Get Out of Jail Free? Not Without The Attorney-Client Privilege

MonopolyWe have talked about attorney-client privilege, internal investigations and the GM ignition recall: Privilege, Corporate Silence and Saul Goodman,  How To Avoid Being GM’ed: The Wrongs and Rights of Clients and Lawyers and It’s Okay To Smell A Rat: Internal Investigations, Attorney-Client Privilege and the KBR Decision.

There was even a quote in Forbes.com: Of Snitches and Privileges.

And if you can’t get enough, now a short (16 minute) presentation to the Network of Trial Law Firms meeting in October:

How To Avoid Being GM’d from LFW on Vimeo.

 

 


Privilege, Corporate Silence and Saul Goodman

"This attorney-client privilege issue gives me a headache."

“This whole attorney-client privilege issue gives me a headache.”

We are past Labor Day, and just as well.  Marked by the GM internal-investigation report’s criticism of some of the company’s internal lawyers, the summer was not kind to internal lawyers generally and to the attorney-client privilege particularly.  Consider, for example, the FCPA Blog‘s note on how life is tough for internal counsel.

Even more notably, there is apparently a federal criminal investigation of GM that includes the conduct of the lawyers:

Prosecutors could try to charge current and former GM lawyers and others with mail and wire fraud, the same charges Toyota faced, said a former official who worked on the Toyota case. But, they would need to have clear proof that the employees knew the cars were faulty and then deliberately withheld that, the former official said.

The investigation could be hindered by attorney-client privilege, according to legal experts, but that privilege can be waived by GM or pierced by a “crime-fraud” exception that allows disclosure of information intended to commit or cover up a crime or fraud.

The notion of privilege has taken a beating in recent weeks, as shown in a New York Times “Dealbook” article (Keeping Corporate Lawyers Silent Can Shelter Wrongdoing) by Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley:

[U]nless a whistle-blower steps forward, the [attorney-client privilege] principle remains strong. Despite the widespread involvement of its legal staff, General Motors successfully invoked the privilege to help keep silent on the ignition scandal it eventually faced. Even the Justice Department changed its guidelines in 2008 to remove a provision that penalized companies for invoking the privilege.

The result is that companies have a great incentive to shift anything hinting at legal trouble to their in-house counsel to ensure that it is protected from disclosure. The in-house legal department thus becomes the “cover-up and damage control” arm of the company.

. . . .

Is it time to cut back privilege or even end it to prevent companies from hiding corporate crimes?

And, here’s further commentary from Lucian E. Dervan at the White Collar Crime Prof blog, focusing on the Delaware Supreme Court opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW,Del. Supr., No. 614, 2013 (July 23, 2014): Privilege, Corporate Wrongdoing, and the Wal-Mart FCPA Investigation.

It’s enough to make a law-abiding internal lawyer (and even the supporting-cast outside counsel) feel like Walter White’s lawyer, Saul Goodman, in Breaking Bad:

What’s to be done?

Here are my thoughts in 140 seconds:

We have written on GM and the privilege before: How To Avoid Being GM’ed: The Wrongs and Rights of Clients and Lawyers.  In particular:

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.

Indeed, it is instructive to compare the anti-privilege sentiment in its most pitchfork version with the recent decision of the D.C. Circuit in the KBR matter, which was a resounding reaffirmation of privilege in the internal-investigation context.  As we pointed out in It’s Okay To Smell A Rat: Internal Investigations, Attorney-Client Privilege and the KBR Decision:

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.

In fact, if you do smell a rat, sometimes there is all the greater need to speak in confidence:

The attorney-client privilege has engendered debate ever since its first articulation, and that debate is healthy.  We should not let the urgency of news items, however, obscure the broader good that the privilege can serve.  There are many things that, in our adversarial system, the Government does not get to know about my clients.  We could change the system to a more inquisitorial structure, but such a move goes against a host of cultural and constitutional mindsets that, however imperfectly, have preserved individual liberties, property rights and the rule of law for a long time.  There are few professional prospects more pleasant for a prosecutor or a regulator than an opportunity to strip you of the ability to speak in confidence to your lawyer.

As well-stated by Saul Goodman:


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.