Defending privileged documents in eDiscovery is not easy. The right to private communications is vital to the practice of law, but, with the explosion of digital evidence in litigation, lawyers are finding it increasingly hard to protect every single piece of attorney-client work product. Unfortunately, the courts have consistently ruled that even the smallest slip-up or mistake that lets any piece of privileged data go to opposing counsel means your privilege is waived.
Lawyers have to prove that they made every possible effort to prevent privileged information from leaking, but, despite their best efforts, the information somehow got through. Or, to put in judge-speak, “When a producing party claims inadvertent disclosure, it has the burden of proving that the disclosure was truly inadvertent.” Fox v. Massey-Ferguson, Inc., 172 F.R.D. 653, 671 (E.D. Mich. 1995)
We’ve reviewed the most recent and evolving case law on the topic. As with any unsettled area of law, the rulings have been diverse and confusing. But a few common themes are becoming apparent. Here is the most relevant and recent case law on protecting privilege along with the specific advice from the courts on how to avoid a privilege disaster.
Make an Effort
That may be good advice for anything in life, but it is also a specific command the courts have repeatedly delivered in privilege-related matters. Too often, lawyers produce evidence in litigation and, when they find out privileged information was given to opposing counsel, they try to get it back, arguing that the production was an accident.
There is a simple, three part test to determine if a party waives privilege by accidentally producing to opposing counsel. Part one asks whether the production was truly an accident. The second and third parts of the test ask whether or not your team took reasonable efforts to prevent that disclosure from happening and then took steps to fix the problem once identified. That means you have to demonstrate a concerted effort to protect privileged content but, for reasons out of your control, the data wound up in someone else’s hands. For example, the court in Pacific Coast Steel, Inc. v. Leany, No. 2:09-cv-12190-KJD-PAL, 2011 (D. Nev. Sept. 30, 2011) slapped down the plaintiff’s request to return privileged documents because he never made an effort to protect privilege.
The plaintiff in this employment matter tried to remove privileged documents from the evidence acquired by his former employer. However, the judge found that he had the opportunity to remove copies of his computer files, and did not make an effort to remove any of the confidential or privileged information, he “waived any privilege he may have had to privileged or confidential materials he left … by failing to take reasonable means to preserve the confidentiality of the privileged matter.”