It’s Okay To Smell A Rat: Internal Investigations, Attorney-Client Privilege and the KBR Decision

Skeptical of the role of lawyers.

Skeptical of the role of lawyers.

Post-recession, we are living through an era of regulators’ grimaces and prosecutors’ giddiness. Editorialists and bloggers want business scalps, especially scalps of individuals (as opposed to simple monetary fines for corporations), and most especially scalps of those in banking and finance.  In the wake of the GM report and other stories about lawyers, the role of business lawyers is as suspect in the public mind as it has been for decades.  It’s as though everybody smells a rat.

On the other hand, faced with ever-increasing and increasingly complex regulation, companies’ need to conduct self-reviews and internal investigations is unavoidable. Indeed, in many industries, the governing set of rules require companies to self-investigate and, under certain conditions, reveal those investigatory results to the Government.  This is especially the case if the company wishes to be seen as a good citizen and a cooperator. (We have discussed the ups and downs of cooperation here and here).

In this environment, it was refreshing to see the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc.  In KBR, the D.C. Circuit considered a district court’s denial of the protection of the attorney-client privilege to a company that conducted an internal investigation.
The district court based its decision in part on the ground that the internal investigation had been “undertaken pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice,” attempting to distinguish the ur-case in this area, Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981)

 

Business people (and internal business-lawyers) wear many hats.  Some of the hats don’t fit neatly (or comfortably).  Many activities undertaken by corporations have multiple purposes: business, political, legal and otherwise.  If this view of internal-investigations law had been allowed to stand, it would be virtually impossible for a company subject to even the most rudimentary level of regulatory oversight to maintain its attorney-client privilege.

It is worth quoting the D.C. Circuit here at some length, given the clarity and forcefulness of the holding:
KBR’s assertion of the privilege in this case is materially indistinguishable from Upjohn’s assertion of the privilege in that case. As in Upjohn, KBR initiated an internal investigation to gather facts and ensure compliance with the law after being informed of potential misconduct. And as in Upjohn, KBR’s investigation was conducted under the auspices of KBR’s in-house legal department, acting in its legal capacity. The same considerations that led the Court in Upjohn to uphold the corporation’s privilege claims apply here.
The District Court in this case initially distinguished Upjohn on a variety of grounds. But none of those purported distinctions takes this case out from under Upjohn’s umbrella.
First, the District Court stated that in Upjohn the internal investigation began after in-house counsel conferred with outside counsel, whereas here the investigation was conducted in-house without consultation with outside lawyers. But Upjohn does not hold or imply that the involvement of outside counsel is a necessary predicate for the privilege to apply. On the contrary, the general rule, which this Court has adopted, is that a lawyer’s status as in-house counsel “does not dilute the privilege.” In re Sealed Case, 737 F.2d at 99. As the Restatement’s commentary points out, “Inside legal counsel to a corporation or similar organization . . . is fully empowered to engage in privileged communications.” 1 RESTATEMENT § 72, cmt. c, at 551.
Second, the District Court noted that in Upjohn the interviews were conducted by attorneys, whereas here many of the interviews in KBR’s investigation were conducted by non-attorneys. But the investigation here was conducted at the direction of the attorneys in KBR’s Law Department. And communications made by and to non-attorneys serving as agents of attorneys in internal investigations are routinely protected by the attorney-client privilege. See FTC v. TRW, Inc., 628 F.2d 207, 212 (D.C. Cir. 1980); see also 1 PAUL R. RICE, ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGE IN THE UNITED STATES § 7:18, at 1230-31 (2013) (“If internal investigations are conducted by agents of the client at the behest of the attorney, they are protected by the attorney-client privilege to the same extent as they would be had they been conducted by the attorney who was consulted.”). So that fact, too, is not a basis on which to distinguish Upjohn.
Third, the District Court pointed out that in Upjohn the interviewed employees were expressly informed that the purpose of the interview was to assist the company in obtaining legal advice, whereas here they were not. The District Court further stated that the confidentiality agreements signed by KBR employees did not mention that the purpose of KBR’s investigation was to obtain legal advice. Yet nothing in Upjohn requires a company to use magic words to its employees in order to gain the benefit of the privilege for an internal investigation. And in any event, here as in Upjohn employees knew that the company’s legal department was conducting an investigation of a sensitive nature and that the information they disclosed would be protected. Cf. Upjohn, 449 U.S. at 387 (Upjohn’s managers were “instructed to treat the investigation as ‘highly confidential’”). KBR employees were also told not to discuss their interviews “without the specific advance authorization of KBR General Counsel.” United States ex rel. Barko v. Halliburton Co., No. 05-cv-1276, 2014 WL 1016784, at *3 n.33 (D.D.C. Mar. 6, 2014).
In short, none of those three distinctions of Upjohn holds water as a basis for denying KBR’s privilege claim.
More broadly and more importantly, the District Court also distinguished Upjohn on the ground that KBR’s internal investigation was undertaken to comply with Department of Defense regulations that require defense contractors such as KBR to maintain compliance programs and conduct internal investigations into allegations of potential wrongdoing. The District Court therefore concluded that the purpose of KBR’s internal investigation was to comply with those regulatory requirements rather than to obtain or provide legal advice. In our view, the District Court’s analysis rested on a false dichotomy. So long as obtaining or providing legal advice was one of the significant purposes of the internal investigation, the attorney-client privilege applies, even if there were also other purposes for the investigation and even if the investigation was mandated by regulation rather than simply an exercise of company discretion.
In the context of an organization’s internal investigation, if one of the significant purposes of the internal investigation was to obtain or provide legal advice, the privilege will apply. That is true regardless of whether an internal investigation was conducted pursuant to a company compliance program required by statute or regulation, or was otherwise conducted pursuant to company policy.

 

It is noteworthy that the D.C. Circuit clarifies the rule such that it applies in all contexts: civil, criminal and administrative.  The attorney-client privilege is, to some degree, in derogation of the search for the truth, at least in the first instance.  Yet, lawyers learn things from clients that the lawyers then do not have to reveal because we believe that, on balance, “truth” is ultimately best served in an adversarial system by a tool that encourages clients to tell their lawyers the truth.

This is an often overlooked point.  Frequently, clients do not tell lawyers the whole truth, at least the first time a discussion arises. This is particularly the case in criminal representations, but it is not uncommon in the civil arena.  Sometimes, this reticence arises from a client’s knowledge of his, her or its wrongdoing, and a concomitant desire to hide or destroy evidence.

More often, however, that initial reticence arises from much more innocuous sources: embarrassment, shame, misunderstanding, fear of losing a job or worry about how superiors or colleagues might react.  In those contexts, it is the privilege itself that is most solicitous of the truth, and allows the truth to eventually out.