attorney fees. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Extent of Attorney-Client Privilege at Issue
Citing its 2011 State ex rel. Dawson v. Bloom-Carroll Local School Dist. decision, the Court’s opinion explains that narrative portions of itemized attorney billing statements containing descriptions of legal services are protected by attorney-client privilege and are not public records.
Pietrangelo argued that based on the Court’s 2012 State ex rel. Anderson v. Vermillion decision he is entitled to all the dates legal services were performed along with the hours and rates of services, which is more than what is provided in the professional fee summary. The Court in Anderson stated that “the general title of the matter being handled, the dates services were performed, and the hours, rates and money charged for the services,” on an attorney billing statement need to be disclosed.
The Court explained that Anderson was the former mayor of Vermillion and was seeking the billing statements regarding the legal services provided to the new mayor. His entire request was denied. The Court ordered Vermillion to turn over all of the billing statements, ruling only the narrative portions were exempt from the public records act by attorney-client privilege.
Avon Lake argued the situation with Pietrangelo is similar to the Dawson case where a parent sought billing statements for legal services provided to the school district regarding pending litigation between the district, the parent and her children. The district provided summaries with the attorney’s name, invoice total, and the matter involved, but withheld the actual invoices because they contained confidential information.
The Court allowed the district to withhold the invoices because the information in the invoices was “either covered by attorney-client privilege or so inextricably intertwined with privileged materials as to also be exempt from disclosure.”
“Like Dawson, the records that Pietrangelo seeks relate to the pending litigation between the parties. If disclosed, Pietrangelo may acquire information that would be useful in his litigation strategy against the city, whereas in Anderson, any harm from disclosure of attorney-client communication was remote and speculative,” the Court stated. “To the extent that Pietrangelo requests the dates, hours, and rates not identified in the professional-fee summary, they are inextricably intertwined with the narratives of services that are privileged materials. Such information is exempt from disclosure.”
Pietrangelo also sought $1,000 in statutory damages and attorney fees because the Ninth District found the city did not fully comply with the public records law. The Court affirmed the Ninth District’s denial of Pietrangelo’s request because Avon Lake reasonably believed it was entitled to withhold the information it did.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and William M. O’Neill joined the opinion.
More Disclosure Required, Dissent Maintains
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy stated she would order the redaction of only the narrative services information and release all the other information on the billing statements to Pietrangelo in accordance with the Ohio Public Records Act.
She further disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the relevant distinction between Dawson and Anderson regarding what information is subject to disclosure is whether litigation is pending between the record requestor and the government entity. Instead, Justice Kennedy wrote that the fact the records requestor is involved in litigation against the government body should have no bearing on whether the records are public.
“Whether a public-records requestor and a government entity are engaged in litigation is irrelevant to the question of whether the information in an itemized attorney-fee billing statement is privileged and exempt from disclosure. Instead, our case law mandates the proper focus is on the information sought and whether that information is privileged,” she wrote.
The relevant distinction between the two cases was that the school board in Dawson reduced the nonexempt information to a summary and released it, whereas the city in Anderson denied the request and failed to provide an alternative record.
Justice Kennedy recognized that the narrative portions of a billing statement containing descriptions of legal service are protected by the attorney-client privilege and not subject to disclosure. She explained that the billing statements at issue contain summary information on the first two pages, and that all subsequent pages contain four independent columns divided into the categories of date, name, services, and hours. Each billing statement concluded with the total number of hours invoiced, a professional fee summary, disbursements and expenses, and a total invoice amount.
She wrote the majority’s reliance upon Dawson to conclude that the date, name, and hours information was inextricably intertwined with the narrative of the services was disingenuous. She noted that Dawson offered little discussion of how the billing statements were constituted, whereas the format used in the statements to Avon Lake separated the information about the attorneys providing the services and the hours billed so that they “are not intertwined with the narrative services column.”
Justice Kennedy reasoned that the ability to redact the narrative services column mandated all remaining portions of the billing statements be released. By affirming the appellate court's decision not to release the remaining non-exempt portions of the billing statements the majority created a new “redundancy” exemption not authorized by the General Assembly she concluded.
Justice Kennedy would have also granted Pietrangelo damages because after Anderson decision it should have been clear to Avon Lake what information in a billing statement was privileged and what must be disclosed.
“Subsequently, no well-informed public office could reasonably believe that any portion of an attorney-fee billing statement, other than the narrative description of the legal services performed, is subject to redaction,” she wrote.
Justice Judith L. French joined the dissent.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
The Minnesota Supreme Court has held
This case requires us to determine whether the therapist-client privilege, which prohibits therapists from disclosing information or opinions in court that they acquired from their clients in a professional capacity, contains an exception for threatening statements. The district court concluded that the privilege does not apply to "statements of imminent threat of harm." The court of appeals reversed, holding that the statute codifying the privilege, Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(g) (2014), does not contain an exception for threats. We agree with the court of appeals that the statute does not contain a "threats exception," but disagree that the privilege extends to third parties.
As a condition of his probation for a prior conviction, respondent Jerry Expose, Jr. was required to attend anger-management therapy sessions with N.M., a mental-health practitioner. During one session, Expose became upset and made a threatening statement about D.P., a caseworker assigned to an ongoing child-protection case involving Expose’s children. Expose said that D.P. had told him recently that his continued noncompliance with a requirement of his case plan would delay the commencement of unsupervised visits with his children. Expose then became visibly angry and said that
he felt that [D.P.] was a barrier to him getting his kids back and if court—his future court date did not go the right way that he would break her back, and then if he could not get to her he would call—he’d just have to make a couple phone calls and he can have someone else do it if he couldn’t get to her.
N.M. responded to the threatening statement by informing Expose that she was a mandated reporter, to which he replied, "I don’t give a f--k." N.M. then "proceeded to help him de-escalate and calm down," but Expose made additional statements about D.P., including that "[e]verybody has to go to their car at some point."
Based on her training, N.M. determined that Expose’s statements were not idle threats. Instead, she concluded that Expose had made specific threats of physical violence against an identifiable person that triggered her statutory duty to warn. See Minn. Stat. § 148.975 (2014). To discharge the duty, N.M. reported Expose’s statements to her supervisor, D.P., and the police.
N.M. testified at trial. The Court of Appeals reversed the ensuing conviction.
the therapist-client privilege statute lacks a "threats exception," either by implication from the duty-to-warn statute or under our authority to promulgate rules of evidence. The district court therefore abused its discretion when it allowed N.M. to testify about Expose’s allegedly threatening statements without his consent.
The court found that the error was not harmless and the Court of Appeals correctly reversed the conviction. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, October 8, 2015
An opinion on attorney-client privilege from the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department
This appeal arises from a discovery dispute in which the managers of a limited liability company and corporate counsel invoke the attorney-client privilege in opposition to document requests by one of the company's investors. The investor argues that it is entitled to the so-called fiduciary exception to the privilege because it is a beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship that exists between the company's managers and counsel. The managers and counsel, on the other hand, contend that because the investor had interests that were adverse to the company's interests, the fiduciary exception is inapplicable. Supreme Court found that the parties were not adverse, and ordered the production of all the documents claimed to be privileged.
We conclude that "adversity" is not a threshold issue in determining whether the fiduciary exception is applicable in a given case, but one of several factors to consider in making that determination, and that adversity cannot be determined without a review of the purportedly privileged communications. Therefore, we remand the matter for an in camera review of the withheld documents and a full analysis of whether the exception is applicable in this case. Absent a more deliberate review and analysis, the risk of disclosure of privileged communications is manifest.
The case was an appeal from a special referee's production order.
The court recognized the "fiduciary" exception and held
although defendants do not take issue with the motion court's finding of good cause — they focus on the determination that there never was an adversarial relationship between NAMA and Alliance — we conclude that the case must be remanded for the court to conduct a comprehensive good-cause analysis. The court, given its discretion under CPLR article 31, may not need to evaluate each factor listed in Garner. However, where a court finds that a shareholder has demonstrated good cause to apply the fiduciary exception and pierce the corporate attorney-client privilege, it must at least address those factors that support such a finding. This type of scrutiny is vital to ensure that courts do not arbitrarily order disclosure of corporate attorney-client communications...
The adversity question is therefore not one of timing, as defendants contend, but is answered by the communications' content. For this reason, we reject defendants' argument that, if NAMA were adverse to Alliance at some point, all subsequent communications between the Managers and the Attorneys would rest beyond the fiduciary exception's reach. Communications regarding defendants' alleged breach of fiduciary duties could have occurred at the same time as attorney-client communications regarding how to deal with NAMA (for example, during the California arbitration); it would frustrate the balancing of interests in attorney-client privilege cases to permit defendants to withhold communications that might reveal the alleged wrongful conduct simply because the parties were adverse at some point in the past. Thus, the motion court correctly stated that whether communications that occurred after an adversarial relationship developed are privileged depends on their content.
This is where a court's ability to conduct in camera review of the communications is crucial (see Spectrum Sys. Intl., 78 NY2d at 378 ["whether a particular document is or is not protected is necessarily a fact-specific determination, most often requiring in camera review"] [*12][internal citation omitted]; see also Stenovich, 195 Misc 2d at 102 [discussing court's in camera review of arguably privileged documents]). Absent a review of the communications (or at least a sampling thereof), it would be impossible to determine whether they involved advice concerning the instant litigation or "how to deal with" NAMA.
The matter was remanded for further proceedings. (Mike Frisch)
Monday, August 3, 2015
The South Dakota Supreme Court held that a trial court had violated the attorney-client privilege by allowing the deposition of a party's attorney and admitting his admissions at trial.
This case arose out of a foreclosure action brought by Voorhees Cattle Co. (Voorhees) against Dakota Feeding Co. (DFC). In its answer to the complaint, DFC filed a third party complaint against B and B Equipment, Inc. (B & B) for breach of contract; B & B counterclaimed alleging impossibility of performance and breach of contract by DFC...
As a result of the fraud allegations, counsel for Voorhees, Thomas M. Maher, sought to depose DFC’s counsel William Van Camp and subpoenaed his records concerning his representation of DFC. Van Camp moved to quash the subpoena and enter a protective order.
The court held a hearing on the motion on October 2, 2013. Van Camp argued that there was no applicable fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege and that he was acting as “an ordinary attorney” by performing due diligence on the transaction. Further, he stated that there is no statute or case law in South Dakota that allows an attorney to be deposed in ongoing litigation because of a fraud complaint such as this. Van Camp explained he was resisting the motion, in part because “they can conduct the discovery they want from my client, the discovery they want from DENR to see what information is there.”
The deposition was taken and admissions from that deposition were admitted at trial.
The court found that this was error
Even if the court found that the communications may not have been privileged or that waiver was an issue, it should have considered whether deposing opposing counsel was the appropriate means of acquiring the information sought. The court failed to consider the implications of allowing discovery without bounds by the extraordinary means of requesting admissions from opposing counsel regarding client communications, deposing opposing counsel, and issuing a subpoena for the production of materials from counsel’s case files. “Taking the deposition of opposing counsel not only disrupts the adversarial system and lowers the standards of the profession, but it also adds to the already burdensome time and costs of litigation.” Shelton v. Am. Motors Corp., 805 F.2d 1323, 1327 (8th Cir. 1986).
Opposing counsel “is [not] absolutely immune from being deposed.” Id. However, the circumstances under which opposing counsel may be deposed “should be limited to where the party seeking to take the deposition has shown that (1) no other means exist to obtain the information than to depose opposing counsel, (2) the information sought is relevant and nonprivileged; and (3) the information is crucial to the preparation of the case.” Id. (citation omitted). In this case, none of these considerations were taken into account. The court did not analyze the necessity for the discovery or consider reasonable alternative sources such as DFC’s principals or other witnesses such as the DENR employees that may have spoken with DFC’s attorney.
The judgment was nonetheless affirmed
Even though the privileged communications should not have been introduced, nor the deposition of the attorney and further discovery of attorney client privileged material allowed, those communications were germane to the claim by Voorhees, which is not being appealed because DFC satisfied the judgment against it. The communications did not prove, nor go to the heart of B & B’s claims...
The only issue between B & B and DFC decided by the jury was the amount of money owed B & B for the work done on the feedlot. As a result, the erroneous admission of the privileged communications was not unfairly prejudicial to DFC as against B & B. DFC’s claim that the error tainted the trial is not sufficient.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
A decision issued last week by the California Court of Appeals, Second District, Division Three holds
The question before us is whether the attorney-client privilege applies to intrafirm communications between attorneys concerning disputes with a current client, when that client later sues the firm for malpractice. We conclude that when an attorney representing a current client seeks legal advice from an in-house attorney concerning a dispute with the client, the attorney-client privilege may apply to their confidential communications. Adoption of the so-called "fiduciary" and "current client" exceptions to the attorney-client privilege is contrary to California law because California courts are not at liberty to create implied exceptions to the attorney-client privilege. In the unpublished portion of the opinion, we hold that the exceptions to the attorney-client privilege embodied in Evidence Code sections 958 and 962 do not apply to the circumstances presented here. Accordingly, we grant in part the petition of Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP and Dominique Shelton for a writ of mandate, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.
The client had retained the law firm to pursue an invasion of privacy claim against the Daily Mail. As the court noted
The relationship between [client] Mireskandari and the Firm was short lived and, for the most part, contentious.
The court rejected the suggestion that internal counsel and the client were "joint clients" of the firm
Shelton and Mireskandari were not joint clients for purposes of section 962. Shelton and Mireskandari did not retain the Firm "upon a matter of common interest." Mireskandari retained the Firm and Shelton to represent him in the Daily Mail case; Shelton consulted with in-house counsel not as a party to that action, but to obtain advice on how best to address Mireskandari's complaints about billing and his threats to hold the firm responsible for any damages he suffered. Mireskandari and Shelton were not co-parties; they did not employ the same attorney to oppose claims of an adversary or pursue a claim as joint plaintiffs; they were not represented by the same attorney in a business transaction.
The court vacated an order that had permitted discovery into the firm's internal communications.
Thank you to my former student Daniel Woofter for sending me the case. His article from the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics is cited in the opinion. (Mike Frisch)
Monday, July 21, 2014
In a matter involving the application of the common interest rule in attorney-client privilege law, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that
The common interest rule is designed to permit the free flow of information between or among counsel who represent clients with a commonality of purpose. It offers all parties to the exchange the real possibility for better representation by making more information available to inform decision-making in anticipation of litigation. Although the Court recognizes that any privilege, including the attorney-client privilege and work-product protection, restricts the disclosure of information and may intrude on the fact-finding function of litigation, the Court finds that the rule recognized in LaPorta strikes an acceptable balance of competing interests. The Court, therefore, expressly adopts the common interest rule as articulated in LaPorta. Common purpose extends to sharing of trial preparation efforts between attorneys against a common adversary. The attorneys need not be involved in the same litigated matter or anticipated matter. The rule also encompasses the situation in which certain disclosures of privileged material are made to another attorney who shares a common purpose, for the limited purpose of considering whether he and his client should participate in a common interest arrangement. (pp. 33-37)
The protected attorney work product disclosed by Sufrin to the municipal attorney remained privileged pursuant to the common interest rule. Sufrin and Longport shared a common purpose at the time of the disclosure because Longport had defended many civil actions filed against it by O’Boyle and anticipated further litigation from O’Boyle, and Sufrin was attempting to defend a civil action commenced by O’Boyle arising out of one client’s official position and others’ participation in civic affairs. Sufrin also disclosed his work product in a manner calculated to preserve its confidentiality. There is no evidence that the municipal attorney shared the material with anyone else, including O’Boyle. Once the municipal attorney declined to enter a joint defense strategy, he returned the privileged material, thereby minimizing even an inadvertent disclosure. Finally, although privileges may be overcome by a showing of particularized need under the common law right of access, O’Boyle failed to demonstrate a particularized need for the privileged material supplied to the municipal attorney. (pp. 37-39)
...we expressly adopt the common interest rule as previously articulated in LaPorta, supra, 340 N.J. Super. at 254, 262-63. We also hold that Sufrin, who represented a former municipal official and private residents in litigation filed by O’Boyle, shared a common purpose with Longport at the time he disclosed work product to the municipal attorney. Therefore, the joint strategy memorandum, and the CDs containing documents obtained and produced by the private attorney were not government records subject to production in response to an OPRA request by O’Boyle. Finally, O’Boyle failed to articulate a particularized need as required by the common law right of access to obtain the work product of the private attorney.
The litigation involved access to public records. (Mike Frisch)
Saturday, May 31, 2014
The Oregon Supreme Court held that a law firm's communications with in-house counsel were protected from disclosure from the now-former client.
The court reversed an order of production based on the so-called "fiduciary exception" to the attorney-client privilege
Friday, May 16, 2014
A busy day for attorney issues in the Maryland Court of Appeals.
In addition to three disbarments (two of which we have linked to), the court held
As evidenced by this Court’s holding in Benzinger, the testamentary exception has existed in Maryland for close to a century, despite never having been formally named. Nonetheless, it has been some time since this Court has spoken on the testamentary exception. For this reason, we reaffirm that in a dispute between putative heirs or devisees under a will or trust, the attorney-client privilege does not bar admission of testimony and evidence regarding communication between the decedent and any attorneys involved in the creation of the instrument, provided that evidence or testimony tends to help clarify the donative intent of the decedent.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Two points to make about confidentiality, just as all us ethics profs are about to (spoiler alert) examine on it. One is that I note that there is an interesting article in the current Litigation magazine (the ABA's journal by the Section on Litgation) on whether confidentiality and privilege survive death. It's not yet posted on their website, so look for it in print or anticipate it online. It notes that the successor law firm to Lizzie Borden's counsel circa 1892 is still safeguarding its (really, her) records. I foresee a poem about the privilege here, but what rhymes with "privilege"? One point six does not quite rhyme with ax.
The more accessible point is that Drury D. Stevenson (South Texas, Law) has posted to SSRN an article that, to me, follows in the tradition of the late Fred Zacahrias. Dru's title is Against Confidentiality and his abstract is:
Confidentiality rules form an important part of the ethical codes for lawyers, as a modern, expansive extension of the traditional attorney-client privilege doctrine. The legal academy, judiciary, and practitioners generally agree on the conventional wisdom that strict confidentiality rules are necessary to foster client-lawyer communication, thereby providing lawyers with information they need for effective representation. Yet this premise is demonstrably false – clients withhold information or lie to their lawyers despite the confidentiality rules, and the rules are mostly redundant with other ethical rules, evidentiary doctrines, and effective market mechanisms for protecting client privacy interests. At the same time, the confidentiality rules impose significant social costs – direct externalities, lemons effects, and even serious harm to third parties.
This Article argues that the lawyer confidentiality rules are ripe for repeal, revision, or rejection in the form of civil disobedience in certain cases. Using analytical tools from economics, including the Coase Theorem, this Article goes beyond previous criticisms of the rules to provide an extensive analysis of the social costs – and illusory benefits – of the ethical rules that compel lawyers to conceal client secrets. The rules undermine public trust in the legal system, and overall transparency and cooperation in society. In extreme instances, the rules facilitate wrongful convictions of innocent third parties and other serious harms. In relation to the other ethical rules, the confidentiality rules are generally in tension with, or redundant of, other rules designed to protect clients and third parties. The Article concludes with specific normative proposals for revising the rules, or challenging the existing rules as a way to force reforms.
April 15, 2014 in Abstracts Highlights - Academic Articles on the Legal Profession, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, January 23, 2014
The Washington State Supreme Court has held that "an attorney hired by a corporate defendant to investigate or litigate an alleged negligent event may engage in privileged (ex parte) communications with the corporation's physician employee where the physician-employee has firsthand knowledge of the alleged negligent event and where the communications are limited to the facts of the alleged negligent event."
The ruling does not encompass health care provided before and after the event that resulted in litigation.
The court considered the application of the rule from a 1988 decision that barred ex parte communication between a doctor and his or her employer's attorney "where the employer is a corporation and named defendant whose corporate attorney-client privilege likely extends to the physician, at least as to certain subjects" and "balance[d] the values underlying the attorney-client privilege against those underlying the physician-patient privilege."
Justice Stephens concurred and dissented, finding the court's new rule an "unworkable" one that "erodes the sound policy decision" of the earlier case. (Mike Frisch)
Friday, December 20, 2013
Two attorneys who had represented opposing parties in civil litigation ended up in litigation against each other.
The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the case, noting that "[t]o characterize Farmer and Mixter's relationship as acrimonious might be the understatement of the year. This court is sadly too familiar with the antics of these litigants from a dispute a few years ago..."
After the earlier case settled, Farmer "was so infuriated by Mixter's behavior that he sought sanctions against him." Sanctions were imposed but reversed on appeal.
Farmer then sent twenty letters to various Maryland lawyers that alleged "unprofessional behavior" and sought information for a bar complaint. Mixter responded with a suit for defamation. Famer sent more letters to attorneys and filed a bar grievance against Mixter.
The court here affirmed the the dismissal of the Mixter suit against Farmer and a second attorney who allegedly conspired with him based on absolute judicial privilege grounds
Because [Attorney Grievance Commission] complaints are not published and lawyers' exposure is protected to a reasonable degree, we are unwilling to overlook the absolute privilege accorded to the AGC process simply because appellant feels aggrieved by the situation.
Monday, December 9, 2013
The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed an order holding that an attorney's file is subject to disclosure in a probate matter.
The attorney was consulted twice, but not retained, for estate planning of a deceased couple. One of the brothers claims that the other brother exercised undue influence on the parents
...because the Attorney's file is relevant to an issue between the parties who claim through the same deceased client, we hold that the trial court did not unsustainably exercvise its discretion in allowing the file to be disclosed to the parties under [rules of evidence].
The court also sustained disclosure of correspondence between the attorney and one of the brothers. (Mike Frisch)
Thursday, October 24, 2013
An e-mail from Kean University's head basketball coach to the University's general counsel is protected by the attorney-client privilege, according to a decision issued today by the New Jersey Appellate Division.
The plaintiff in the litigation is the former athletic director, who was terminated "supposedly for failure to properly supervise subordinates in the athletic program, which led to the University being sanctioned" by the NCAA.
He sued for wrongful termination.
The e-mail had been in connection with a fundraising letter to defray costs of a team summer trip to Spain.
The court majority noted that the trial court found the e-mail to be privileged but found waiver. The court here agreed on privilege and reversed on the waiver issue.
The coach had provided the e-mail to the NCAA. The court concluded that the University, not the coach, had authority to waive the privilege.
A dissent concludes that the e-mail was not sent for the purpose of securing legal advice and thus was not privileged.
NJ.com reported on the NCAA actions. (Mike Frisch)
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
A significant decision today by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The issue and holding:
The issue presented on appeal is whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm's in-house counsel concerning a malpractice claim asserted by a current client of the firm are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege. We conclude that they are, provided that (1) the law firm has designated an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house counsel, (2) the in-house counsel has not performed any work on the client matter at issue or a substantially related matter, (3) the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel is not billed to a client, and (4) the communications are made in confidence and kept confidential. Because these criteria were met in this case, we affirm the judge's order allowing the defendant law firm and its attorneys to invoke the attorney-client privilege to preserve the confidentiality of these communications.
The law firm was retained by a commercial lender to investigate title and foreclose on property secured by what the lender thought was a first mortgage. A third party claimed a superior interest in the property.
A year later, the client (through outside counsel) sent the law firm a draft complaint alleging malpractice and breach of contract.
The lawyers in the firm then consulted with the firm partner "designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues on behalf of [the firm]..."
The court underscored the importance of the ethics attorney function:
Where a law firm designates one or more attorneys to serve as its in-house counsel on ethical, regulatory, and risk management issues that are crucial to the firm's reputation and financial success, the attorney-client privilege serves the same purpose as it does for corporations or governmental entities: it guarantees the confidentiality necessary to ensure that the firm's partners, associates, and staff employees provide the information needed to obtain sound legal advice. See Hertzog, Calamari & Gleason v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 850 F.Supp. 255, 255 (S.D.N.Y.1994) ("No principled reason appears for denying ... attorney-client privilege to a law partnership which elects to use a partner or associate as counsel of record in a litigated matter"). "[B]road protection of communications with law firm in-house counsel, including communication about the representation of a current client of the firm, ... would encourage firm members to seek early advice about their duties to clients and to correct mistakes or lapses, if possible, to alleviate harm." Chambliss, supra at 1724. As the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently noted:
"[I]ndividual lawyers who come to the realization that they have made some error in pursuing their client's legal matters should be encouraged to seek advice promptly about how to correct the error, and to make full disclosure to the attorney from whom that advice is sought about what was done or not done, so that the advice may stand some chance of allowing the mistake to be rectified before the client is irreparably damaged. If such lawyers believe that these communications will eventually be revealed to the client in the context of a legal malpractice case, they will be much less likely to seek prompt advice from members of the same firm."
The court rejected a differing result when the situation involves a current, rather than former, client:
In law, as in architecture, form should follow function, and we prefer a formulation of the attorney-client privilege that encourages attorneys faced with the threat of legal action by a client to seek the legal advice of in-house ethics counsel before deciding whether they must withdraw from the representation to one that would encourage attorneys to withdraw or disclose a poorly understood potential conflict before seeking such advice. The "current client" exception is a flawed interpretation of the rules of professional conduct that yields a dysfunctional result. See N.Y. St. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Prof. Ethics, Op. 789 (2005) ("We do not believe that the conflicts rules ... were intended to prohibit ethics consultation when it is most helpful: during the client representation"). As such, we decline to adopt it in Massachusetts.
Briefs were submitted by several amicus curiae, including the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, the American Bar Association and the Attorneys' Liability Assurance Society, Inc.
The case is RFF Family Partnership, LP v. Burns & Levinson LLP. One should be able to access the decision through this link.
Law firm ethics counsel --every firm of sufficient size needs one. (Mike Frisch)