Friday, July 18, 2014
In re Kellogg Brown & Root – Privilege, Internal Investigations, and International White Collar Crime – Part I of II
I am honored to join Ellen Podgor, Lawrence Goldman, and Solomon Wisenberg as a blogger on the White Collar Crime Prof Blog. My focus on the blog will be matters related to internal investigations and international white collar crime.
To get us started, let’s take a quick look at a new case that relates to both of these topics – In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al.
As readers of this blog will no doubt recall, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1981 that attorney-client privilege protections may apply to internal corporation investigations. See Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981). The Court stated:
The attorney-client privilege is the oldest of the privileges for confidential communications known to the common law. Its purpose is to encourage full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients, and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice. The privilege recognizes that sound legal advice or advocacy serves public ends and that such advice or advocacy depends upon the lawyers being fully informed by the client.
Despite the strong language in the Upjohn case, a U.S. District Court in Washington, DC ruled that a whistleblower at Kellogg Brown & Root (“KBR”), a defense contractor, was entitled to production of documents related to an internal investigation. The lower court concluded that the internal investigation was “undertaken pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overruled that lower court decision in the case of In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al. (Decided June 27, 2014). The court concluded that the “same considerations that led the Court in Upjohn to uphold the corporation’s privilege claims apply here.”
In overruling the lower court’s decision, the DC Circuit offered several important clarifications regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations. First, the court clarified that Upjohn does not require the involvement of outside counsel for the privilege to apply. Second, the court noted that the privilege may apply even when many of the employee interviews are conducted by non-attorneys, as long as those interviewers are serving as the agents of attorneys. Third, the court explained that even though the employees in the KBR case were not explicitly informed that the purpose of the interviews were to assist the company in obtaining legal advice, Upjohn does not require any “magic words” for the privilege to apply. Further, the court noted that the employees in the KBR case knew that the company’s legal department was conducting an investigation and that the investigation was highly confidential.
Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, the court rejected the lower court’s argument that the attorney-client privilege did not apply in this investigation because KBR was acting to comply with Department of Defense regulatory requirements, not to obtain legal advice. In ruling on the matter, the appeals court stated, “So long as obtaining or providing legal advice was one of the significant purposes of the internal investigation, the attorney-client privilege applies, even if there were also other purposes for the investigation and even if the investigation was mandated by regulation rather than simply an exercise of company discretion.” This is important language from the court, particularly given the increasing regulatory compliance obligations imposed on corporations and the fact that many internal investigations today are instigated at the behest of the government. See e.g. Computer Associates – discussed here and here.
In my next post, we’ll consider how the In re: KBR case fits into the larger legal framework of international internal investigations. In particular, we’ll examine whether attorney-client privilege extends to internal investigations undertaken solely by internal counsel when the investigation extends outside the United States.