The Yates Memo and Three Dog Night

Deputy Attorney General Yates

Deputy Attorney General Yates

Unless you have been on a monastic retreat or hidden as carefully as Hillary Clinton’s email server, you have by now likely read reports and analyses of the “Yates Memorandum,” a policy document issued by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates entitled “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing.”

(Here is the document:  Yates-Memo-Prosecution-of-Individuals.pdf ).

In this essay, I focus on one particular aspect that may be crucial for companies, their boards of directors, their audit committees and law department: The timing of potential disclosures to the Government and the degree to which outside counsel needs to have comfort that what he or she is relating to the Government on the company’s behalf is more or less reliable.

The Yates Memo sets out six principles that the Department of Justice intends to apply in a renewed (or apparently renewed) emphasis on the prosecution of individuals in the context of the investigation of corporate wrongdoing.

The key summary paragraph is as follows:

The guidance in this memo reflects six key steps to strengthen our pursuit of individual corporate wrongdoing, some of which reflect policy shifts and each of which is described in greater detail below: (1) in order to qualify for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the Department all relevant facts relating to the individuals responsible for the misconduct; (2) criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation; (3) criminal and civil attorneys handling corporate investigations should be in routine communication with one another; (4) absent extraordinary circumstances or approved departmental policy, the Department will not release culpable individuals from civil or criminal liability when resolving a matter with a corporation; (5) Department attorneys should not resolve matters with a corporation without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases, and should memorialize any declinations as to individuals in such cases; and (6) civil attorneys should consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.

There has been considerable criticism of DOJ from politicians, editorialists and judges (see the Southern District of New York’s Judge Jed Rakoff here and a note here and here about Judge William H. Pauley) over the paucity of individual prosecutions arising from the financial crisis.  Assuming that the memorandum is more than a simple public relations effort to deflect that criticism, a number of points come to mind.

Difficult to keep calm, actually.

Difficult to keep calm, actually.

First, if implemented, the Yates Memo will cause more corporate officers and employees to lawyer up, and lawyer up earlier, then at any time since the savings and loan crisis.  As a white-collar and internal-investigations lawyer with looming college tuition to pay for, I have no objection to such an outcome, but it may actually make getting the facts out of an internal investigation more difficult, not less.

Second, the renewed focus on facts pertaining to individuals will potentially make it very uncomfortable for boards of directors, audit committees, chief legal officers and other decision-makers who will more frequently be tempted to throw company officers and employees under the bus than previously.  To cite Three Dog Night from their eponymous 1969 album, “one is the loneliest number.”

Third, although DOJ officials in speeches have said repeatedly that they are not trying to force corporate outside counsel to be police officers, there is more than a whiff of that impulse in the Yates Memo.  Such an approach raises multiple potential conflict of interest problems.

Civil discovery.  Criminal facts?

Civil discovery. Criminal facts?

Fourth, the focus on individual wrongdoing (and disclosure of facts relating to individual wrongdoing) is to apply equally in the civil arena. Companies and businesspeople have far more civil problems then criminal.  The ultimate effect of the Yates Memo may be felt most dangerously (and most expensively) in the civil context.

Fifth, it is unclear (at least to me) whether and to what extent the Yates Memo will require outside counsel conducting an internal investigation to modify a standard Upjohn instruction.  (We have previously discussed Upjohn warnings in these posts).  In other words, does company counsel need to add an explicit statement that, should the witness reveal facts about himself or herself that appear to be a reasonable basis of criminal liability (theirs or the company’s), the lawyer will probably tote those facts over to the Government?

As a practical matter for corporations and those who guide and advise them, as well as for lawyers who represent individual officers and employees, the most delicate task will be trying to figure out at what point in time does one pull the disclosure trigger with regard to evidence of individual wrongdoing.

In other words, when do you know what it is that you know? And, what if you make your early or premature disclosure to the Government but you are wrong?

Off to college? Or, to a meeting at the U.S. Attorney's Office?

Off to college? Or, to a meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s Office?

As I write this, my daughter is a high school senior in the midst of college applications.  These applications come at the tail end of a lengthy period of campus visits, alumni interviews, webpage reading and prayer.  We have been diligent, and the process by turns exhilarating, disappointing and expensive.

What struck me is how different things look now than when we began.  At some point, one must “land the plane” – that is, make a decision – whether one is in the midst of a college search process or an internal corporate investigation.  Yet, had my daughter been forced to apply very early in the process to, say, what were her top five choices then, we would have been in an artificially different (and most likely more disadvantageous) situation from the one in which we find ourselves today.

The Yates Memo will put boards of directors, audit committees and chief legal officers is in a similar position of having to make a call unnaturally early in an internal investigation in hopes of reaping the harvest of cooperation.  As most anyone who is been through an internal investigation can attest, the factual landscape and legal conclusions are often different (but more accurate) late in the day.  The next months and years under the Yates Memo will tell, but it would be a shame if, in order to grasp at cooperation’s life jacket, American businesses and their legal advisers are put in a situation that helps neither the legitimate aims of Government prosecutions nor those companies’ shareholders and stakeholders.

SIDEBAR: In the context of governmental policy, it is easy to talk about the prosecution of individuals without putting a face (and a life) to a name.  With faceless defendants, we sometimes forget what investigations and trials can do to individuals and their families.

Tom Hayes and wife Sarah Tighe

Tom Hayes and wife Sarah Tighe

In this five-part series in the Wall Street Journal, David Enrich lays out the prosecution of LIBOR trader Tom Hayes.  “The Unraveling of Tom Hayes” bears a careful read.

 


Dear Colleagues All: University Discipline, Sexual Assault and The Department of Education

It's the new campus thing.

It’s the new campus thing.

Title IX. Crime. Sexual assault. University disciplinary procedures. Civil litigation. Enormous amounts of money. The Fifth Amendment.

And that’s all before you hire a lawyer.

This is a perilous time for university disciplinary systems and those who administer them, especially with regard to claims of sexual assault.  A college or university can find itself in the midst of – indeed, at the helm of – a set of quasi-criminal parallel proceedings that can make the school liable to student complainants, student respondents and federal enforcement authorities.

How does this happen, and what are the factors to keep in mind to minimize that exposure?

Disciplinary systems and educational missions have been uncomfortable fellow travelers going back at least to Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

As the concept of in loco parentis came in and out and back into fashion, the nature of university disciplinary systems changed accordingly.

What remained unchanged, however, are the two broad areas that most collegiate disciplinary systems address:  “conduct” and “ethics” (or sometimes “honor”).  The latter involves cheating, plagiarism and the like.   The former involves infractions of nonacademic policies – drinking, destruction of property, and violations of civil or criminal law.

Not so many pranks today.

Not so many pranks today.

Not surprisingly, most universities have proven themselves more adept at dealing with “academic” infractions then with “conduct” issues.  With the advent of coeducation and then a more culturally diverse (and potentially more fractious) student, faculty and staff composition, the proficiency gap between academic-related discipline and conduct-related discipline, in many instances, grew more pronounced.

Back in 2011, the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on the subject of campus sexual assault and how, under Title IX, OCR expects colleges and universities to handle claims of sexual assault. More recently, a White House summit on campus sexual assault; a number of high-profile lawsuits and OCR investigations; and new congressional legislative interest have all conspired to mean that colleges and universities ignore the “Dear Colleague” situation to their peril.

So, my Lightfoot law partner William King (who runs our NCAA practice); summer associate Caitlin Looney; and I (the white-collar guy) prepared a memo.  (Truthfully, Caitlin wrote it.  All we did was read it and change the date):

On Wednesday, July 30, 2014, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced legislation aimed at curbing on-campus rape. “The Campus Safety and Accountability Act” would require colleges to assign campus “Confidential Advisors” to act as a resource to victims of sexual assault. The Act would also require a uniform process for disciplinary proceedings and require colleges to coordinate investigations with law enforcement. Penalties for noncompliance could include up to 1% of their total operating budget and a $150,000 fine per violation. The Act would also include annual surveys of students, the results of which would be posted online for the benefit of parents and prospective students. The proposed Act represents the latest development in a flurry of governmental involvement in recent years on issue of sexual assault in schools.

Here is the entire paper: University Disciplinary Procedures and the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Assault.

The Senate solution.

The Senate solution.

The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, the bill proposed in the Senate, relies in part on a Scarlet Letter approach driven by disclosure of sexual assault (as self-reported by students, rather than administrators or law enforcement), and hefty fines for non-disclosure.  As reported by the New York Times:

Every college would be required to participate in the survey and publish results online, and the penalty for colleges that don’t report sexual assault crimes, as required by the Clery Act, would increase to $150,000 from $35,000 per violation.

The new bill proposes fines of up to 1 percent of a college’s operating budget. If Harvard were found responsible, for example, the university would be on the line for $42 million — a sizable fine, but one that would probably not hurt the university’s students. [Harvard’s trustees might differ, but that is another issue. – Ed.]

Colleges would be required to supply confidential advisers to victims and train counselors. Athletic departments would not be allowed to handle sexual assault complaints. Colleges would need to coordinate a uniform plan with local law enforcement agencies. And the bill would provide federal funding to create and distribute an inexpensive, anonymous annual survey that asks all undergraduate students about experiences with sexual violence. Parents and students would be able to see the data, which may influence their decisions when applying to college.

Whether deserved or not in any particular circumstance, college athletic departments are a particular focus, as noted here.

Awaiting the parallel proceedings.

Awaiting the parallel proceedings.

Unlike the disciplinary process for a cheating scandal, a university’s investigation, adjudication and resolution of a sexual assault case is a classic parallel-proceedings scenario.  At any moment there may be simultaneously ongoing (1) an administrative proceeding (run by the university); (2) a criminal investigation (run by external law enforcement, sometimes in concert with internal university security and sometimes not); and (3) potential civil lawsuits by either the accuser or the respondent.

Even in the “normal” scenario, parallel proceedings raise thorny issues. In the university disciplinary context, however, they raise at least two special issues, issues often troubling and sometimes disastrous.

First, there is a fourth parallel overlay – the Department of Education’s OCR – that is not present in the usual parallel proceedings situation. The threatened loss of Title IX funds is a near-nuclear scenario for many institutions. (The closest but still imperfect parallel in the business world would be a federal indictment of a company).  A Title IX investigation is unpleasant but survivable. The actual loss of Title IX funding may not be.

Second, the due process and Fifth Amendment implications for the student respondent/defendant are exacerbated in ways that are foreign to customary practice and procedure.

Why is this so?

Put yourself in the chair of a defense lawyer whose new client is a student.  A complaint has been launched in the university disciplinary system against your client, alleging rape or other serious sexual assault.  Consistent with the “Dear Colleague” letter, the university process unfolds swiftly, and your client will soon be offered an opportunity to “tell his side of the story” to a panel of university administrators and faculty.  The local police investigators have requested an interview of your client. You have received an email from a lawyer representing the alleged victim who demands that your client preserve all electronic information on his phone such as photos and texts.

Just a few questions.

Just a few questions.

At this stage, the defense lawyer may not know much, but she or he knows two things.

First, the lawyer knows that the client is not talking to anybody until counsel is quite certain of the legal landscape generally and, in particular, the client’s status in the criminal investigation.

Second, the lawyer may try a “real world” fix: for Fifth Amendment reasons, stay the civil proceedings pending resolution of the criminal investigation and potential prosecution.  Taking the “Dear Colleague” letter at face value, however, and given the prevailing sentiment in this area, a Title IX-compliant university will not be staying much of anything. Although a very short pause in the disciplinary proceedings – on the order of days – is clearly permissible for law enforcement to conduct basic investigative tasks, the kind of stays we in the external world — months and months — is unlikely.  Or, as OCR says:

Police investigations may be useful for fact-gathering; but because the standards for criminal investigations are different, police investigations or reports are not determinative of whether sexual harassment or violence violates Title IX. Conduct may constitute unlawful sexual harassment under Title IX even if the police do not have sufficient evidence of a criminal violation. In addition, a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably.

A school should notify a complainant of the right to file a criminal complaint, and should not dissuade a victim from doing so either during or after the school’s internal Title IX investigation. For instance, if a complainant wants to file a police report, the school should not tell the complainant that it is working toward a solution and instruct, or ask, the complainant to wait to file the report.

Schools should not wait for the conclusion of a criminal investigation or criminal proceeding to begin their own Title IX investigation and, if needed, must take immediate steps to protect the student in the educational setting. For example, a school should not delay conducting its own investigation or taking steps to protect the complainant because it wants to see whether the alleged perpetrator will be found guilty of a crime. Any agreement or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with a local police department must allow the school to meet its Title IX obligation to resolve complaints promptly and equitably. Although a school may need to delay temporarily the fact-finding portion of a Title IX investigation while the police are gathering evidence, once notified that the police department has completed its gathering of evidence (not the ultimate outcome of the investigation or the filing of any charges), the school must promptly resume and complete its fact-finding for the Title IX investigation.

Thus, the respondent/defendant is in a crucible.  Does he fight the charge in the university’s disciplinary proceeding, or decline to participate in the proceeding so as to avoid statements that the government could use, fairly or unfairly, in a criminal prosecution?

Each situation is different, but rock breaks scissors, and prison trumps college.  The respondent/defendant may sue the university on due process grounds, as a Duke student recently did with success, but that is a temporary solution:

Some students who have been expelled or suspended pursuant to a university policy on sexual assault are suing those schools, claiming their rights to a fair hearing were violated. Schools currently involved in litigation with students under these circumstances include: Vassar College, the University of Michigan, Duke University, Occidental College, Columbia University, Xavier University, Swarthmore College, and Delaware State University, among others. Most of these claims have centered on the argument that the hearing processes under new, more stringent standards are unfair. Some of the accused have claimed that the discipline system is now skewed against them because of their male gender and should likewise be considered a violation of Title IX. The likely success of these lawsuits for the accused remains undetermined, but there has been at least one instance in which a judge intervened to keep a school from expelling a student using its internal procedure.

On May 29, 2014, a judge in North Carolina put the expulsion of a Duke University student on hold. Duke determined the student, Lewis McLeod, had committed a sexual assault and should be expelled before spring finals during his senior year of college.Judge W. Osmond Smith III ruled that McLeod would likely suffer irreparable harm if expelled. His ruling blocked Duke from expelling McLeod pending a final determination on the merits.

OCR is not a party to these lawsuits, but the “Dear Colleague” letter makes its position clear, were it required to take one:

Public and state-supported schools must provide due process to the alleged perpetrator. However, schools should ensure that steps taken to accord due process rights to the alleged perpetrator do not restrict or unnecessarily delay the Title IX protections for the complainant.

Quite a burden.

Quite a burden.

With regard to due process (and evidence presented in the process), another vexing issue for universities is the question of the appropriate “burden of proof” to apply in campus sexual-assault cases.  Historically, most schools seemed to use a standard that was lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement that criminal prosecutors must meet but something greater than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard customary in civil lawsuits.  It is unclear (at least to me) what the complete constitutional and evidentiary consequences are of making findings that are both civil and criminal using only a civil standard.

It is not unclear to OCR, however:

[I]n order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred). The “clear and convincing” standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred), currently used by some schools, is a higher standard of proof. Grievance procedures that use this higher standard are inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws, and are thus not equitable under Title IX. Therefore, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.

OCR roots this principle not in Title IX but in the caselaw developed in civil race-discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The statutory foundations of this approach merit further thought, but it is noteworthy that while sexual assault and racial discrimination are both odious and unlawful, only the former is a crime (except for instances of federal deprivation-of-civil-rights situations).

The Crimson offense (or defense?)

The Crimson offense (or defense?)

In any event, the shift to the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard is occurring rapidly, as at Harvard:

The new policy, unveiled Wednesday, dramatically changes how cases of sexual assault are handled at Harvard. The new Office of Sexual and Gender Based Dispute Resolution will employ professional investigators and essentially remove investigative responsibility from individual disciplinary boards across schools. Based on the facts provided by the central office, those disciplinary boards will work with University Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides to issue sanctions.

The “preponderance of the evidence” standard that the office will employ is seen by many as a lower burden of proof than the “sufficiently persuaded” standard currently used by the College’s Administrative Board. The preponderance of the evidence standard, favored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, is generally understood to require more than 50 percent certainty to determine guilt.

Absent from the new policy is an affirmative consent requirement, under which partners must affirmatively communicate their willingness to participate in sexual activity. Activists on Harvard’s campus, such as those involved with the group Our Harvard Can Do Better, and across the country have lobbied for such a clause.

(The Crimson article attaches a copy of the new Harvard policy).

Damn committee reports.

Damn committee reports.

So, what are the takeaways for university administrators and others charged with development an oversight of university disciplinary systems, especially with regard to claims of sexual assault?

OCR-ready.

OCR-ready.

Bulk up on the skill.  You cannot delegate away “Dear Colleague” responsibility; nor can you simply add it as another part of the job description in Legal or Compliance; nor can you have your “Dear Colleague” program run by someone who is not sensitive to the legal, administrative and — bluntly — political issues that swirl around this effort.

Cut down on the windowdressing.  Some companies have magnificent paper compliance programs and codes of business ethics, policies that set lofty standards which, if not undergirded by the actual work, only make the situation worse in the midst of a compliance failure or white-collar criminal investigation.  (This is the “don’t write a check your body can’t cash” problem).  The university setting is no different.  Plus, colleges are thick with committees, panels, town halls, manifestos and missions.  Don’t write a policy without thinking through the process, and how defensible it is.  And do not confuse compliance with ethics.

Focus on high-visibility groups. Athletic teams and fraternities, fairly or unfairly, bear the brunt of criticism for undesirable campus conduct.  On the other hand, those groups are important to university life; have strong alumni support; are in many cases revenue generators (in the case of the athletic department, at least); and can be on–campus bellwethers.  Whatever your policy direction and compliance program, if you have these constituencies with you, the job will be much easier.

How to get sued.

How to get sued.

Don’t Nifong respondents.  We mentioned the Duke lawsuit above.  A prime example of how not to handle university disciplinary procedures was Duke’s process, actions and inactions during the false rape claims lodged against several of its lacrosse players against the backdrop of the misconduct of the now-disbarred criminal prosecutor, Mike Nifong.  (We have written about the Duke lacrosse case here. The definitive work on the case remains Taylor and Johnson’s Until Proven Innocent).

A university’s best defense in the “Dear Colleague” era is a combination of sound preparation; an honest approach in plain English; and a firm devotion to the integrity of process for the benefit of its students without regard to externalities (an unethical and unfit prosecutor, for example) or internal pressures (such as small groups of virulent ideologues).

 

 

 


Internal Investigations, the KBR Decision and International Investigations

Child of Upjohn

Child of Upjohn

In a recent post, we touched on the importance of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in KBR concerning privilege and internal investigations:

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.

Skeptical of the role of lawyers.

Skeptical of the role of lawyers.

(Read the complete post at It’s Okay To Smell A Rat: Internal Investigations, Attorney-Client Privilege and the KBR Decision).

More recently, from our friends at the White Collar Crime Prof Blog, here and here are two good essays by Professor Lucian Dervan of Southern Illinois University on KBR, privilege and the implications for international internal investigations.


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.

How To Avoid Being GM’ed: The Wrongs and Rights of Clients and Lawyers

A general malaise?

A general malaise?

The GM internal-investigation report  about ignition-switch problems raises a host of issues, one of which is its unusually sharp criticism of GM internal lawyers.  Criticism of lawyers is nothing new, of course.  Lawyer-jokes always blame lawyers; lawyers’ spouses frequently blame lawyers; clients sometimes blame lawyers.

But public reports drafted by lawyers infrequently blame lawyers, so this one merits attention, most especially by internal lawyers in large organizations; by the outside counsel who serve them; and by the businesspeople who are the true clients.

 

What are the key takeaways?

The Normal, Uneasy.   Skim the report.  (Just skim it — it’s too long to read cover to cover without heroin.  If you have heroin, you have other issues besides ignition recalls and attorney ethics).  On a practical, professional level, what’s your reaction?

One reaction is, Not much.  It is remarkable how normal the actions of GM’s outside counsel and internal lawyers seem, and how characteristic of the operation of large organizations that are at once diffuse, sprawling and “siloed” (to use the term du jour).  Anybody who works in or serves a large organization will recognize the course of events, the mis-allocation (or absence) of resources, the personal dynamics and the outcomes described the GM report.  Despite expressions of editorial shock and Congressional indignation, the lawyer-narrative laid out in the GM report is, in many important ways, more normal than aberrant.

 

Advising on this quarter's numbers.

Advising on this quarter’s numbers.

The Uneasy Normal, Uneasier.  Prepare for a change in the public perception — and, perhaps, in regulation — of commonplace concepts of attorney-client privilege and the general confidentiality of lawyers’ work.  Prepare also for a coordinate change in internal-lawyers’ reporting obligations within the corporation.  Perceptions of  lawyers are mixed, and we should generalize with caution, but jury consultants regularly note the suspicion and distrust with which lawyers are viewed —  especially lawyers for big companies.  Elsewhere, we have explained how laypeople see corporate counsel as mob lawyers.

 

 

Preparing for summer hearings.

Preparing for summer hearings.

Summertime, and the Congressional Livin’ Is Easy.  Congress is composed of laypersons who are political animals and who are no great respecters of privilege and confidentiality.  As a former oversight-and-investigations lawyer for a House committee, I can testify: summer is the high season for O&I hearings.  Nothing is going on legislatively, O&I hearings don’t require lobbyists or constituents, it is hot as hell but most House and Senate hearing rooms have good air-conditioning these days and, if you get some hearings under your belt in June and July, you’ll have plenty as a Member to talk about in your district or state.

It is by no means inconceivable that bills will be introduced seeking to impose, in GM-like situations, a Sarbanes-Oxley style “reporting” requirement on internal lawyers (or outside counsel, or both), coupled with a “private attorney general” concept and whistleblower bounties.  As in the SOX, internal-investigation world, if the matter is sufficiently serious, you may need two law firms: one firm that does an investigation and prepares a report that we all know will end up in the hands of the Government, and one firm that provides advice to the company (or the board, or a committee of the board) and over whose work we hope to maintain privilege.  We have addressed internal investigations and related problems before.

[Full disclosure moment: My law firm does a lot of products-liability work, all of it on the defense side (that is, on behalf of the people who make the products that allegedly cause the complained-of injury).  We are not involved in the matters described in the report, but we have in the past represented and continue today to represent automotive manufacturers.  I do little products work; the primary way I judge a car is by its air-conditioning.  Nevertheless, consider my biases as you read].

 

Doubts about who the client is?

Doubts about who the client is?

A change in the way we view lawyers and their roles.  We may be faced with an evolving re-definition of that law school chestnut: Who is the client?  Is the client now the Government?  This is a critical threshold question. In the narrative laid out in the GM report, the “client” of the internal lawyers and of the outside counsel is not the government, or a government agency or a regulator.  The client is not the buyer of a GM car or the passenger in a GM car.  The client is not a Member of Congress, an editorial writer or a blogger.  The lawyer — at least while she or he is acting as counsel — owes a duty only to the client, a client which, in this situation, is a non-natural person called a “corporation.”

Professor Peter Henning is generally right on the money with regard to white-collar matters, but he jumps the gun when he so quickly blames lawyers in this kind of situation:

 

In the aftermath of the savings and loan scandal, Judge Stanley Sporkin asked how a once-prominent financial institution could engage in a pattern of misconduct. “Where were the professionals when these clearly improper transactions were being consummated?” he asked.

For General Motors, the negligence and incompetence that resulted in at least 13 deaths and multiple injuries from a faulty ignition switch is equally troubling. Numerous lawyers were on the scene, but none took responsibility for making sure their client did not continue to keep defective cars on the road.

Most people, when they pay for a lawyer, want that lawyer to be their lawyer and not someone else’s.  Indeed, that concept of loyalty is a foundation of the conflict-of-interest rules (rules, by the way, far more demanding than what is considered normal in the marketplace).  Under current law and rules, and with few exceptions, lawyers internal and external have neither a duty nor a warrant to serve multiple masters simultaneously.  The most relevant provision is Rule 1.13  (“Organization As Client”) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which are restrictive about what a lawyer representing an organization may and may not reveal.

Even the “reporting up” obligations, which are limited, are focused on the client:

If a lawyer for an organization knows that an officer, employee or other person associated with the organization is engaged in action, intends to act or refuses to act in a matter related to the representation that is a violation of a legal obligation to the organization, or a violation of law that reasonably might be imputed to the organization, and that is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, then the lawyer shall proceed as is reasonably necessary in the best interest of the organization. Unless the lawyer reasonably believes that it is not necessary in the best interest of the organization to do so, the lawyer shall refer the matter to higher authority in the organization, including, if warranted by the circumstances to the highest authority that can act on behalf of the organization as determined by applicable law.

This question is distinct, of course, from what is wise, merciful or sane from a business or spiritual standpoint, and one could make an argument that losing track of the ignition problem was “likely to result in substantial injury to the organization.”  But if the question is, Where were the lawyers?, the answer is, They were right there.

 

A file too far.

A file too far.

A Forest-and-Trees Cliche.  In future litigation, if wholesale problems still get lost in the retail landscape, they will imperil your job.  If the GM report is accurate, there was never a genuine “visibility” problem about the ignition switch.  “Visibility” was not the problem.  “Irritability” was the problem.  Lawyers tend to deal with the irritant at hand; they put out the fire first that is closest and hottest.  They are trained to do so — first in law school, by “spotting issues” instead of looking at a scenario as a whole, and then in private practice, with the demarcation of work into mostly fenced-off fields (called “cases”) and of compensation into fractions of time (called “tenths of an hour”).  In addition, for internal lawyers, a combination of too many demands, insufficient resources and a corporate focus on the monthly or the quarterly has the same grinding effect.  An in-house friend, a accomplished lawyer at a large corporation with a good reputation, says that her only criticism of her job is that she never — ever — has time to actually think.

So what, as a practical matter, can we do — internal lawyers, outside counsel and businesspeople?

Grow Real Ethics.  There is no substitute for actual ethics, opposed to consultant-thick compliance programs and ever-muddied regulation.  We have written on the compliance versus ethics problem before.

Senior Citizens Unite.  Older lawyers – internally and externally — have to speak up.  Young lawyers lack professional and financial traction, as noted in at least one instance in the GM report.

 

Team A v. Team B

Team A v. Team B

Be A Spook.  When faced with “serial” litigation, try the CIA Team B approach of pitting two teams — one internal, one external – against each other on the same topic or issue.  (Outside law firms are useful for this exercise, if there is money in the budget).  As a way of addressing the Soviet strategic threat, Team B has had many critics, but alternative, competitive thought is always worth considering (and is always more expensive).

Misery Loves Company.  Outside lawyers are proficient at CYA.  Consider ways to put your outside law firms more firmly on the ethical hook.

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Without the right budget and the right approach, none of this may matter, but give it some thought.  By itself, the fact that we all believe that we are serving our clients won’t keep us from getting “GM’ed.”