eDiscovery Daily Blog

Court Denies Plaintiff’s Request for In Camera Review of Defendants’ Privileged Emails: eDiscovery Case Law

In Armouth International, Inc. v. Dollar General Corp. et. al., No. 14-0567 (M.D. Tenn., November 2, 2015), Tennessee Magistrate Judge Barbara D. Holmes, calling the plaintiff’s request a “fishing expedition”, denied the plaintiff’s expedited motion to compel, requesting that the defendants be required to produce emails that were either withheld or redacted based on claims of attorney-client privilege for an in camera review of the emails by the Court to confirm the privilege claims.

Case Background

In this dispute between a discount retailer and one of its suppliers over failure to pay invoices and cancelled orders, the defendants withheld certain email communications and redacted other emails on the basis of attorney-client privilege.  The disputed emails related to a decision made by the defendants’ Assistant General Counsel (AGC) to release a hold (that was originally placed by the defendants because the merchandise failed to conform to the labeling standards set forth by the Federal Trade Commission) on merchandise that was to be distributed to the defendants’ retail stores for sale.  The defendant contended that the AGC’s decision was purely legal and involved, at most, minor business considerations.

Citing the AGC’s role as “head of the Compliance Department” and “supervisor to the Senior Director of Global Sourcing”, the plaintiff argued that the AGC was acting with his “business hat,” as opposed to his “legal hat,” and that the emails withheld and redacted by the defendant involving the AGC were therefore not subject to the attorney-client privilege.  As a result, the plaintiff filed an expedited motion to compel, requesting that the defendants be required to produce all 52 of the communications withheld or redacted by the defendant for an in camera review by the Court to determine which emails are protected by the privilege.

Judge’s Ruling

Referencing the defendant’s contention that the decision to release the hold was made by the AGC precisely because it required the legal opinion of an attorney, Judge Holmes stated:

“The Court is not persuaded that this series of events, nor Armouth’s unsupported speculation, forms a ‘factual basis adequate to support a good faith belief by a reasonable person’ that an in camera review of the emails contained in Dollar General’s privilege log would reveal communications involving business advice unprotected by the attorney-client privilege. Armouth is unwilling to believe that Mr. Stephenson was acting in a legal capacity when the decision was made to release the hold on its merchandise, despite the fact that the hold was originally implemented due to legal considerations, i.e. the failure of Armouth’s merchandise to comply with federal law with respect to labeling standards.”

Continuing, Judge Holmes stated: “The Court agrees with Dollar General that Armouth’s blanket request for review of the entire privilege log suggests a ‘fishing expedition,’ as opposed to a specific request to discover relevant information. The Court also notes that granting Armouth’s motion, which broadly requests a review of all of Dollar General’s emails withheld based on attorney-client privilege, would open the floodgates and allow any party to demand an in camera review of the opposing party’s attorney-client communications so long as the former expressed an unfounded suspicion that counsel for the latter had misrepresented the basis for the privilege claim. For the these reasons, Armouth’s motion is DENIED.”

So, what do you think?  Should the court have allowed for the in camera review?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.