Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wake Up Call for Those Asserting Broad Privilege Claims: U.S. ex rel Kalid-Kunz v. Halifax Hospital

The Court in the False Claims Act/Qui Tam case of US ex rel Kalid-Kunz v. Halifax Hospital Medical Center, et al., 2012 WL 5415108 (M.D. Fla., November 6, 2012) recently rejected a number of privilege claims made by the defendant in that hotly contested litigation. See previous blog post. The Court’s opinion evaluating Halifax Hospital’s privilege claims is a wake up call both for litigators and in-house counsel, and serves as a refresher on where and when the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine applies. Though it did not really apply new law as some commentators have claimed, the Court examined Halifax’s privilege claims in a manner and at a level of detail not usually seen in discovery orders. In doing so, the Court emphasized that the attorney-client privilege applies to communications made by or to counsel in the course of obtaining or receiving legal advice and it rejected privilege claims for any email, document, or record that did not exhibit such a clear purpose, regardless of whether a lawyer was copied on the document. The Court’s rulings are quite instructive.  For example: 

·                  The Court rejected the hospital’s attempts to shield as privileged hospital compliance communications that only tangentially involved legal counsel;

·                  In lieu of examining every single document for which defendant claimed a privilege, the Court required that the parties file a “representative samples” for in camera review and based its rulings on review of those samples;

·           Communications by in-house counsel were not entitled to a “presumption” of being privileged, given the mixed role of in-house counsel and their involvement in business decisions; 

·                  Just because a document is labeled “attorney-client privilege” and “funneled through an attorney” does not “automatically encase the document in the privilege.” It has to be related to providing or receiving legal assistance;  

·                  Emails on which both a lawyer and non-lawyer are copied or sent are not considered to have the “primary purpose” of seeking legal advice and thus did not qualify for the privilege; 

·                  You can send “privileged” emails to non-lawyers if you are “apprising “them of the legal advice that was sought and received” -- essentially passing along advice of a lawyer;

·           “A draft of a document is protected by the attorney-client privilege if it was prepared with the assistance of any attorney for the purpose of obtaining legal advice or, after an attorney’s advice, contained information a client considered but decided not to include in the final,” and

·           Each email of an email string must be listed separately in a privilege log and the privilege evaluated for each email in an email string. Email string may not be listed as one message.

Additionally, the Court rejected the Hospital’s privilege claim over its “compliance referral log.” In the face of Hospital’s claim that it was a “factual record about compliance issues that may need to be investigated" and that the log was prepared in anticipation of litigation, the Court found the log was kept in normal course, often just recorded facts, incorporated emails that were not privileged, and did not reflect review by counsel.

The Court rejected privilege log descriptions such as “facilitates the provision of compliance advice”, “facilitates the rendering of compliance advice”, and “reflecting request for compliance advice” on the grounds that you “cannot tell from the descriptions whether privilege is properly asserted.”

The Court rejected the Hospital’s privilege claims for “audit reviews” conducted by the management department, compliance department, and finance department. Again, these audits were not conducted primarily for the purpose of obtaining or receiving legal advice.

Overall, the Court refused to recognize privilege claims that were simply based on the fact that the lawyer may be a recipient of the document or information or on the fact that the subject matter of the report or document (e.g., audits or compliance log) might be of interest to counsel or report matters that might raise a legal concern.  

A. Brian Albritton
December 20, 2012

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