In an employment race-discrimination case, the USDC for the Northern District of California ruled that the attorney–client privilege did not protect the HR Manager’s memo regarding his internal investigation of hotline complaints. The court issued this ruling even though the company’s in-house lawyer “ghostwrote” the memo. Thompson v. C&H Sugar Co., 2014 WL 595911 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 14, 2014). You may access the opinion here.
Thirteen African–American employees sued C&H Sugar Company and its parent corporation, American Sugar Refining, Inc., alleging that C&H failed to properly train and promote them because of their race. The employees claimed that C&H’s Packaging Department Manager, Cliff Sullivan failed to promote them, and sought in discovery an internal investigation memo regarding the company’s hotline complaints about Sullivan’s alleged discriminatory acts.
The memo, sent from the HR Manager to the HR VP, contained conclusions as to work-place dynamics and training recommendations. In an effort to buttress the privilege assertion, the company’s in-house attorney (title: Senior Director of Corporate Labor and Employee Relations) submitted a declaration stating that he “essentially ghostwrote” the memo, particularly the investigation summary and conclusion. You may read the in-house lawyer’s declaration here.
The Court found unpersuasive the in-house lawyer’s ghostwriting assertion, stating
The Court has found no support indicating that an attorney “essentially ghostwriting” a communication—whatever that means—renders that communication protected by the attorney–client privilege.
Noting that protecting communications “ghostwritten” by a lawyer did not serve the privilege’s purpose of encouraging frank communications between client and attorney, the Court found that the in-house lawyer’s declaration did not meet the burden of establishing that he, rather than the HR Manager, wrote the memo or that it was written in response to a request for legal advice.
What about the Work Product Doctrine?
The in-house lawyer also declared that he directed and supervised the HR Manager’s investigation in anticipation of litigation. And the Court held that this declaration proved that the work-product doctrine covered the investigation memo.
But that ruling did not end the inquiry. The Court also held that the plaintiffs demonstrated a substantial need for the investigation memo because they could not otherwise obtain the hotline-complaints information. The Court therefore ruled that the plaintiffs “demonstrated a substantial need for the investigation documents and the qualified work product doctrine must give way.”
The Thompson decision reinforces the concept that the privilege protects only confidential communications between the client and attorney made for the purposes of rendering legal advice. Here, the company’s “ghostwriting” argument established neither an attorney–client communication nor a legal-advice request.
And the decision highlights a critical distinction between the attorney–client privilege and the work-product doctrine. Once established, the attorney–client privilege is absolute, meaning that it stands regardless of the requesting party’s need for the information. The work-product doctrine, by contrast, is qualified, meaning that a party may obtain the information upon a substantial-need showing. This ruling demonstrates why in-house counsel should endeavor to establish the privilege for employee–lawyer communications rather than relying on the unequal work-product doctrine.