Who’s the Client?

lawyer_1While I was away on vacation last week our Chapter received an on-line comment-request from a CFE practitioner currently working on a fraud investigation for an attorney on the legal staff of a major international corporation.   The commenter was seeking some overview information relating to the protection of the content of her soon to be completed investigative report under U.S. law.  As I’m sure most of you remember, the attorney-client privilege applies where there is a (1) confidential (2) communication (3) between attorneys and their clients (4) made for the purpose of rendering or receiving legal advice.

To protect the report of an internal investigation, the report should be communicated to the lawyer (preferably the lawyer should initiate the investigation), it should not be distributed to anyone else, and it should be for the purpose of providing the lawyer information he or she needs to render a legal opinion or provide legal advice. The key element is that the attorney (whether in-house counsel-or outside counsel) is having the investigation conducted for the purpose of providing legal advice to the company.  The privilege generally extends to information gathered by investigators like our CFE enquirer if the investigator is acting at the direction of the attorney.

The ACFE tells us that the existence of the following will help ensure that communications gathered during the investigation will be protected under the attorney-client privilege:

–The communications were made by corporate employees to counsel;
–The communications were made at the direction of corporate superiors in order for the company to obtain legal advice from counsel;
–The employees were aware that the communications were being made in order for the company to obtain legal advice;
–The information needed was not available from upper management;
–The communications concerned matters within the scope of the employees’ corporate duties;
–The communications were confidential when made and were kept confidential by the company.

CFE’s and forensic accountants should not make the mistake of believing that just because an attorney is involved all reports and communications are protected by the attorney-client privilege. The privilege protects only those communications related to the attorney providing legal advice. Often courts will seek to determine whether the attorney was actually rendering legal advice or merely performing investigative services. Some courts have taken a narrow view of the privilege and have held that if the investigation could have been conducted just as easily by a private investigator, then the lawyer was acting as just that, an investigator, not as a lawyer; therefore, the privilege would not apply.

The ACFE cautions that the most often overlooked requirement is that the CFE’s report remain confidential. Even if a report meets all of the other requirements (prepared by a CFE for the attorney for the purpose of providing legal advice), the privilege will be lost if it is disclosed to anyone other than “the client.” In the corporate setting, it’s often hard to determine just who “the client” is. However, it’s generally clear that senior officials within the company are authorized to seek advice from an attorney on behalf of the company and to act on such advice. Accordingly, most courts have held that communications between an attorney and senior-level management are protected, while communications between an attorney and lower-level employees may not be.  Therefore, special care should be taken to ensure that the attorney-client privilege is not waived inadvertently by giving documents or communicating information to anyone outside the investigation team, including members of law enforcement. If information gathered during an investigation is shared with law enforcement, then the privilege may be waived not only as to the information given, but also to any other information relating to the same subject matter. This is known as “horizontal” waiver. Some courts have held that waiver of the privilege as to one document implies waiver as to all documents concerning the same subject matter.

If a fraud examiner or forensic accountant feels that a case should be recommended for criminal prosecution, the examiner should consult with the attorney before providing any information to government or law enforcement authorities. For example, if an investigator submits a copy of his report to the prosecutor who initiates criminal proceedings based on the findings in the report, the criminal defendant may be able to require the investigator to provide all the documents he or she used in writing the report. In such an instance, the investigator may be considered to have waived the privilege. Likewise, if law enforcement requests the results of an investigation or information gathered during an investigation, the attorney should be consulted before turning over the information. Some courts have held that the privilege is not waived if a company is subpoenaed to produce the information.

The work product doctrine protects materials that are prepared in anticipation of litigation.  the Supreme Court has set forth some protection for materials prepared with an eye toward litigation. The Court has stated that the doctrine promoted the “orderly prosecution and defense of legal claims” by providing attorneys with a zone of privacy that was essential to their role as an adversary.  People often mistakenly believe that the work product doctrine is connected to, or is part of, the attorney-client privilege. It is not. One of the main differences between the work product doctrine and the attorney-client privilege is that the work product doctrine is not a privilege. The work product doctrine is a provision of the discovery rules which provides that in certain instances, items will be protected from discovery. As such, the work product doctrine is really a “qualified immunity” from discovery. It differs from an evidentiary privilege (such as attorney-client privilege) in that even if the document falls within the definition of “work product,” the judge still can order that the document be produced if the opposing party can show “substantial need” for the protected information and that the information cannot be obtained from another source. However, even if “substantial need” is shown, the mental impressions and opinions of an attorney concerning the litigation are not subject to disclosure under any circumstances.

In virtually every lawsuit, there will be disputes about what must be produced and what is protected from discovery. The rules are not always clear, and they are not applied consistently in either the federal or state courts. One good, but not foolproof protection, is to put the phrase “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL” at the top of every document produced regarding the case. Of course, this statement is not evidence the document is legally privileged or protected, but it does show an intention to keep the communication confidential, and will alert others that the document contains sensitive information.

Some general exceptions to the privilege rule are:

–Only the holder of a privilege, or the holder’s designated representative, can assert the privilege.
–If the holder, after having notice and opportunity, fails to assert it, the privilege is waived.
–If the holder discloses significant information to someone outside the protected relationship, the privilege does not hold.
–The communication must be pertinent to the protected relationship (a physician and a patient must be discussing health issues), or there is no privilege. Ordinary discussion not deemed confidential is not protected.

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