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.

“Pardon Me, Boy,” Does Release of Atty’s Investigation Report Waive the Privilege?

Chattanooga—home to beautiful scenery, Civil War battlefields, the Jimmy Hoffa trial, and the “Track 29” train’s destination in (“Pardon me, boy, is that the”) Chattanooga Choo Choo—is the setting for the latest judicial opinion on internal investigations and privilege waiver.

Chattanooga Choo Choo Station Platform

In a case involving a lawyer’s investigation into sexual-assault allegations involving a high-school basketball team, the USDC for EDTN held that the local school board’s publication of the lawyer’s report waived privilege and work-product protections for the lawyer’s underlying interviews and communications, including emails with another Board attorney.  Doe v. Hamilton County Board of Education, 2018 WL 542971 (ED Tenn. Jan. 24, 2018).  You may read the decision here.

The Investigation Report

Upon learning of sexual-assault allegations involving Ooltewah High School boys’ basketball team (Washington Post story available here), the Hamilton County (Chattanooga) Dep’t of Education retained Chattanooga attorney Courtney Bullard to independently investigate the OHS issue and provide legal advice to HCDE.  You may read the HCDE–Bullard engagement letter here.

HCDE, presumably for public-relations purposes, later released Bullard’s report for public consumption.  You may read the actual report here.

The alleged sexual-assault victims sued HCDE and moved to compel 130 of Bullard’s emails, including emails with another Board attorney, Scott Bennett.  HCDE claimed that the attorney–client privilege and work-product doctrine protected these communications from disclosure (privilege log available here).

Ruling

Magistrate Judge Chris Steger, correctly applying federal common law, held that parties may waive the attorney–client privilege upon disclosure of privileged information to third-parties, and that the waiver may extend “to all privileged communications on the same subject matter.”

But HCDE only released the report—not communications related to the report—so did waiver apply?  Finding the USDC’s decision in Doe v. Baylor Univ., 320 FRD 430 (W.D. Tex. 2017), “directly on point, well-reasoned and persuasive,” Judge Steger ruled that, when the Board released Bullard’s report, “it waived the attorney–client privilege as to the entire scope of the investigation, … and all materials, communications, and information” provided to Bullard during her investigation. More…

Touch Base–Court Applies U.S. Privilege Law to German Internal Investigation

Foreign corporations with a significant U.S. presence increasingly face this question—which country’s privilege law applies when their U.S. lawyers communicate with the companies’ foreign employees?  The SDNY confronted this choice-of-privilege-law issue where a “principally” U.S. law firm conducted an internal investigation for a German company. In re: Ex Parte Application of financialright GmbH, 2017 WL 2879696 (SDNY June 22, 2017).  You may read the decision here.  Let’s discuss. More…