Thursday, March 15, 2012

Privilege And Workers' Compensation

The Montana Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal from a district court order denying attorney-client privilege and work product claims in a workers' compensation matter.

The worker had suffered a serious injury. The employer's insurer (Zurich) accepted liability for the claim. When disagreements arose over the level of impairment and other issues, an outside attorney prepared an opinion and evaluation letter for Zurich in advance of a mediation. The opinion letter was given to the adjuster handling the claim, who provided it to the employer.

The district court found that the document was not protected from discovery.

The court here noted that "[t]he intersection of workers' compensation law and the attorney-client privilege presents a unique issue." The employer is not a party and is not at risk in the matter: "It is thus improper for an insurer and an employer to collaborate on settlement of a worker's claim for benefits."

The court held that the common interests of insurer and employer were "not sufficient to extend the [attorney-client] privilege beyond the attorney-client relationship." Further, the disclosure of the letter to the employer was not for the purpose of seeking legal advice.

Justice Rice dissented and would hold that there is a sufficient "community of interest" between employer and insurer to reverse the district court's privilege detrmination.

The link is not working. The case is American Zurich Insurance v. Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court. (Mike Frisch)

March 15, 2012 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

CFPB Claims to Pierce Privilege in Discovering Confidential Bank and Financial Records

In a harrowing story--or just more of the same, in the recent attempted onslaught by regulatory agencies on attorney-client and work-product privilege--the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued Bulletin 12-01 on January 4, 2012, to clarify its role in the production of records from banks and other financial institutions as part of CFPB oversight. The discovery power is claimed to include privileged documents. Although CFPB then proposes to keep the documents confidential, the bulletin is upfront that the bureau may have to share those documents outside its agency, including release to state attorneys general and other agencies, as needed. Fuller story here, at the Payment Law Advisor blog.

Although the bulletin assures readers that the agency intends to use non-privileged sources when it can, it really does not effectively assure them that any production of privileged documents would not constitute a general waiver to plaintiffs' attorneys and others. Of course, it does claim that discovery to themselves is not waiver to all--but that view may be problematic, at least arguably so, in that the specific congressional authorization for such a power (or such a protection) is not so easily found for the CFPB as it is for other regulatory agencies. Says the PLA blog:

The Bureau’s conclusion was based largely on provisions of the Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act of 2006, which applies to the federal banking agencies (the OCC, Federal Reserve, FDIC, and formerly, the OTS), allowing the agencies to receive privileged documents from supervised entities without effectuating a waiver of privilege. But the statute does not expressly apply to the CFPB, leaving the Bureau’s position on privilege questionable. The CFPB asserts that Congress intended it to be treated as a prudential regulatory agency with respect to waiver; but, its position has yet to be challenged in court.

To me, the lack of clear congressional authorization to add a layer of waiver protection on the discovery may be either harrowing news, as it could basically end the concept of attorney-client privilege in financial representations. Or it could be the trojan pony (I name him Tarpy, but his preppy barn friends call him Chase) that would make a court stop the initial grab of documents by the agency. I am not sure a court wants to allow an agency to end the centuries-old concept of privilege and the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship by a post-holiday bulletin (well, OK, by previous adminstrative regulations that a bulletin clarifies). More generally, we ethics writers and teachers have to seriously consider not just the usual buried-body and Upjohny cases on privilege but also the phenomenon that administrative agencies increasingly just don't believe in privilege anymore: they purport to act like a judge (just show me the documents in chambers; we're cool) then suggest they may have to show them to the Rhode Island and Hawaii attorneys general, but without a judicial finding that they were not privileged in the first place. You waived because you complied with a discovery demand, any decent opposing attorney would think.

[Alan Childress]

January 18, 2012 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Privilege Trumps Public Records Act Discovery Claim

From the web page of the Ohio Supreme Court:

In a 7-0 decision announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio declined to issue a writ of mandamus compelling a school district to provide copies of requested documents to a parent involved in a lawsuit against the district. The Court based its ruling on a finding that the requested documents were subject to the attorney-client privilege between the district and its lawyers, and therefore were not subject to disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

Angela Dawson, the mother of two students enrolled in the Bloom-Carroll Local School District who was pursuing a lawsuit against the district, submitted public records requests demanding that the district provide her with copies of 1) detailed invoices sent to the district by a law firm it had retained to defend against Dawson’s suit; and 2) copies of all correspondence the district had received from its insurance carrier appointing Janet Cooper as the district’s insurance attorney and describing the liability and exposure of the district and the insurance company related to the claims asserted in Dawson’s lawsuit.

The district provided Dawson with summaries of the law firm invoices noting the attorney’s name, the invoice total and the matter involved, but refused to provide copies of the detailed monthly billing statements that described the specific work performed, legal issues that were researched, and detailed communications among the attorneys,  the district and its insurer. The district also refused to provide Dawson with a letter that the insurance company’s claims analyst had sent to the district and its attorneys regarding Dawson’s lawsuit, on the ground that the information it contained was privileged.

Dawson filed suit in the Supreme Court seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the district to disclose the requested documents.  After an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute through mediation, the Court issued an alternative writ directing the parties to submit evidence and written briefs, and ordered the district to provide copies of the disputed documents to the Court for in-camera inspection.

In today’s per curiam opinion denying the requested writ, the Court wrote: “R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v) exempts ‘[r]ecords the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law’ from the definition of ‘public record.’ ...  In Ohio, the attorney-client privilege is governed both by statute, R.C. 2317.02(A), which provides a testimonial privilege, and by common law, which broadly protects against any dissemination of information obtained in the confidential attorney-client relationship.”

“ ... The school district refused to make the requested itemized attorney-billing statements available to Dawson because the statements contained detailed descriptions of work performed by the district’s attorneys, statements concerning their communications to each other and insurance counsel, and the issues they researched.  The withheld records are either covered by the attorney-client privilege or so inextricably intertwined with the privileged materials as to also be exempt from disclosure. Therefore, the school district properly responded to Dawson’s request for itemized invoices of law firms providing legal services to the district in matters involving Dawson and her children by providing her with summaries of the invoices including the attorney’s name, the fee total, and the general matter involved.  No further access to the detailed narratives contained in the itemized billing statements was warranted.”

“The February 9, 2010 letter from the school district’s insurance company to the district identifying Janet Cooper as the district’s attorney in Dawson’s due-process lawsuit against the district is also protected by the attorney-client privilege. The letter, which was addressed to the district and copied to the insurance counsel who would represent the district, evaluates Dawson’s claim and the extent to which the claim might be covered by the district’s insurance policy and instructs the district to cooperate with the insurance company and the attorney selected by the company to represent the school district to preserve its insurance coverage. In effect, the insurance company stands in the shoes of the district, and its letter naming Cooper as the district’s attorney in Dawson’s due-process lawsuit is covered by the attorney-client privilege.”

The Court’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Robert R. Cupp and Yvette McGee Brown.  Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concurred in judgment only.

The court's opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)

November 29, 2011 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Privilege In Bad Faith Claim Against Insurer

Answering a question certified from the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the Florida Supreme Court has held that the attorney-client privilege prevents discovery of privileged communications between an insurer-defendant and its counsel when an insured party brings a claim of bad faith against the insurer. The court had previously held that the work product doctrine did not preclude discovery in such actions.

The court further held the privilege may not apply when the insurer retains counsel to both investigate the underlying claim and render legal advice:

Where a claim of privilege is asserted, the trial court should conduct an in-camera inspection to determine whether the sought-after materials are truly protected by the attorney-client privilege. If the trial court determines that the investigation performed by the attorney resulted in the preparation of materials that are required to be disclosed pursuant to [the prior decision] and did not involve the rendering of legal advice, then that material is discoverable.

(Mike Frisch)

November 10, 2011 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Privilege Assertion Leads To Reversal Of Conviction

A criminal conviction has been reversed by the Maryland Court of Appeals because the trial court permitted an attorney for the defendant to testify in the prosecution's case-in-chief about the "surrounding facts and circumstances" of the representation.

The court held:

Upon a showing that an attorney and a client communicated in a professional capacity, the
attorney-client privilege is invoked, and, pursuant to Maryland Rule 5-104, a trial judge must
perform a preliminary inquiry into the surrounding facts and circumstances of the
representation and determine the nature and scope of privileged communication, the State’s
intended use of the allegedly privileged communication, as well as the extent of any waiver.

The case involved allegations that a husband had stolen from his wife. The attorney had prepared a deed (at issue in the trial) and had asserted that he represented both husband and wife.

The Washington Post had these details on the criminal allegations. The Post reports that the alleged victim was an 83 year old widow who married the 66 year old defendant.

 A guardian was appointed for the widow. He sought to void a deed and invalidate a will drawn by the lawyer-witness. The guardian also sought and obtained annullment of the marriage. The defendant's attorney had testified in the annulment proceeding, which the trial court viewed as a waiver of the privilege.

On a personal note, the Parkway Deli (the scene of the alleged crime, according to the Post) is the deli I grew up with. The food is still great.  (Mike Frisch)

August 17, 2011 in Clients, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Application For Appointed Counsel Is Privileged

The New Jersey Appellate Division has held that a defendant's application for appointed counsel and the "factual materials submitted in support of that application are protected b y the attorney-client privilege. The privilege may properly be invoked where the materials "may contain information the State could use against [the defendant] in the prosecution of the charges for which he sought representation..."

The defendant was one of 34 persons indicted for racketeering. The court indicated that it might consider enforcing a more narrowly-drawn subpoena. (Mike Frisch)

May 31, 2011 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ineffective Assistance When Client Wants To Withdraw Plea

The New Jersey Appellate Division has held that a defense attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel by undercutting the defendant's efforts to withdraw a previously offered guilty plea: the present case the trial judge placed great reliance on his searching inquiry at the time that  the plea was entered, and upon defendant's unequivocal responses. But here, the judge's determination was also undoubtedly colored by defense counsel's statements completely undercutting defendant's claims of innocence and was explicitly colored by defendant's
statement in his letter to counsel regarding his potential willingness to accept a lower plea.

The case was remanded to consider the motion to withdraw the guilty plea with new defense counsel and a new judge. (Mike Frisch)

May 8, 2011 in Clients, Current Affairs, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Privilege And Girl Scouts

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held that the attorney-client privilege did not prohibit disclosure of otherwise confidential information from counsel to an entity client to an entity created by a merger. The facts:

The defendant/appellant Marilyn Barringer-Thomson (Attorney) is an attorney who represented Girl Scouts-Sooner Council, Inc. (Sooner) on employee severance and other matters related to employees of Sooner. Subsequently, Sooner merged with Girl Scouts-Red Lands Council, Inc. (Red Lands) and the surviving corporation is the plaintiff/appellee, Girl Scouts-Western Oklahoma, Inc. (Western). Western filed a replevin action to obtain all Sooner files and documents, including confidential employee severance agreements, in the possession of Attorney and now owned by Western as a result of the merger. The petition recited that the documents sought contained details of agreements between Sooner and its former employees for which Western is now responsible as Sooner's successor in interest. Attorney objected, claiming attorney-client privilege and attorney work product. Western asserted that the attorney-client privilege transferred to it as a result of the merger. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment and the trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Western. Attorney appealed and we granted her motion to retain the case.  

The court concluded:

 The attorney-client privilege belongs to the client and not to the lawyer, and it may be waived only by the client...if the client is a corporation, the privilege may be claimed by the successor, trustee, or similar representative.This is in accord with Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Weintraub, 471 U.S. 343,348-49, 105 S.Ct. 1986, 1991, 85 L.Ed.2d 372 (1985). There, the Supreme Court stated that the power of a solvent corporation to waive the corporate attorney-client privilege rests with the corporation's management and is normally exercised by its officers and directors. When control of a corporation passes to new management, the authority to assert and waive the corporation's attorney-client privilege passes as well. New managers installed as a result of a merger, or simply normal succession, may waive the attorney-client privilege with respect to communications made by former officers and directors. The displaced managers may not assert the privilege over the wishes of current management. Weintraub held that the trustee in bankruptcy of an insolvent corporation had the power to waive the corporation's attorney-client privilege for pre-bankruptcy communications.

To the same effect is Tekni-Plex, Inc. v. Meyer and Landis, 674 N.E.2d 663 (NY 1996). Tekni-Plex merged into TP Acquisitions, which became the surviving corporation. The merger agreement conveyed all of the assets, rights and liabilities of Tekni-Plex. The merger agreement contained warranties by Tang, the owner of Tekni-Plex, that Tekni-Plex was in full environmental compliance, and Tang indemnified TP against loss as a result of breach of the warranties. TP Acquisition later renamed itself Tekni-Plex, Inc. (new Tekni-Plex). New Tekni-Plex obtained arbitration against Tang for breach of warranties of environmental compliance. The law firm representing Tang in the arbitration had represented Tekni-Plex and Tang on environmental compliance matters and also represented them in the merger transaction. New Tekni-Plex moved to disqualify law firm and, among other things, sought an order directing law firm to return to new Tekni-Plex all of the files in the law firm's possession concerning its prior legal representation of Tekni-Plex.

The New York Court of Appeals held that where the successor corporation continued the business operations of the pre-merger entity, ownership of the law firm's files regarding its pre-merger representation on environmental issues passed to the successor, as did control of the attorney-client privilege attached thereto. Thus, ownership of the law firm's files regarding its pre-merger representation of Tekni-Plex on environmental compliance matters passed to the management of new Tekni-Plex. The court held that the privilege did not pass on files regarding the merger transactions because the arbitration arose from representations made in the merger agreement.

 The court concluded that it was necessary for new Tekni-Plex to have the right to invoke the pre-merger attorney-client relationship if it should have to prosecute or defend against third-party suits involving the assets, rights or liabilities that it assumed from Tekni-Plex.

We find the reasoning in Weintraub and Tekni-Plex persuasive. Tekni-Plex holds that where the successor corporation carries on the business and assumes managerial responsibilities, ownership of a lawyer's files regarding its pre-merger representation of a corporation passes to the management of the successor corporation. In the present matter, plaintiff's evidentiary materials show that the business of both Sooner and Red Lands is being continued by Western. Western has assumed Sooner's rights and liabilities and may have to prosecute or defend third-party suits involving those rights and liabilities. Attorney did not represent Sooner in the merger transaction and the materials sought from attorney are not materials regarding the merger transaction itself.

 Sooner did not exempt or exclude confidential or any other materials from the merger agreement; it adopted a merger agreement that transferred all assets, properties and privileges to the surviving corporation. Ownership of Sooner's assets, as well as its attorney-client privilege, has now transferred to Western by operation of law as a result of the merger. To allow Attorney to assert Sooner's attorney-client post-merger would be in derogation of the merger agreement transferring ownership to Western.

(Mike Frisch)

March 30, 2011 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Old Law Still Good Law

A recent opinion from the Legal Ethics Committee of the D.C.Bar is summarized below:

D.C. Legal Ethics Opinion 31 (1977) concluded that it was a violation of the former Code of Professional Responsibility for a congressional staff lawyer to require a witness to appear before a congressional committee when the committee has been informed that the witness will invoke the self-incrimination privilege as to all substantive questions “and the sole effect of the summons will be to pillory the witness.” The committee declines a request to vacate Opinion 31 but notes that under the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, as under the former Code of Professional Responsibility, a violation occurs only where the summons serves no substantial purpose “other than to embarrass, delay, or burden” the witness.

A final footnote:

We express no opinion on the propriety of a witness invoking an opinion of this committee as a basis for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena.

As you might imagine, there is no District of Columbia case imposing discipline for such a violation. Good luck proving that the "sole effect...will be to pillory the witness." (Mike Frisch)

February 9, 2011 in Current Affairs, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Public Defender Contempt Reversed; Prosecution Lacked Imagination

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed a finding of criminal contempt against a county chief public defender who had refused to testify in response to the prosecutor's subpoena.

 The public defender had represented a defendant in a first degree murder case. A client represented by the public defender's office in an unrelated case was incarcerated with the defendant. That client advised a public defender attorney of an intent to commit perjury at defendant's trial. The public defender advised the court of this (but did not identify the potential perjurer) and was granted leave to withdraw.

The prosecutor then dropped the charges. When charges were refiled, the prosecutor issued a subpoena to the public defender seeking to compel the disclosure of the other client's identity. There were seven public defender clients who were locked up with the defendant.

The court applied the Kansas Rule of Professional Conduct 3.8(e) governing subpoenas to defense counsel and held that the withdrawing public defender's

summary of her former client's expression of an intention to commit the only evidence, and merely reed-thin circumstantial evidence, that the former client sought legal services from the public defender's office "in order to enable or aid the commission or planning of a crime or tort."

The summary did not waive the attorney-client privilege. Indeed, the public defender admitted that she had made disclosures in violation of the duty of confidentiality. The court held that the record failed to establish that the prosecution had no feasible alternative to obtain the information sought from defense counsel:

Although [the detective who testified at the contempt hearing] said he believed that there were no other possible avenues of investigation, as oral argument to this court demonstrated, it would have taken little time and less imagination to discern other directions and strategies more likely to lead to helpful information. Unless these directions and strategies were implemented and failed, the State did not demonstrate that there were no feasible alternatives other than to coerce [the public defender's] testimony.  

(Mike Frisch)

June 21, 2010 in Clients, Privilege, Professional Responsibility | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Advice From National Organization Covered By Privilege

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.

(Mike Frisch)

April 13, 2010 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Consultant Documents Are Privileged

The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department held that a trial court had properly found that documents prepared by a consultant who had been working with counsel since the inception of litigation were protected by privilege:

Defendants responded to plaintiffs' discovery demands by providing a supplemental privilege log identifying each of the documents withheld on the grounds they were privileged as work performed by its counsel's consultant from the inception of and during the course of a prior action in Arizona arising out of the same facts. The motion court conducted an in camera review of the withheld documents and concluded that they were protected by the attorney-client privilege.

There is no basis to disturb the motion court's ruling that the documents are subject to the attorney-client privilege. The privilege extends to communications of "one serving as an agent of either attorney or client", and here, the documents were generated by defense counsel's consultant retained to assist in handling forensic accounting in relation to the Arizona matter. Furthermore, the documents are subject to the attorney work product privilege. Such privilege extends to experts retained as consultants to assist in analyzing or preparing the case, "as adjunct to the lawyer's strategic thought processes, thus qualifying for complete exemption from disclosure" (citations omitted)

We have considered plaintiffs' remaining contentions, including that defendants waived the ability to assert that the documents were privileged, and find them unavailing.

April 12, 2010 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Scrambled Eggs And Malpractice

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently held that a trial court order that denied a motion to quash a subpoena on grounds of attorney-client privilege was not subject to an immediate appeal. One law firm had represented a divorcing wife and had secured the divorce. One aspect of the divorce obligated the husband to continue to designate the ex-wife client as a beneficiary of an insurance policy. He did not. A second lawyer assumed responsibility for the insurance issue, which resulted in a settlement.

The first law firm sued the client for unpaid legal fees. The former client countersued for legal malpractice based on the contention that the first firm had failed to notify the insurer of the provision that obligated the ex-husband to continue her as the beneficiary. The first firm claimed that the loss was attributable to the improvident decision to settle by the client and the second attorney.

The law firm sought to depose the second lawyer. The motion to quash asserted attorney-client privilege. The trial court denied the motion to quash on grounds of waiver of the privilege.

The court here concluded that the trial court order could not be appealed at this juncture. The trial judge's ruling did not conclusively resolve any issue and can be reviewed if any appeal is taken. Further, the advice given to the client by the second attorney is central to the disputed issues in the litigation. As the court observes: "The eggs cannot be unscrambled." (Mike Frisch)

March 2, 2010 in Clients, Law Firms, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Defense Attorney Wears a Wire and Meets with Clients. Fed Prosecutor Apparently Wired Him.

Posted by Alan Childress

Wow.  I missed this harrowing story a few weeks ago, out of Nebraska, but -- thanks to my ethics student Jeff Malfatti -- here it is (in a newsy and interesting article by Todd Cooper of the Omaha World-Herald). It is called Lawyer goes into hiding and is well worth a look.  A peek at it:

In measured words, the Omaha attorney confides that he is in hiding after he wore a wire to help the U.S. government indict inmate Shannon E. Williams and 10 others in a massive marijuana conspiracy.

I realize I could lose my law license over this, his friends have recalled him saying in recent weeks. But, please, don't jump to conclusions. Williams talked about committing crimes, about eliminating witnesses. I had to do something.

And that's it. Just as quickly as he tantalizes former colleagues, he shuts down — saying federal prosecutors have asked him not to talk about why he chose to risk his legal career, even his life, by taking on the marijuana ring and its alleged kingpin.

In a case that will hinge in large part on Haddock's credibility, here's what Haddock doesn't always divulge: His involvement in the federal investigation came after a yearlong stretch in which his personal and professional lives began to circle the drain.

A pretty strong reply by defense attorney Bobby Frederick in his blog -- "this scenario reeks."  And he asks the $64M question:  "The lawyer who participates in this ... probably is facing legal troubles of his own and could care less if he is disbarred for what he has done. But what about the prosecutor who set it up or who uses the evidence after the police have set it up?"

The lawyer's firm lists him as a banking and bankruptcy lawyer.

January 27, 2010 in Ethics, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ALI-ABA Offers Legal Ethics CLE via Web or Phone on Jan. 20, 2010

It's next Wednesday (January 20) at 1:00-2:00 eastern, and presented by two leading writers on law practice and ethics, Daniel Capra and Gregory Joseph.  The subject is attorney-client and work-product privilege and new Rule 502 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Link here.  [Alan Childress]

January 13, 2010 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 28, 2009

No Details Required

An attorney appointed to represent a client in a post-conviction proceeding may withdraw from the matter based on her assertion that continued representation would involve violation of disciplinary rules without filing an Anders-type pleading that details the problem, according to a 3-2 majority opinion of the Vermont Supreme Court. The motion to withdraw had cited rules relating to frivolous claims ans candor to the court. The court holds:

An Anders-type explanation justifying counsel’s withdrawal is not required in the PCR context.  The withdrawal prerequisites called for in Anders are designed to vindicate a defendant’s constitutional right to counsel, 386 U.S. at 744, and, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, a petitioner has no constitutional right to counsel in civil PCR proceedings.  See Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 555 (1987) (rejecting notion that prisoners have a constitutional right to counsel when mounting collateral attacks upon their convictions).  Absent an underlying constitutional right to counsel in state post-conviction proceedings, there is “no constitutional right to insist on the Anders procedures which were designed solely to protect that underlying constitutional right.”  Id. (“Anders established a prophylactic framework that is relevant when, and only when, a litigant has a previously established constitutional right to counsel.”); see also People v. Breaman, 939 P.2d 1348, 1351 n.2 (Colo. 1997) (en banc) (citing FinleyAnders brief). 

Rather than being grounded in the constitution, petitioner’s right to counsel is created, defined, and limited by statute.  See In re Gould, 2004 VT 46, ¶ 13, 177 Vt. 7, 852 A.2d 632 (noting that Public Defender Act sets forth statutory right to counsel in PCR proceedings even though providing such assistance is not constitutionally compelled).  Before 2004, the PDA guaranteed an indigent litigant the right to representation in any post-conviction proceeding “that . . . the needy person considers appropriate.”  13 V.S.A. § 5233(a)(3) (1998) (enacted 1971, No. 161 (Adj. Sess.), § 6).  In light of this language, we held that the state was obligated to provide PCR counsel upon the litigant’s request, regardless of the merit of the claims raised in the PCR or the fact that representation was not constitutionally compelled.  Gould, 2004 VT 46, ¶ 13.

There are two dissents. From Associate Justice Johnson:

To provide petitioner with competent and effective assistance of counsel and to preserve this Court’s role as protector of his right to counsel, this Court should deny counsel’s motion to withdraw and require her to file a brief on petitioner’s behalf.  Neither the majority’s solution of rubber-stamping the attorney’s conclusion that the case lacks merit, nor Justice Dooley’s suggestion to require an Anders-type affidavit from counsel adequately resolves the conflict between indigent petitioner’s need for effective and zealous representation and counsel’s own professional obligation to refrain from bringing frivolous cases.  While I concur with the majority’s conclusion that an Anders-like procedure is not constitutionally required or particularly effective in protecting an indigent litigant’s rights, I cannot agree with the majority’s holding that assigned counsel may withdraw at any point in the course of representation based solely on counsel’s own, unreviewable conclusion that the case is not warranted by existing law or nonfrivolous argument.  The grave consequences of a post-conviction proceeding and the critical requirement of robust representation at this proceeding require more.  To solve this problem, I would instead require counsel, once appointed, to remain in the case and to advance her client’s claims notwithstanding that she deems them to be without merit.  Because I would deny counsel’s motion to withdraw, I dissent.

(Mike Frisch)

December 28, 2009 in Clients, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Balance Of Interests Favors Access To Documents

The Iowa Supreme Court has affirmed a district court decision to grant a motion to intervene and access to discovery in a case in which Canadian plaintiffs sought documents and data produced by Microsoft in the state court litigation. The court engaged in an extensive discussion of the balancing of interests and concludes:

Microsoft's important interest in confidentiality of the documents and data  is preserved because the Canadian plaintiffs are bound by the terms of the [trial court's] protective order.

(Mike Frisch)

November 20, 2009 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Privilege Upheld

A worker injured in a fall from a scissor lift retained a law firm to sue K-Mart, where the incident had taken place. The claims were lost in K-Mart's bankruptcy,allegedly due to the failure of the law firm to properly preserve them. The injured worker then retained new counsel and proceeded against the lessor of the scissor lift on theories of product liability and negligence. The case was settled on the eve of trial for $235.000. A lawsuit alleging malpractice by the first firm was then filed.

At the deposition of the client, questions were asked about communications between the client and the second firm concerning the settlement of the claims against the lessor. The defendant law firm appealed the trial court's determination that the communications were protected by the attorney-client privilege.

The trial court's holding was affirmed by the New York Appellate Division for the Third Judicial Department. Citing a similar prior case that had upheld the privilege claim, the court concluded:

We are unpersuaded that the presence of a settlement less than the full amount of insurance, or any of the other circumstances asserted by defendants, compels a contrary conclusion in this case.

(Mike Frisch)

November 12, 2009 in Clients, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Not Privileged But Work Product In Part

The Iowa Supreme Court considered the application of attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine to an interview conducted by defense counsel in a medical malpractice action. Counsel represented a defendant doctor and his entity employer. The defendant doctor had referred the plaintiff to another doctor (not a defendant) in the same group, who in turn referred the plaintiff to a third doctor. Defense counsel violated an Iowa statute by conducting an interview of the second doctor without notice to plaintiff's counsel, who had a statutory right to sit in on the interview of his client's treating physician. Defense counsel made a memo of the interview. When plaintiff's counsel learned of the interview and memo, a motion to compel production was filed.

Here, the court held that the attorney-client privilege did not apply notwithstanding counsel's claim to have also represented the second doctor. Such representation might run afoul of conflicts rules. However, the work product would protect from disclosure defense counsel's mental impressions but not the views of the second doctor as a treating physician and witness. The court remanded to the trial court to order disclosure of the potions of the memo that are not work product. (Mike Frisch)

October 30, 2009 in Bar Discipline & Process, Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Joint Defense Agreement Does Create Attorney-Client Relationship

A recent ethics opinion from the Legal Ethics Committee of the District of Columbia Bar:

Joint defense agreements do not create “former client” conflicts under Rule 1.9 because members of a joint defense group do not become the lawyer’s “clients” by virtue of such agreements. However, a lawyer who participates in a joint defense agreement may acquire contractual and fiduciary obligations to the members of the joint defense group who were not the lawyer’s clients. Such obligations can give rise to a personally disqualifying conflict under Rule 1.7(b)(4) to the extent that they materially limit the lawyer’s ability to prosecute or defend a substantially related matter adverse to a joint defense group member.

Under Rule 1.10(a)(1), such conflicts are not automatically imputed to other lawyers in the lawyer’s firm. If the lawyer has moved to a new firm since handling the joint defense group matter, other lawyers at the new firm could undertake a substantially related matter adverse to a joint defense group member, provided that the personally disqualified lawyer is timely screened from the new representation. The analysis is more difficult if the lawyer has remained at the same firm. If that firm wishes to undertake a related matter adverse to a member of the joint defense group, the firm must consider: (i) whether the entire firm is bound by a joint defense agreement that one of its lawyers signed while affiliated with the firm; and (ii) if not, whether the lawyers who would be handling the new matter might have been exposed to confidential information from the joint defense group matter while that matter was being handled by others in the same firm.

(Mike Frisch)

October 6, 2009 in Privilege | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)