Court Refuses to Expand Privilege for Intracorporate Communications

It’s a simple concept: the attorney–client privilege generally protects from compelled disclosure a client’s communications to his client.  And under the Upjohn subject matter test, the corporate attorney–client privilege generally protects corporate employees’ communications to the company’s in-house counsel. Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981).

The question arises whether the privilege applies to communications between corporate employees regarding a legal matter, yet occurring without an in-house lawyer present. corporateemployeesWhile not a frequently addressed subject, several courts have applied the privilege to intracorporate communications if the communications’ purpose is to facilitate the rendition of legal services.  For a collection of cases, see Alexander C. Black, What Corporate Communications are Entitled to Attorney–Client Privilege, 27 A.L.R.5th 76 § 44 (1995).  But Magistrate Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland recently refused to expand the privilege to communications among corporate employees and inventors of a patent owned by the corporation.  Prowess, Inc. v. Raysearch Labs. AB, 2013 WL 509021 (D. Md. Feb. 11, 2013).

Prowess, Inc. licensed a patent from the University of Maryland–Baltimore (UMB).  The patent inventors were UMB employees.  During discovery, Raysearch sought communications between the patent inventors and Prowess employees.  Prowess claimed the corporate attorney–client privilege protected these communications because they occurred at the direction of Prowess’ attorneys.

Judge Gallagher agreed that the privilege may apply to intracorporate communications, but noted that, while the patent inventors had a relationship with Prowess, they were not Prowess employees.  And on this basis, she ruled that, because the inventors were third parties, Prowess employees’ communications with the inventors “cannot be considered ‘intracorporate.’”  Judge Gallagher rejected the privilege and ordered disclosure of the conversations between Prowess employees and the patent inventors.

PoP Analysis. Judge Gallagher’s ruling comports with the maxim that evidentiary privileges should not be lightly created nor expansively construed.  United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 710 (1974). Extending the corporate attorney–client privilege to communications between corporate employees and third parties—despite the relationship—goes too far even if these discussions will assist in-house counsel.

The Kovel doctrine may prove a better alternative to gain privilege protection for this type of communication.  Originating in United States v. Kovel, 296 F.2d 918 (2d Cir. 1961), the doctrine holds that clients may involve certain experts (accountants in Kovel) to assist an attorney’s understanding of certain concepts.  And so long as necessary for counsel to render legal advice, the Kovel doctrine extends the attorney–client privilege to these discussions.