Friday, July 25, 2014
In re Kellogg Brown & Root – Privilege, Internal Investigations, and International White Collar Crime – Part II of II
In last week’s post, I discussed the recent case of In re Kellogg Brown & Root (“KBR”) from the perspective of privilege issues and internal investigations generally. Today, I would like to focus our consideration of the KBR case on international investigations and privilege issues.
In the KBR matter, a whistleblower alleged that the defense contractor defrauded the government by “inflating costs and accepting kickbacks while administering military contract in wartime Iraq.” During the whistleblower’s case, he sought discovery of materials from an internal investigation of the matter previously conducted by KBR. As discussed last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the whistleblower was not entitled to the materials, stating that the “same considerations that led the Court in Upjohn to uphold the corporation’s privilege claims apply here.”
In rendering its opinion, the DC Circuit offered several important clarifications regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations. One of those was to note that Upjohn v. US (1981) does not require the involvement of outside counsel for the privilege to apply.
From In re KBR:
First, the District Court stated that in Upjohn the internal investigation began after in-house counsel conferred with outside counsel, whereas here the investigation was conducted in-house without consultation with outside lawyers. But Upjohn does not hold or imply that the involvement of outside counsel is a necessary predicate for the privilege to apply. On the contrary, the general rule, which this Court has adopted, is that a lawyer’s status as in-house counsel “does not dilute the privilege.” In re Sealed Case, 737 F.2d at 99. As the Restatement’s commentary points out, “Inside legal counsel to a corporation or similar organization . . . is fully empowered to engage in privileged communications.” 1 RESTATEMENT § 72, cmt. c, at 551.
While this is accurate with regard to domestic internal investigations, one must be cognizant of the fact that various jurisdictions around the globe interpret the privilege differently. When an internal investigation crosses borders, a failure to examine the breadth and scope of attorney-client privilege protections in the relevant jurisdictions could unexpectedly expose vast quantities of materials to production or seizure.
Take for example, the case of Akzo Nobel Chemicals Ltd. v. European Commission (European Court of Justice 2010). The case involved an antitrust investigation during which a dawn raid was carried out on Akzo’s Manchester, England, offices. During the raid, two emails were seized. The emails were an exchange regarding relevant antitrust issues between a general manager and the company’s in-house counsel. Despite the fact that such communications would almost certainly be privileged under U.S. standards and the ruling in In re KBR, the European Court of Justice rejected Akzo’s position that the emails were protected under the EU rules of privilege. Relying on an earlier ruling, the European Court of Justice reiterated that in EU investigations the attorney-client privilege only applies where (1) the communication is given for purposes of the client’s defense and, (2) the communication is with an independent lawyer, which does not including in-house counsel. See AM&S v. Commission (European Court of Justice 1982). The Akzo court went on to state, “It follows, both from the in-house lawyer’s economic dependence and the close ties with his employer, that he does not enjoy a level of professional independence comparable to that of an external lawyer.”
While such a limited application of the attorney-client privilege will not be present in every jurisdiction encountered during an international internal investigation, it is an important issue to consider both when structuring and conducting such inquiries in a cross-border setting.
For more on the dynamics of international internal investigations, see my recent article entitled International White Collar Crime and the Globalization of Internal Investigations (Fordham Urban Law Journal), available for free download here.