Guest Posting from Ron Shutz
Case: Keefe v. Bernard, 2009 W.L. 346738 (Oct. 30, 2009).
Topic: Corporate Attorney/Client & Work Product Privilege
The attorney representing both the doctor and his corporate employer in a medical malpractice action interviewed an orthopedic surgeon also employed by the corporation. The plaintiff sought discovery of a report the defendants’ attorney prepared summarizing the interview. The trial court ordered it produced despite the defendants’ claim of attorney-client privilege. In an interlocutory appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the first impression corporate attorney-client issues the case presented. The Court held that communications between an attorney representing a corporation and a corporate employee are only protected by the attorney-client privilege if the discussions cover the employee’s actions as they relate to the potential liability of the corporation. Here, the report revealed that the surgeon was interviewed solely as a witness to the events at issue. The Court held such discussions are not attorney-client privileged. However, the Court found that the report was attorney work-product privileged because it showed the attorney’s mental processes. Though protected material, the defendant was required to turn the report over to the plaintiffs as a sanction for defendant’s failure to notify plaintiffs of the interview as required by Iowa law. In order to protect disclosure of the attorney’s opinion work (which the Court noted “is for all practical purposes, immune from discovery”) the Court ordered the report redacted to disclose only the facts, information and statements attributable to the surgeon.
• As a general rule, when an employee discusses with company counsel his or her own actions relating to the potential liability of that company, those communications are protected by the company’s attorney-client privilege.
• Depending on the law of the jurisdiction, if an employee is interviewed by corporate counsel and provides information as a witness to the actions of others, those communications may not be protected by the attorney-client privilege, but could still be protected as attorney work product.
To avoid possible sanctions, counsel should ensure there are no statutory limitations or ethical prohibitions before interviewing or deposing a witness.
There are two layers to the attorney work product privilege. An opponent might be able to get at relevant non-privileged information embedded in your work with a demonstration of substantial need or undue hardship. But (unless something far worse has occurred) your mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories should never face such a disclosure.