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Court Rules That Privilege Assertion and Potential Fraud Don’t Mix: eDiscovery Case Law

See what I did there?  ;o)

In Gates Corp. v. CRP Indus., Inc., No. 16-cv-01145-KLM (D. Colo. May 21, 2019), Colorado Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix overruled the Defendant’s Objection to Report and Recommendation of Special Master on Gates Corporation’s Motion to Pierce Attorney/Client Privilege and proceeded with the Discovery Master’s recommendation, ordering the defendant to submit for in camera review readable and searchable versions of the documents identified as privileged by the defendant (along with an Excel spreadsheet of the privilege log) to the Special Master for review.

Case Background

This dispute involved whether actions by the defendant (alleged to be “a direct competitor of” the plaintiff) in response to the plaintiff’s inquiry about its former employee’s theft of proprietary information can serve as the basis for invocation of the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege.  After plaintiff’s counsel notified the defendant of the potential theft of proprietary information by plaintiff’s former and defendant’s then-current employee, Laura Bale (“Bale”), the company eventually commenced an “investigation”, by having a non-lawyer human resources executive perform a keyword search of David Hirschhorn’s (“Hirschhorn”) emails, Bale’s supervisor throughout her employment with the defendant.  That search “did not find any evidence that [Hirschhorn] had received any proprietary information from Bale.”

As noted by Judge Mix in her recount of the facts “it is now undisputed that this conclusion [that Hirschhorn did not “receive” any of Plaintiff’s proprietary information from Bale] was incorrect.”  The defendant acknowledged that Hirschhorn subsequently admitted to the FBI that he received and opened the file containing Plaintiff’s confidential information, and the defendant had made no argument that Hirschhorn lied to the FBI.  Bale subsequently testified under oath that Hirschhorn knew about her possession of the plaintiff’s proprietary database approximately six months after she started working for the defendant, long before the “investigation” began. Despite Bale’s compromised credibility, her testimony in this regard had been amply confirmed by other evidence.

In objecting to the Discovery Master’s report, the defendant contended:

  1. That because Plaintiff’s counsel’s letter about the alleged theft “implicated Bale alone, [Defendant] reasonably focused its investigation on Bale, who worked off of her own laptop and used a personal email address, instead of launching a company-wide investigation”;
  2. That Hirschhorn did not admit any knowledge of wrongdoing at the time of the investigation and that the company only learned several years later that he received and opened the file containing Plaintiff’s confidential information;
  3. That the Discovery Master erroneously recognized mere spoliation as a “crime” or “fraud” which triggers the exception; and
  4. That the Discovery Master took it upon himself to find a basis for application of the crime-fraud exception on grounds not asserted by Plaintiff.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the defendant’s contentions, Judge Mix responded as follows:

  1. Noting that Bale “was not a solitary or isolated employee” and that “her work contemplated and required frequent interactions with other company employees”, Judge Mix stated that “I cannot agree that so limiting the investigation was reasonable or prudent.”
  2. Judge Mix noted that “if Defendant were correct, corporate parties to litigation could avoid scrutiny of their attorney-client communications by simply contending that although some employees did bad things, the wrongdoers neither admitted it to select company representatives nor did those representatives otherwise find out about it, so the crime-fraud exception does not apply.” She indicated that “argument flies in the face of long-standing precedent holding that corporate agents’ acts are attributable to the corporate entity.”
  3. Judge Mix observed that “spoliation can occur as a result of mere negligence or intentional destruction of evidence, so to the extent that the Discovery Master concluded that intentional spoliation supports application of the crime-fraud exception, his conclusion is not inconsistent with the intent requirement of the doctrine.” She also stated that “the Court need not decide whether Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of intentional spoliation to invoke the crime-fraud exception, as the evidence of fraudulent concealment discussed above is a sufficient basis to do so.”
  4. Agreeing with the plaintiff’s contention that it actually did raise the issues discussed in the Discovery Master’s Order, Judge Mix pointed out that “Defendant itself concluded, in responding to Plaintiff’s Motion [#88], that Plaintiff was ‘insinuat[ing] that [Defendant] engaged in spoliation of materials relevant to this action.’”

As a result, Judge Mix overruled the Defendant’s Objection to the Discovery Master’s recommendation, ordering the defendant to submit its identified privileged documents for in camera review.

So, what do you think?  Should the defendant have have been forced to turn over the documents it identified as privileged?  Please let us know if any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant.

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