Employee Purloins In-House Lawyer’s Privileged Emails. Now What?

We often hear of an employee downloading trade secrets and other proprietary information when he leaves a company, but what happens when the employee downloads privileged emails between himself and in-house counsel?  Can the pilfering employee keep his communications even though it is the company’s privilege? Should the court disqualify the employee’s counsel for reading and not returning the privileged emails?  The court’s opinion in Sanchez v. Maquet Getinge Group, 2018 WL 2324679 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. May 23, 2018), provides lessons on these issues.  You may read it here, and I discuss it below.

What Happened?

Oscar Sanchez worked as a compliance officer (yes, compliance officer) for Maquet, a pharmaceutical company that designs, manufactures, and distributes medical devices. Sanchez received a disciplinary warning, and then downloaded two Maquet executives’ hard drives and a “binder full of emails” that included emails between him and Maquet’s in-house lawyer regarding FDA compliance issues.

Sanchez took the privileged emails even though he signed a “Confidential Information, Invention Assignment, and Non-Compete Agreement” with Maquet prohibiting him from disclosing confidential information and requiring him to return company documents upon termination.  Maquet learned of Sanchez’s possession of its privileged communications when he produced them in discovery, and immediately demanded their return.

Privilege is Threshold Issue

Sanchez first argued that the privilege did not apply because the in-house lawyer was only copied on emails or did not respond to the emails and, consequently, did not provide legal advice.  The appellate court upheld the trial court’s privilege finding, noting that Sanchez labeled the emails “ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGE.”  Looks like an easy call there. More…