Sunday, August 31, 2014
The New York Times had an interesting article this week by Steven Davidoff Solomon entitled “Keeping Corporate Lawyers Silent Can Shelter Wrongdoing.” The piece centers on the recent decision out of the Delaware Supreme Court in the case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW,Del. Supr., No. 614, 2013 (July 23, 2014), and notes that the attorney-client privilege can be used to “shelter potential wrongdoing, perhaps to the detriment of many people, including shareholders.” As discussed at length in the article, the IBEW case permits stockholders to unilaterally breach the attorney-client privilege when there is suspected wrongdoing at a corporation.
The IBEW case is one many have followed in recent years. The controversy began after the New York Times broke the story of potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations by Mar-Mart in April 2012. In response to that initial article, the IBEW, a Wal-Mart stockholder, sent a letter to the company demanding inspection of a number of documents related to the potential FCPA matter, including documents regarding the corporation’s initial internal review of the situation. Wal-Mart declined to provide certain of the documents and, with regard to some of those materials, claimed they were protected by the attorney-client privilege. The issue of whether Wal-Mart could properly withhold these materials from shareholders was litigated at length and finally made its way to the Delaware Supreme Court. In the ruling from last month, the Delaware Supreme Court sided with the IBEW and ordered Wal-Mart to produce the materials. Referring to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case of Garner v. Wolfinbarger (1970), which recognized a fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, the court in IBEW said:
With regard to the other Garner good cause factors, the record reflects that disclosure of the material would not risk the revelation of trade secrets (at least it has not been argued by Wal-Mart); the allegations at issue implicate criminal conduct under the FCPA; and IBEW is a legitimate stockholder as a pension fund. Accordingly, the record supports the Court of Chancery's conclusion that the documentary information sought in the Demand should be produced by Wal-Mart pursuant to the Garner fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege.
It is important to note, of course, that the shareholders are meant to keep the information they receive confidential and use it only to decide whether to file a claim against Wal-Mart directors related to the FCPA matter.
In reading the most recent New York Times article, I kept coming back to Upjohn v. United States and the ever present debate regarding the proper role of privilege in the world of internal investigations and potential corporate wrongdoing. In particular, I was drawn to the important language in Upjohn regarding the reasons for applying the privilege: “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.” As the New York Times states in its piece from this week, “the attorney-client privilege for companies is increasingly under attack.” I wonder now what impact the IBEW decision and related issues regarding lawyer whistleblowers, such as in the ongoing Vanguard case, will have on the future of internal investigation strategy and, in particular, the role of internal counsel in such situations.