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.

Non-Waiver Contract Saves GC from Disclosing Privileged Info to Grand Jury

Though the Fourth Circuit has not decided the issue, most federal courts reject a selective-waiver doctrine, meaning that waiver to one is waiver to all.  But one company under a federal criminal investigation permitted an in-house lawyer to disclose privileged information to U.S. Attorneys after the DOJ agreed to a non-waiver contract.

Did the contract prevent privilege waiver? The Fourth Circuit said yes, and precluded the DOJ from calling the in-house counsel to repeat the previously disclosed privileged information before a federal grand jury.  In re: Grand Jury 16-3817 (16-4) United States of America, 2018 WL 3156935 (CA4 June 27, 2018) (available here). Let’s discuss the nuances of this interesting opinion. More…

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…