When does a producing party waive the attorney-client privilege, and who bears the burden of proving the waiver?

Does Inadvertent Disclosure Destroy the Safe-Haven Afforded by Attorney-Client Privilege?

Last spring the District Court for the District of Colorado heard argument on Galena St. Fund, LP v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. Plaintiff Galena specifically appealed to the court to compel discovery with respect to 8,327 documents that defendant Wells Fargo claimed were privileged. Magistrate Judge Boyd N. Boland was asked to consider whether Wells Fargo was allowed to claim privilege from trust beneficiaries, or in the alternative, if Wells Fargo waived the attorney-client privilege in its entirety.

Plaintiff’s motion consisted of the kitchen-sink brief: first, Wells Fargo could claim no privilege exists to prevent disclosure of records to a beneficiary of a trust; second, when Wells Fargo named a non-party at fault, they effectively waived privilege by making the documents at-issue in the case; third, Wells Fargo waived privilege by having an overbroad privilege log; and fourth, Wells Fargo waived simply by inadvertently disclosing during the course of discovery.

In short, Judge Boland was not convinced. Only one exhibit in the universe of disclosure was deemed to be a waiver of privilege, based on the at-issue waiver rule. That document was an email chain discussing defendant’s non-party claim and deciding how to remit proceeds from federally insured RMBS loans.   The court recognized that Wells Fargo “cannot use the attorney-client privilege as a shield to hide communications that indicate that Wells Fargo directed [the non-party] on how to remit those proceeds.” Galena, 2014 WL 943115 at *12-13.

Unfortunately for Galena, that was the only point for plaintiffs on the scoreboard. The court went on to explain that Wells Fargo’s contact with outside counsel did not waive privilege for Galena as a beneficiary of the trust, essentially because Wells Fargo’s reaching out to outside counsel was inspired by Galena’s threat of litigation. Furthermore, Judge Boland did not find defendants assertion of privilege to be overbroad, and recognized that inadvertent disclosure does not waive privilege in any meaningful sense.

Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure works in conjunction with Rule 502 of the Federal Rules of Evidence to provide a solution to this very situation. So long as the disclosure was truly inadvertent and the holder of the privilege took reasonable steps to remedy the problem, privilege is still maintained. In this situation, the “burden of showing that the privilege has not been waived remains with the party claiming the privilege.” Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2009 WL 4949959 *10 (D. Colo. Dec. 14, 2009). In the other situations in which the court analyzed potential waiver here, the burden of establishing a waiver of the attorney-client privilege “rests with the party seeking to overcome the privilege.” People v. Madera, 112 P.3d 688, 690 (Colo. 2005).

Galena couldn’t possibly meet that burden, for all 8,327 documents. Hopefully, Galena’s counsel can make some hay with the one record in which privilege was waived.

Kevin received a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Scranton (2009), and will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015. Prior to joining the Seton Hall community, Kevin worked as an eDiscovery professional at two large “white-shoe” law firms in Manhattan.

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