July 26, 2006
Sixth Circuit Rejects Government Taint Team to Review Subpoenaed Documents
In the usual case in which a grand jury issues a subpoena for documents, the recipient determines what is responsive and, if necessary, asserts any attorney-client privilege and work product protection claim by refusing to turn over the records. At that point, the ball is in the government's court to either challenge the claimed privilege or protection, or to assert the crime-fraud exception to undermine the claim. A recent decision by the Sixth Circuit in In re Grand Jury Subpoenas 04-124-03 and 04-124-5 (here) essentially follows that model when a third party held the documents and was willing to turn them over to the government despite a privilege claim by the target of the investigation.
The investigation concerns Venture Holdings and possible looting of the company by its former owner, Larry Winget, before it went into bankruptcy. As a result of the bankruptcy, new ownership took control of Venture (called "New Venture" in the opinion), and when a grand jury investigation began regarding questionable transactions at Venture, New Venture received a subpoena for documents that it was more than happy to comply with, including waiving any corporate attorney-client privilege. At this point, Winget stepped in and claimed that records held by New Venture included documents covered by his personal attorney-client privilege. The district court accepted the government's suggestion that a "taint team" made up of a prosecutor and investigator with no connection to the case -- behind the so-called "Chinese Wall" -- review the documents and determine which ones were subject to a privilege claim. Under the government's proposal, if the taint team determined that a document was not privileged, it would go straight to the personnel assigned to the grand jury investigation without a chance for Winget to challenge that decision, at least not until after disclosure of the document.
It was this step in the process that cause the Sixth Circuit to reject the taint team and instead permit the privilege claimant to make the initial determination on the privileged nature of the documents, as if the subpoena were served directly rather than on a cooperative the third party. The court expressed some hesitation about the fairness of the proposed government review, stating:
It is reasonable to presume that the government’s taint team might have a more restrictive view of privilege than appellants’ attorneys. But under the taint team procedure, appellants’ attorneys would have an opportunity to assert privilege only over those documents which the taint team has identified as being clearly or possibly privileged. As such, we do not see any check in the proposed taint team review procedure against the possibility that the government’s team might make some false negative conclusions, finding validly privileged documents to be otherwise; that is to say, we can find no check against Type II errors in the government’s proposed procedure. On the other hand, under the appellants’ proposal, which incidentally seems to follow a fairly conventional privilege review procedure employed by law firms in response to discovery requests, the government would still enjoy the opportunity to challenge any documents that appellants’ attorneys misidentify (via the commission of Type I errors) as privileged. We thus find that, under these circumstances, the possible damage to the appellants’ interest in protecting privilege exceeds the possible damage to the government’s interest in grand jury secrecy and exigency in this case. Therefore, we reverse the district court, and hold that the use of a government taint team is inappropriate in the present circumstances. Instead, we hold that the appellants themselves must be given an opportunity to conduct their own privilege review; of course, we can presently make no ruling with respect to the merits of any claimed privilege that may arise therefrom.
Government taint teams have been used primarily in law office search cases in which documents seized are within the government's control, and there has been quite a bit of controversy about them because the same incentives identified by the Sixth Circuit are present. While In re Grand Jury Subpoenas is a subpoena case, so the court is merely putting the privilege claimant in the same position he would have been in if the he received the subpoena directly, the court's rationale regarding taint teams could be applied to challenges to searches involving privileged documents. (ph)
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