United States: This Is Why Board Presentations Are Privileged And Protected

Last Updated: June 24 2019
Article by Steven Boranian

It is a fairly common situation.  A company is facing an issue that someone thinks the board of directors ought to know about, so general counsel retains outside counsel to provide advice.  Maybe outside counsel prepares a memo.  Maybe he or she appears at a board meeting to give a presentation with others from the company.  Later on, someone asks for those materials—the memorandum and the presentation, as recorded in meeting minutes or PowerPoint slides.

Are the presentation to the board and related materials protected by the attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine, or both?

The answer is probably both, but it is not automatic.  A recent order in the Birmingham Hip Resurfacing MDL is worth a read on these points because it lays out the rules and correctly found that such documents were protected.  The documents at issue were (1) a 62-page document prepared for the board regarding "current and anticipated litigation issues" (the "Briefing Document"); (2) minutes from three board meetings that "reflect legal presentations" by the company's Chief Legal Officer and "summarize a presentation . . . related to the Briefing Document"; and (3) multiple copies a "PowerPoint summary of certain aspects of the Briefing Document."  In re Smith & Nephew Birmingham Hip Resurfacing Hip Implant Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 1:17-md-2775, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91795, at *26-*28 (D. Md. May 31, 2019).

We put the description of these documents largely in quotes because, in describing the documents in the way that it did, the district court tipped its hand.  Sure, there were three sets of documents at issue, but as the district court saw them, the meeting minutes and PowerPoint slides were derived from ("summarized") the Briefing Document, which itself related to "current and anticipated litigation issues."  Id.  When reading the Background section of the order, it is not difficult to predict that the district court will find the documents protected and not discoverable.

And, the district court delivered.  We start with the ground rules.  The work product doctrine—called a "privilege" in some places and "protection" in others—means what it says.  It protects an attorney's work in preparation for litigation, lest one side gain an unfair advantage by appropriating the results of the other side's efforts:

"The work-product privilege protects from discovery 'an attorney's work done in preparation for litigation.'"  In re Grand Jury Subpoena, 870 F.3d 312, 316 (4th Cir. 2017) . . . .  The protection extends to both "'fact' work product and 'opinion' work product," though opinion work product is afforded "greater protection" than fact work product, Grand Jury Subpoena, 870 F.3d at 316.  Opinion work product "represents the actual thoughts and impressions of the attorney," and "can be discovered only in very rare and extraordinary circumstances."  Id. (citing In re John Doe, 662 F.2d 1073, 1080 (4th Cir. 1981)).  Fact work product, on the other hand, "is a transaction of the factual events involved and may be obtained upon a mere showing of both a substantial need and an inability to secure the substantial equivalent of the materials by alternate means without undue hardship."

Id. at *28-*29 (some citations omitted).  The attorney-client privilege is different from work product mainly because it protects attorney-client communications, but it often overlaps.  The district court in Birmingham Hip applied the "classic test" for attorney-client privilege:

The privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication is acting as a lawyer; (3) the communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services or (iii) assistance in some legal proceeding, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client.

Id. at *29-*30 (citations omitted).

Applying these rules, the district court concluded that all the documents were privileged and protected by the work product doctrine, and it found that neither protection was waived.  With regard to the Briefing Document, outside counsel spearheaded the creation of the document, and the document's "primary aim" was to give legal advice to the board of directors.  We again are using quotes around "primary aim" because the characterization of the document is important.  The memo included factual material.  Most memos do, or else they would be little more than mini-treatises.  The point is that including facts in legal communications does not negate the privilege.

As the district court observed, "The factual information informs the legal strategy and was likely compiled in order to assist in the provision of legal advice and to provide context to facilitate the Board of Director's understanding of the legal advice."  Id. at *31.  Thus, because the "primary purpose" was to provide legal advice, the Briefing Document was privileged; and because it set forth a litigation strategy for both pending and anticipated litigation, it was work product, too.  Id. at *31-*32.

The district court applied similar analyses to the meeting minutes and PowerPoint presentations.  The PowerPoint slides similarly were "developed to facilitate the presentation of the Briefing Document to the Board," and the minutes summarized the presentation and detailed the status of litigation.  Id. at *32-*33.

The documents therefore were protected, and defendant did not waive any privilege or protection by inadvertently producing copies of the slides or by sharing the slides with a non-lawyer consultant.  Here, the district court followed Federal Rule of Evidence 502(b), which states that disclosure does not operate as a waiver if (1) the disclosure is inadvertent, (2) the holder of the privilege or protection took reasonable steps to prevent disclosure, and (3) the holder promptly took reasonable steps to rectify the error.  Id. at *34-*35.

The parties did not dispute that the disclosure was inadvertent, and the defendant had retained a document vendor, who "implemented quality control measures to safeguard against the inadvertent disclosure of documents," including training and a second-level review.  Id. at *35-*36.  This might be the takeaway of this order—that quality control in document production is important as a general matter, but also specifically to make a Rule 502(b) showing in the event you need to.  The district court's finding that the defendant "promptly clawed the documents back" closed the "no waiver" loop.  Finally, sharing the PowerPoint slides with a consultant did not operate as a waiver because the consultant was retained to assist with a presentation to the FDA and thus had a common interest.  Id. at *35-*37.

The order lays out the law well and applies it correctly.  We recommend it.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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