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Protecting In-House Correspondence from Disclosure: The Troublesome “CC”

Posted on: November 28th, 2018

By: Jake Carroll

Commercial disputes present complex issues of causation—what caused the accident, who is responsible, what is impacting company revenue. But before the dispute even arises, in-house attorneys are frequently copied on correspondence with team members and employees evaluating and offering opinions on causation, performance, and potential costs. Then, when the dispute or accident ends up in litigation, the materials prepared by the employees are sought in discovery.

For example, what if an engineering firm learns that one of its employees improperly installed a part of the anti-corrosion system for a pipeline. The employee’s supervisor prepares an email detailing all instances of improperly installed systems in the last four (4) years by the employee and decides to cc in-house counsel. Is this email protected from disclosure if a lawsuit arises from the improperly installed pipe system?

Claims of privilege and work product are often asserted when an in-house attorney is included as a secondary recipient—or CC—on an email, raising the question of what exactly is covered by the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine. Resolving these issues can be costly in their own right, and have the potential to derail an otherwise straightforward dispute.

While there are some exceptions, the general rule is that the communications where in-house attorneys are only CC’d are not protected from disclosure under either the attorney-client privilege or the work-product doctrine.[1]

The attorney-client privilege protects confidential communications that are sent for the purpose of securing legal advice.[2] However, when an email is neither addressed to the in-house attorney, nor sent directly to the attorney, it is unlikely that the privilege applies.[3] Similarly, the work-product doctrine protects correspondence or reports prepared in anticipation of litigation.[4] When an in-house attorney is only CC’d on correspondence, the emails are neither work performed by the in-house attorney, nor work prepared at the direction of the in-house attorney.[5] Additionally, many of these emails are typically sent prior to litigation and are not protected.

Businesses would do well to remember that simply copying your in-house attorney on an email will not shield its disclosure during discovery. The impact of this fact is far-reaching. In the example above, not only would the other side have an admission regarding the mislaid pipe from the supervisor, the email has also identified other projects where the business may be vulnerable to suit to a plaintiffs’ attorney.

If a company wishes for correspondence to be protected from disclosure, the following tips, though not exhaustive, are helpful:

  1. The sender of the email should direct correspondence to in-house counsel in a separate email—not by CC—and for the express purpose of seeking legal advice on a potential issue. For example, starting the email with “legal advice needed” or “request for legal advice” will go a long way to preserving the privilege and are more effective than “I have a question” or “see below.” Such requests should also be addressed specifically to the in-house attorney or an attorney on the legal team, rather than being directed to other employees with just a cc to the lawyer.
  2. To protect the privilege when using emails, avoid communications with both business and legal purposes as much as possible.
  3. Limit long email chains. Besides being good business practice, in-house counsel should not let privileged discussions continue in a long email chain. Inevitably, as the discussion continues, the topic may stray away from the original question and new people may be added to the email string—risking the privilege protection.

Protecting the attorney–client privilege and work-product privilege requires sound policies and procedures, a properly trained workforce and constant vigilance from the in-house attorney. But business that put procedures in place on the front end will find it well worth their time if and when a dispute arises.

If you need help with this issue, or any other commercial law questions, Jake Carroll practices construction and commercial law, is licensed to practice in Georgia and Florida, and is a member of Freeman Mathis & Gary’s Construction Law and Tort & Catastrophic Loss practice groups. He represents corporations and manufacturers in a wide range of litigation and corporate matters involving breach of contract, business torts, and products liability claims. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

 

[1] Minebea Co. v. Papst, 228 F.R.D. 13, 21 (D.D.C. 2005) (“A corporation cannot be permitted to insulate its files from discovery simply by sending a ‘cc’ to in-house counsel.”) (quoting USPS v. Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., 852 F.Supp. 156, 163-64 (E.D.N.Y.1994)).
[2] See e.g. Upjohn Co. v. U. S., 449 U.S. 383, 394-95 (1981).
[3] Id. at 394; In re Seroquel Prods. Liability Litig., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39467, 2008 WL 1995058, at *4 (May 7, 2008) (explaining that “[t]here is general agreement that the protection of the privilege applies only if the primary or predominate purpose of the attorney-client consultation is to seek legal advice or assistance”) (quoting Paul R. Rice, Attorney-Client Privilege in the United States § 7:5).
[4] The work-product privilege is derived from the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Hickman v. Taylor, 29 U.S. 495, 510-11, 67 S. Ct. 385, 393 (1947), and is codified in Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3).
[5] See Cox v. Adm’r U.S. Steel & Carnegie, 17 F.3d 1386, 1421-22 (11th Cir. 1994), opinion modified on reh’g, 30 F.3d 1347 (11th Cir. 1994) (recognizing that the work-product privilege protects from discovery “materials that reflect an attorney’s mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories” that were prepared in anticipation of litigation and intended to remain confidential); cf. Hickman, 329 U.S. at 511, 67 S.Ct. at 393; Upjohn, 449 U.S. at 399, 101 S.Ct. at 687.
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