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What Should an Attorney Do If Attorney Has Mistakenly Produced a Privileged Document Under Massachusetts Law?

Posted on: February 14th, 2020

By: Adrianna Michalska

In the event that an attorney has mistakenly produced a privileged document in discovery, Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(5)(B) requires that he give prompt notice to the party receiving the document and takes reasonable steps to rectify the error.

The same Rule also prescribes conduct for the party receiving the mistakenly produced privileged document. After being notified of the inadvertent disclosure, the receiving party shall:

  1. Promptly return, sequester, or destroy the specified information and any copies of it;
  2. Refrain from using or disclosing the information until the claim is resolved; and
  3. Take reasonable steps to retrieve the information if the party disclosed it before being notified.

If the receiving party first discovers that a privileged document has been mistakenly produced, Massachusetts Rule 4.4(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires that the party who receives information relating to the representation of the attorney’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the information was inadvertently send, shall promptly notify the sender.

Additionally, the receiving party may choose to present the disclosed privileged information to the court for a determination of the claim. Massachusetts Supreme Court has held that as long as “reasonable precautions against disclosure were taken,” inadvertent disclosure does not impair the privilege. In the Matter of the Reorganization of Electric Mutual Liability Ins. Co. Ltd. (Bermuda), 425 Mass. 419, 422 (1997). Even if the disclosure could be preventable with more careful attention, the court may find it to be nonetheless inadvertent. Vigor Works, LLC v. Skanska (Mass. Super. Ct. Feb. 12, 2019), 35 Mass. L. Rep. 425, 2019 Mass. Super. LEXIS 15, at *9. Thus, the court will not deem the privilege waived, unless it can determine that: (1) the disclosure was not inadvertent, (2) the holder of the privilege did not take reasonable steps to prevent the disclosure, and (3) the holder of the privilege did not take reasonable steps to promptly rectify the error.

To ensure that you are taking reasonable steps to protect the privilege, especially when working with voluminous document production, consider taking additional precautions, such as “creat[ing] a detailed privilege log, engag[ing] a litigation support company . . . , and numbering [and indexing] . . . documents . . . in a manner consistent with a detailed privilege log.” Commerce & Indus. Ins. Co. v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. (Mass. Sup. Ct. Dec. 11, 2000), 12 Mass. L. Rep. 574, 2000 Mass. Super. LEXIS 680, at *11.

About half of the states have imposed similar obligations on litigating lawyers in their jurisdictions. Some states that do not follow similar language to Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(5)(B) are New York (not prescribing any conduct on the receiving party, beyond notifying the sender) and Virginia (a receiving party is obligated to immediately terminate review or use of the inadvertently produced document, promptly notify the sender, and abide by the sender’s further instructions).

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Adrianna Michalska at [email protected], or any other member of our Lawyers Professional Liability Practice Group, a list of which can be found at www.fmglaw.com.

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