Court Rejects Discovery of Common−Interest Agreement

Issues of relevance and privilege arise in answering the question whether common−interest agreements are discoverable.  One federal court recently rejected discovery of three defendants’ common−interest agreement, and did so even though the three defendants had adverse interests that “may lead to future litigation between them.”  Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Reliable Transp. Specialists, Inc., 2018 WL 4235077 (ED MI Sept. 6, 2018).  You may read the Magistrate Judge’s opinion here, and the District Judge’s affirmance here.

The Issue

Wausau Underwriters sued Reliable Transportation Specialists, Amarillo Ushe, and Burt Holt seeking a declaration that it did not have to pay a judgment arising from Holt’s lawsuit and ultimate $8.7M judgment against Reliable and Ushe. The three defendants entered into a “Common Interest Confidentiality Agreement” that contained “boilerplate terms” so that they could “safely share information.”

Wausau thought that the CIA contained provisions regarding tolling, settlement, indemnification, and related financial provisions.  Wausau asked for the CIA, the defendants politely declined, and Wausau filed a motion to compel.  The Court, without much explanation, required the defendants to submit the CIA for in camera review.

Are CIAs Privileged?

This is an interesting question, and one I will address in a future post.  At oral argument, the defendants “insisted” that the “joint defense privilege” renders the CIA non-discoverable.  The court sidestepped the inquiry, noting that “cases addressing the question of whether JDAs are privileged fall, quite frankly, all over the lot.” (Quoting Steuben Foods, Inc. v. GEA Process Eng’g, Inc., 2016 WL 1238785 (WDNY Mar. 30, 2016)).

Relevance?

The Court did not have to decide the privilege issue because the discovery of a CIA turned on relevance. More…

Well, That Backfired. A Privilege-Waiver Tale for Internal Investigations and In-House Counsel

We know that typically a company waives the privilege covering an internal-investigation memo if it discloses that memo to a government agency.  One company nevertheless wanted it both ways, so it created a second memo summarizing (the favorable) part of an in-house lawyer’s privileged internal-investigation memo, and disclosed the second memo to the feds.  Did this circumnavigation attempt avoid privilege waiver for the internal-investigation memo?

A Missouri federal court found that disclosing the second memo waived the privilege over the in-house lawyer’s memo, and ordered partial disclosure.  Sherman v. Berkadia Commercial Mortgage, LLC, 2018 WL 4300322 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 10, 2018).  You may read the opinion here.

Read This One, Not That One

When an allegation arose that Berkadia falsely certified to HUD that it complied with all HUD regulations, Berkadia retained outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation.  Based on outside counsel’s employee interviews, Berkadia’s in-house counsel drafted a memo about the investigation and underlying events.

Berkadia then prepared a second memo that summarized outside counsel’s investigation. This second memo discusssed some—but not all—details of the investigation findings, and Berkadia decided to disclose this second memo to HUD.

But I Want to Read That One

In an employee’s anti-retaliation lawsuit under the False Claims Act, the employee claimed that Berkadia’s disclosure of the second memo actually waived the privilege over the in-house lawyer’s memo summarizing the internal investigation.  He wanted the privileged memorandum to show that Berkadia had information contradicting its HUD disclosures.

Ruling—The Fairness Doctrine

The court read the in-house lawyer’s memo in camera, and agreed that it met the privilege elements: it contained communications between Berkadia’s in-house lawyer and employees, and was marked “confidential” and “subject to attorney-client privilege.”

The court referenced the at-issue waiver doctrine, which holds that one waives the privilege when it places the subject matter of the privileged communications at issue in the lawsuit.  A “closely related” concept is the fairness doctrine, which states that “a party should not be able to make use of privileged information as a sword when it is advantageous for the privilege holder[,] and then as a shield.”

The court applied this fairness doctrine to thwart Berkadia’s attempt to use the HUD-produced memo but withhold the in-house lawyer’s memo—from which the HUD memo derived—from the employee.  The court found that Berkadia waived the privilege over the in-house lawyer’s memo, and ordered the company to produce the sections that disclosed interviews with Berkadia’s employees.

PoP Analysis

While the company appropriately handled the in-house lawyer’s memo from a privilege perspective, its attempt to “disclose the memo without disclosing it” backfired.  The moral of the story is that disclosing privileged information to government entities typically waives the privilege.

While there are some instances of companies avoiding privilege waiver by entering into a NDA with the governmental entity, as discussed here and here, those situations are rare and companies must proceed with caution.  The “memo about the memo” idea was apparently not cautious enough.

Commentary on The Yates Memorandum

In 2015, then Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a DOJ memorandum on the subject of Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing, available in full here.  Known as the Yates Memorandum, the DOJ issued this directive to focus on holding individuals responsible for the illegal acts of the corporations for which they worked.

The memorandum, along with DAG Yates’ subsequent remarks, has generated much debate about whether the DOJ was, at least implicitly, returning to a culture of pressuring companies to waive the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine.  Now almost three years old and subject to modification under the Trump Administration, Professor Gideon Mark published an excellent article tracing the DOJ memoranda preceding the Yates Memo, and expressing concern over privilege waiver:

[T]he Yates Memorandum is likely to result in continued waivers of the attorney-client privilege and attorney work product protection, even if the DOJ does not make express requests. Waivers no doubt aid the DOJ in criminal and civil investigations, but they also undermine and weaken the attorney-client relationship and the ability of corporations to effectively negotiate with the DOJ during enforcement actions.

Professor Mark proposes tweaks to the memo, including making explicit that DOJ will not implicitly require privilege waiver for cooperation credit.

Still, the Yates Memorandum could benefit from some tweaking. If the DOJ is serious that it does not seek waivers of the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrine, then it probably should make that explicit. Currently, the Memorandum merely states that the DOJ does not require waivers. This is a very different situation from one in which companies nevertheless feel compelled to waive in order to obtain cooperation credit. Similarly, the DOJ should make clear that participation in a joint defense agreement will have no negative impact on whether, or to what extent, a company receives cooperation credit.

The article is a good read, and not just because it cites my article, co-authored with Ty Howard, titled In-House Counsel: Protecting the Privilege in a Post-Yates Memorandum World, 31 Corporate Counsel, No. 3, June 2016 (available here).  You may access Professor Mark’s article, The Yates Memorandum, 51 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1589 (2018), here.