Tag Archives: Attorney-Client Privilege

S.D.N.Y.: Where Affirmative Defense of “Good Faith,” Asserted, Defendant’s State of Mind at Issue and Communications With Counsel Possibly Subject to Disclosure, Notwithstanding Lack of “Advice of Counsel” Defense

Xuedan Wang v. Hearst Corp.

In the vast majority of FLSA cases, the defendant asserts that its violations of the FLSA, if any, were committed in “good faith,” such that the court may, in its discretion deny the plaintiff otherwise mandatory liquidated damages. In many of these cases, it is hard to imagine that a large corporate defendant who is asserting the “good faith” defense, has not actually sought the advice of counsel as part of the process of determining whether the policies at issue comply with the FLSA. In the past, to the frustration of plaintiffs’ counsel everywhere, most courts have held that the attorney-client privilege protects such communications between the defendant and its counsel, unless the defendant specifically claims that it relied on the advice of counsel in substantiating its “good faith” defense. Recently, Judge Baer in the Southern District of New York recognized that this approach is patently absurd and ordered an FLSA defendant to produce such communications with counsel, notwithstanding its claim that it would not rely upon an advice of counsel defense.

Rejecting the defendant’s assertion that such communications were non-discoverable and protected by the attorney-client privilege, the court reasoned:

According to the Second Circuit, “[i]t is well settled that ‘[t]he burden of establishing the existence of an attorney-client privilege, in all of its elements, rests with the party asserting it,’ ” In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 219 F.3d 175, 182 (2d Cir.2000) (quoting United States v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 119 F.3d 210, 214 (2d Cir.1997)). In particular, the Second Circuit “has recognized that implied waiver may be found where the privilege holder ‘asserts a claim that in fairness requires examination of protected communications.’ ” In re Grand Jury, 219 F.3d at 182 (quoting United States v. Bilzerian, 926 F.2d 1285, 1292 (2d Cir.1991)) (emphasis added in the original). “The key to a finding of implied waiver … is some showing by the party arguing for a waiver that the opposing party relies on the privileged communication as a claim or defense or as an element of a claim or defense.”   In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d 222, 228 (2d Cir.2008).

Defendant contends that the attorney-client privilege applies because its good faith defense would not rely on “legal advice,” citing court cases from other circuits for the proposition that “[t]here are many ways to establish good faith under the FLSA that do not involve the advice of counsel.” Not so here. In Bilzerian, for instance, the Second Circuit squarely rejected the defendant’s argument that there was no waiver because “the testimony he sought to introduce regarding his good faith … would not have disclosed the content or even the existence of any privileged communications or asserted a reliance of counsel advice.” 926 F.2d at 1291. The Circuit reasoned that the waiver principle was nonetheless applicable because the defendant’s “testimony that he thought his actions were legal would have put his knowledge of the law and the basis of his understanding of what the law required in issue,” and that “[h]is conversations with counsel regarding the legality of his schemes would have been directly relevant in determining the extent of his knowledge and, as a result, his intent.” Id. at 1292. More recently, the Circuit has reaffirmed the position that “the assertion of a good-faith defense involves an inquiry into state of mind, which typically calls forth the possibility of implied waiver of the attorney-client privilege.” In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d at 228–29. See also MBIA Ins. Corp. v. Patriarch Partners VIII, LLC, No. 09 Civ. 3255, 2012 WL 2568972, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. July 3, 2012) (rejecting the contention that the waiver occurs only when a party asserts a claim or defense that he intends to prove by use of the privileged materials); Arista Records LLC v. Lime Group LLC, No. 06 Civ. 5936, 2011 WL 1642434, *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 20, 2011) (“Defendants’ assertion that Bilzerian does not apply because they may not be relying on advice of counsel for their good faith defense misreads the law.”)

Thus, Defendant’s good faith defense in this case undoubtedly raises the possibility of implied waiver, and the question before this Court is “[w]hether fairness requires disclosure” in the “specific context in which the privilege is asserted.” In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d at 229 (quoting In re Grand Jury, 219 F.3d at 183). Here, Plaintiffs have submitted, for the Court consideration, a deposition of Defendant’s human resources personnel indicating that the legal department, not the human resources department, would be able to answer why school credit letters were collected for unpaid interns. This is not exactly, as Plaintiffs represent in their letter, a statement that “the decision not to pay interns and to classify them as non-employees was made by Defendant’s legal department.” Nonetheless, in my view, Defendant’s assurance that it would “limit any good faith defense to one in which the state of mind was not formed on the basis of legal advice” amounts to little more than semantics without any concrete examples provided by Defendants. On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine that a good faith defense regarding the FLSA raised by a corporation as large and as sophisticated as Hearst would not involve the advice of its legal department, and the section of the deposition provided to me confirms at least that much. The deposition, for instance, suggests that the human resources department may not itself be familiar with the reason why Defendant’s magazines require interns to submit school credit letters, which raises rather than diminishes the possibility of the legal department’s involvement.

Defendant’s argument that an order by this Court at this juncture in the litigation is premature is a valid argument but for the fact that discovery is over next month and later would hardly be better. The other concern is privilege. The emails to be produced are obviously the ones with respect to which the privilege is waived because they bear on Defendant’s state of mind, as discussed above. With respect to those emails, Defendant will produce a privilege log, and I will review the documents in camera, unless, of course, there are too many. In the latter case, I will appoint a special master at the expense of the parties. The material should all be produced by year’s end. Should this create a major problem, the parties should schedule a telephone conference this week.

Click Xuedan Wang v. Hearst Corp. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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S.D.Ind.: FLSA Defendant Not Entitled to Discovery of Plaintiff’s Attorney’s Billing Records, Until Such Time Plaintiff Is “Prevailing Party”

Johnson v. Bridges of Indiana, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel discovery of plaintiff’s attorney’s billing records.  In denying the motion, the court noted that only a “prevailing” plaintiff is entitled to attorney’s fees.  As such, the request was premature.

Denying the motion to compel, the court explained:

“The FLSA directs courts to award reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs to prevailing plaintiffs.” Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 550 (7th Cir.1999) (emphasis added). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2) and the common practice in this District requires the court to establish an appropriate fee after the Plaintiff has prevailed at trial.  Plaintiff has not yet, and may never, become a “prevailing plaintiff.” Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure explains: “Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense ….  Because Plaintiff has not yet become a prevailing party, her attorney’s billing records are not relevant to any claim she has raised against Defendants, nor is it relevant to any defense that Defendants might raise.”

Click Johnson v. Bridges of Indiana, Inc. to read the entire decision.

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S.D.N.Y.: Email From Employer’s “Management Team” Regarding FLSA Classification Not Attorney-Client Privileged

Clarke v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

Before the Court in this FLSA/Overtime Law case was an application by defendant, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. for an order compelling plaintiffs to return or destroy all copies of an e-mail message, dated December 3, 2007, allegedly sent from Defendant’s Global Technology Infrastructure Management Team (the “GTI Management Team”) to “all those in GTI who manage employees impacted by upcoming FLSA changes.” Defendants contended that the e-mail is protected by the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine and that the email, intended solely for senior management, was errantly forwarded to Plaintiffs, who it was not intended for. After considering arguments from both parties, the Court denied Defendant’s application, finding that the email lacked confidentiality and was not an attorney-client communication either.

First the Court addressed whether the email was in fact an “attorney-client communication”:

“Here, when distributed to management employees, the e-mail in question did not state that it was prepared by or was being sent from Gutfleisch; rather, the “sender” of the e-mail was identified only as the GTI Management Team. (Defendant’s 3/3/09 Letter, at Ex. A2.) Nor did the e-mail state that it contained privileged information. (Id.) Nor did it state that any of the information incorporated therein had been obtained from counsel, or was based on communications from counsel, or even that counsel had been consulted.(Id.) Nor did it state that the policy change reflected in the e-mail was intended to implement a recommendation of counsel. (Id.)

Defendant has the burden of establishing that the e-mail is privileged, see Mercator Corp. v. United States, 318 F.3d 379, 384 (2d Cir.2002), and, as a threshold matter, this includes showing that the recipients of the e-mail would have understood that it contained or referenced a communication from counsel. On this point, Defendant essentially asks the Court to assume that the recipients of the e-mail would have understood that the e-mail incorporated the advice of counsel because (1) the e-mail addressed the issue of FLSA compliance, (2) it noted facts regarding the IT employees’ job duties on which, according to Defendant, “no non-lawyer manager could ever have been expected to focus” (Defendant’s 3/3/09 Letter, at 4), and (3) it referenced litigation against other companies. Yet none of these aspects of the e-mail necessarily signaled to the recipients that the e-mail contained legal advice. Cf. Baptiste, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2579, at *7 (finding that it was “of no moment that the e-mail was not authored by an attorney or addressed to an attorney” where the e-mail at issue “was clearly conveying information and advice given to [its author] by … outside counsel”); see also id. at *2 (noting that the e-mail at issue specifically referenced the author’s having spoken with counsel).)

Indeed, all of the information in the e-mail could easily have been understood to have come from senior management, working in conjunction with Defendant’s human resources (“HR”) department, as can be seen from the follow-up memorandum that was apparently sent out by the HR department on or about December 11, 2007. (See Letter to the Court from Sam S. Shaulson, Esq., dated April 1, 2009 (“Defendant’s 4/1/09 Letter”) (enclosing the follow-up memorandum), and attachment thereto; Defendant’s 3/3/09 Letter, at Ex. A2 (noting that follow-up would be sent on December 11 from “Corporate Sector HR”).).  Not only does that second communication also fail to mention any involvement of counsel, but it suggests that the recipients tell the reclassified employees that “Human Resources and technology management partnered to conduct a review of Technology jobs to ensure they are classified consistently from an overtime eligibility standpoint.”(Defendant’s 4/1/09 Letter, attached exhibit, at TG00003.).  Further, this follow-up memorandum explains that the reclassification was being made because, “[a]s a normal practice, we periodically review our jobs to ensure we have them classified consistently.” (Id. at TG00006). There is no implication that this particular compliance review was actually conducted by counsel and that the upshot of the review was a recommendation by counsel to implement a reclassification. On the contrary, the plain implication of the communications, especially when read together, was that the determination to reclassify certain employees was made by HR and “management,” as part of their “normal practice.” (Id. at TG00003, TG00006).”

The Court then addressed the separate issue of confidentiality:

Even if the Court were to find that an attorney-client relationship existed between Gutfleisch and the recipients of the e-mail, the way in which the e-mail was written in any event undermines any argument that a privileged communication was made with the expectation that it be kept confidential. Although the e-mail did request that the recipients “not begin any communication to employees prior to receiving specific details on December 11″ (see Defendant’s 3/3/09 Letter, at Ex. A2), the e-mail did not flag that any of its contents, in particular, were privileged and should not be communicated. Further, the December 11 follow-up memorandum (which, as stated above, was sent out by corporate HR) was plainly intended to provide guidance as to how to communicate with the employees whose positions had been reclassified; nothing therein identified any particular information that was supposed to be held back and not conveyed. (Defendant’s 4/1/09 Letter, at attached exhibit).  Thus, nothing about the original e-mail or its follow-up gave the recipients any indication that portions of the e-mail contained legal reasoning or legal advice that should be held in confidence.

Moreover, the fact that one or more of the affected employees actually obtained the e-mail in the course of their employment (see Declaration of Tapas Sarkar Regarding Letter Sent to Potential Class Members, dated Feb. 24, 2009 (“Sarkar Decl.”), at ¶¶ 2, 4-5, attached to Plaintiffs’ 2/24/09 Letter) bolsters the Court’s view that the recipients of the e-mail would not have been aware that it contained confidential legal advice.

At bottom, Defendant has not satisfied its burden of demonstrating that the recipients of the e-mail would have reasonably understood that its contents, or any specific portion of those contents, contained legal advice that was being communicated in confidence.”

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