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Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

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.

Closings Gone Bad

Posted on: October 25th, 2018

By: Dana Maine

Nathan Hardwick IV was convicted by a Northern District of Georgia federal jury on October 12, 2018 of embezzling $26 million from the accounts of his former firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider.  $20 million of this amount was from the firm’s escrow accounts.  The good news for clients of the firm is that firm’s insurer, Fidelity National Finance, stepped in to cover most of the escrow shortfall.  All parties to real estate closings were watching this trial and trying to understand how this scheme could have gone on for as long as it did and involve this amount of money. There are lots of lessons to be learned, and policies to be implemented.  Doubtless, attorneys for escrow agents and their insurers are scurrying to draft these new policies and put them in place.  Hardwick’s sentencing is set for December 19.  He will remain in custody until sentencing.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Dana Maine at [email protected].

Who’s Liable for Letting the Dogs Out?

Posted on: October 23rd, 2018

By: Wes Jackson

“Cry ‘Havoc!,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar act 3, sc. 1.

 

Havoc indeed—in a case argued before the Georgia Supreme Court on October 10, two pit bulls slipped out of a tenant’s backyard gate with a broken latch and then mauled a woman walking her smaller dogs nearly two blocks away from the home. Police had to fatally shoot both dogs to end the attack, and the woman was life-flighted to a hospital where she stayed for seven days and was left disfigured after multiple surgeries.

The question before the Court was whether the landlord could be liable for the attack. The trial court entered summary judgment in the landlord’s favor because the plaintiff could not show the landlord had any prior knowledge of the dogs’ propensity for violence. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the question of the landlord’s liability should have been submitted to a jury.

The case exemplifies how thorny questions of proximate causation can jeopardize a defendant’s hopes at summary judgment. For example, the Court of Appeals found the trial court erred by failing to properly consider the fact that the landlord had known the gate latch was broken but failed to repair it. Additionally, the parties argued before the Court whether a landowner’s failure to keep the premises in repair could, as a matter of law, proximately cause an injury that happens more than two blocks away from the property. Given these arguments, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely either extend or limit the scope of landlords’ liability for injuries caused by their tenants or those that occur off the property.

The case is Tyner v. Matta-Troncoso et al., S18G0364. If you have any questions about this case or its impact on landlord liability, premises liability, or dog attack cases in Georgia, feel free to contact Wes Jackson at [email protected].

An Examination of the Interpretation of Free Recreation

Posted on: October 15th, 2018

By: Kevin Stone

In Georgia, if property is open free of charge for recreational purposes, the landowner is normally immune from liability for injuries occurring on the property.  A court can decide this as a matter of law without sending the case to a jury.  When sales occur on such property, however, a court may require a jury to decide whether the property’s use is “purely recreational,” rather than commercial.  This creation of a jury issue exists even if the sales are by private vendors and the landowner receives no payment.

For example, the Court of Appeals recently found that a free concert—at which concert-goers had the option of buying concessions from outside vendors (that did not pay the property owner), and where the event may have created a marketing benefit for the landowner—was considered to have both recreational and commercial purposes.  The result being that a jury, not a judge, had to resolve the issue of the property owner’s primary purpose for the property.  This interpretation of the law allows a commercial classification even though property is open for free for recreation.

This seems at odds with the purpose of the Recreational Property Act: “to encourage property owners to make their property available to the public for recreational purposes.”  In a concurrence, Chief Judge Dillard made the keen observation that a fair interpretation of the Act strongly suggests that the only relevant economic consideration is whether an admission fee is charged.  In such a case, the immunity would apply.

The Georgia Supreme Court has decided to weigh in and granted certiorari on these issues.  The Court’s examination will provide clarification for landowners who allow free access for recreation but also allow the public the option of making purchases.  We will continue to follow this case and keep you updated with the Court’s explanation.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Kevin Stone at [email protected].

Murphy’s Law and The Exception to Georgia’s Impact Rule

Posted on: September 17th, 2018

By: Jason Kamp

Claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are limited by the Impact Rule in Georgia.  In a recent attempt to keep the sole exception from swallowing the Impact Rule, the Supreme Court of Georgia may have done exactly what it sought to prevent.

The Impact Rule states: “In a claim concerning negligent conduct, a recovery for emotional distress is allowed only where there is some impact on the plaintiff, and that impact must be a physical injury.”  Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. et al., 272 Ga. 583, 584 (2000).

The Impact Rule has one exception for the death of a child:

When, as here, a parent and child sustain a direct physical impact and physical injuries through the negligence of another, and the child dies as the result of such negligence, the parent may attempt to recover for serious emotional distress from witnessing the child’s suffering and death without regard to whether the emotional trauma arises out of the physical injury to the parent.

Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. et al., 272 Ga. 583, 588 (2000).

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently decided a case concerning the exception to the Impact Rule for the death of a child.  In Coon v. Med. Ctr., Inc., the plaintiff learned during a routine prenatal examination that her unborn baby no longer had a heartbeat. Coon v. Med. Ctr., Inc., 300 Ga. 722, 723 (2017). After labor was induced, the plaintiff’s stillborn child was mixed up with another stillborn at the hospital.  Id. at 724.  The hospital then released the wrong remains to the plaintiff and her family, who unknowingly held services and buried the wrong remains as a result.  Id.  The hospital later realized its mistake and informed the plaintiff.  Id. at 725.  A claim for negligent infliction of emotional harm under the exception followed.

The Supreme Court of Georgia declined to extend the exception, reasoning, “[the plaintiff] did not suffer any physical impact that resulted in physical injury from the hospital’s negligent mishandling of her stillborn child’s remains, nor did the child suffer any physical impact or injury.” Id. at 734-735.

By focusing on the impact element, the Supreme Court implicitly assumed the answer to a threshold question: whether an unborn child is a child capable of dying under the exception.  The court’s reasoning appears to open the exception to all tort cases with a physical impact that results in a failed pregnancy.  This could result in a growth in negligent infliction of emotional distress claims in bodily injury and medical malpractice cases.

Before Coon, the exception to the impact rule assumed the dead child had already been born.  After Coon, that assumption is either gone or open to question.  In its attempt to limit the exception, the Supreme Court of Georgia incidentally expanded it to include a debate on when life begins.  At the end of the Coon opinion, the court remarked, “If we do not insist on a workable limiting principle as a prerequisite to recognition of new exceptions to the physical impact rule, the exceptions will soon will soon swallow the rule.”  Id. at 735.  Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law knows no exceptions.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jason Kamp at [email protected].