The U.S. Federal Court of Claims recently decided a “relatively novel question: whether a lack of diligence in asserting the deliberative process privilege to claw back previously disclosed documents can serve as a waiver of that privilege.”

The Case

In Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. v. United States, 2012 WL 4018026 (Ct. Cl. Sept. 13, 2012), the U.S. government claimed that Sikorsky violated federal regulations by improperly allocating overhead costs to government contracts. On February 17, 2011, the government inadvertently produced an email string between an auditor and his superior at the Defense Contracting Auditing Agency (DCAA).

The auditor was questioned without objection during his deposition on June 20, 2011. But at the end of the deposition the government’s lawyer stated that the email string may be subject to the deliberative process privilege.  Despite this statement, the government did not formally assert the privilege until May 14, 2012–fifteen months after the email string was produced.

The Decision

The court first decided that, although some courts hold otherwise, invocation of the deliberative process privilege is subject to a timeliness requirement.  The court reasoned that the privilege may be waived for other reasons, such as placing a portion of the material at issue, and there was no basis for refraining from extending the waiver to “instances of indiligence, indolence, or dawdling.”

But the court limited the timeliness waiver to the deliberative process privilege branch of the executive privilege, and indicated that a timeliness waiver may not apply to chief-executive communications, military secrets, and intelligence reports.

The court next outlined the criteria courts should apply in determining when an inadvertent disclosure constitutes a waiver.  Finding no binding precedent, the court studied Federal Rule of Evidence 502 and prior inadvertent disclosure decisions for other evidentiary privileges.

The court held that Rule 502’s inadvertent disclosure criteria should apply to inadvertent disclosures of materials subject to the deliberative process privilege.  Under this criteria, a disclosure of information protected by the deliberative process privilege will not constitute a waiver if–

  1. the disclosure was inadvertent;
  2. the privilege’s holder took reasonable steps to prevent disclosure in the first instance; and
  3. the holder promptly took reasonable steps to rectify the error. 

And in this case, the court ruled that the government’s fifteen-month delay in asserting the privilege was not prompt and that the deliberative process privilege was waived.

POP Analysis

In an area lacking definitive authority, the Sikorsky opinion serves as persuasive authority that government agencies must assert the deliberative process privilege in a timely manner.  And the criteria to determine waiver of the privilege through inadvertent disclosure is Federal Rule of Evidence 502.

While the timeliness requirement likely will not apply to other branches of the executive privilege, most notably the presidential or chief-executive communications privilege, government lawyers must maintain diligence when protecting deliberative and pre-decisional documents protected by the deliberative process privilege.

The Sikorsky opinion is also helpful to practitioners in need of a succinct summary of the deliberative process privilege, including the substantive criteria and the procedure for invoking the privilege.  While some state courts, most recently New Mexico, refuse to recognize a deliberative process privilege, many states have not decided the issue.  And those states looking for guidance in making the decision should look to Sikorsky as authority for the substantive scope and procedural requirements for successfully asserting the privilege.

A recent post on references a good article from InsideCounsel on protecting the attorney-client privilege.  The article highlights the dual role–business and legal–played by in-house counsel and the challenges they face in parsing those duties while maintaining the attorney-client privilege.

Well worth the read.  Also note recent POP post  regarding the Idaho federal court’s instructive comments on applying the attorney-client privilege to in-house counsel.

peer review privilege

Medical malpractice cases brought in federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) often raise issues peer review privilegeregarding discovery of information generated during the medical peer review process.  While all 50 states recognize a medical peer review privilege, there is no federal common law peer review privilege.

Unique Issue

But medical malpractice cases brought against the federal government under the FTCA pose unique problems.  Because the FTCA is a basis for federal question jurisdiction, claims brought under this act in federal court will be subject to federal law on evidentiary privileges.  See Menses v. U.S. Postal Serv., 942 F. Supp. 1320 (D. Nev. 1996).

And following this conflict-of-laws rule, peer review information sought in a medical malpractice case brought under the FTCA would generally find no privilege protection under federal law.  Some federal courts, however, stray from this general rule and apply state-law privileges in certain situations under the doctrine of comity.

The Case

The Illinois federal court’s decision in Sevilla v. United States, 852 F. Supp. 2d 1057 (N.D. Ill. 2012), provides an informative illustration.

In this medical malpractice case against a U.S.-employed physician, the government asserted the peer review privilege found in Illinois’ Medical Studies Act to withhold information generated as part of the peer review process.  The Court recognized that the majority of federal courts do not recognize a medical peer review privilege under the FTCA.

But it ultimately ruled that the government may use Illinois’s peer review privilege.  The Court held that the Supreme Court’s rejection of a federal peer review privilege in Univ. of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182 (1990), was limited to an academic peer review privilege.

Instead, the Court followed Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1 (1996), regarding criteria for recognizing new privileges. Applying the Jaffee standard, the Court found that recognizing a peer review privilege in the medical malpractice FTCA context met that criteria.

Limited Holding

The Sevilla court limited its holding to application of the medical peer review privilege in FTCA medical malpractice cases. The Court could have been clearer that it was applying the Illinois medical peer review as a matter of comity rather than adopting a federal common law peer review privilege.  The Court failed to address that many courts, following Jaffee, have ruled that comity may not serve as a basis to recognize a state-law privilege in federal-question cases. See, e.g., Folb v. Motion Picture Indus. Pension & Health Plans, 16 F. Supp. 2d 1164 (C.D.  Cal. 1998).  But the Court’s decision shows that federal courts are divided on the issue, and whether the peer review privilege applies in FTCA medical malpractice cases depends on the federal jurisdiction in which the case is filed.