Emails, In-House Counsel, and Privilege–A Tricky Mix

A decision from a Florida federal court, applying Florida privilege law, provides excellent guidance for in-house emails and attorney-client privilegecounsel seeking to maintain the attorney-client privilege over email exchanges with company employees.  In Affordable Bio Feedstock, Inc. v. Darling Int’l, Inc., 2012 WL 5845007 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 19, 2012), available here, the court outlined the criteria that an in-house lawyer must show to obtain coverage of the corporate attorney-client privilege:

  1. She would not have made the communication but for the contemplation of legal services;
  2. The employee making the communication did so at the direction of his or her corporate superior;
  3. The superior made the request of the employee as part of the corporation’s effort to secure legal advice or services;
  4. The content of the communication relates to the legal services being rendered, and the subject matter of the communication is within the scope of the employee’s duties;
  5. The communication is not disseminated beyond those persons who, because of the corporate structure, need to know its contents.

These elements, adopted in Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Deason, 632 So. 2d 1377 (Fla. 1994) and which echo the criteria listed in Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981), form the so-called subject-matter test for the corporate attorney-client privilege.

Emails and Maxims

The court correctly emphasized that companies’ organizational structure of large legal departments with broad responsibilities imposes adverse consequences for the in-house lawyer seeking cover of the corporate attorney-client privilege.  And these consequences appear more dire when the communications involve corporate email.

The court stated that “the advent of email has added to the difficulty of determining the purposes and intent of communications that involve corporate legal counsel.”  It offered a few tips regarding email communications:

  • When a communication is simultaneously emailed to a lawyer and non-lawyer, the corporation cannot claim that the primary purpose of the communication was for legal advice or assistance because the communication served both business and legal purposes;
  • When email with an attachment is sent to lawyers and non-lawyers in the corporation, neither the email nor the attachment is privileged;
  • When an email is sent to a lawyer and non-lawyers in the corporation are copied, it raises a question as to whether the communication’s primary purpose was for legal advice or assistance.

Gracious Ruling

The court found that the in-house lawyer failed to adequately describe the questionable emails to permit the court to analyze them under Florida’s subject-matter test.  Nonetheless, the court reviewed the emails in camera and sustained most of the privilege objections.

The court found that the privilege did not cover two emails sent by a non-lawyer to another non-lawyer even though copied to the in-house counsel.  But the privilege covered several other emails involving the in-house lawyer, a generous ruling given the lack of evidentiary proof of the subject-matter test criteria.

In sum, the court’s opinion provides excellence guidance, including specific examples, regarding in-house counsel, corporate emails, and maintaining the attorney-client privilege.

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