Citing Third Party Disclosure, Court Rules Attorney-Client Privilege does not Protect Certain Emails

Communications between attorneys and their clients are generally thought to be confidential under the protection of attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine.  On May 6, 2019, however, the United States District Court Southern District of New York ruled that attorney-client communications, in the form of emails, shared with a public relations firm were neither privileged nor protected by attorney work-product doctrine. In the trademark case of Universal Standard Inc. v. Target Corp., S.D.N.Y., No. 18 Civ. 6042, 5/6/19, Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein demonstrated the narrowness of circumstances in which a company can assert privilege after sharing information with third parties. The court held that since the PR firm hired by Universal Standard was not necessary to the emails between Universal Standard and its attorneys, was not an agent of the company, and was not hired to aid in legal tasks, privilege and work product did not apply to the communications.

 

Universal Standard creates women’s apparel with “size-inclusive” clothing brands and in 2018 brought suit against Target alleging that Target’s “Universal Thread” line of women’s clothing willfully infringed upon its trademark.  During a deposition for the case, Target’s attorney questioned one of Universal Standard’s witnesses about the email chains between Universal Standard, their PR firm, BrandLink, and their attorneys.  Universal Standard objected that the emails were privileged.

 

The court ruled the emails aren’t protected by attorney-client privilege as disclosure to a third party generally eliminates that privilege.  While Universal Standard argued three separate exceptions applied, the court disagreed with their conclusions:

 

  1. BrandLink was not necessary to the understanding of facts between attorney and client: The court said the emails in question involved the public relations strategy relating to the lawsuit; which could have been relayed directly to the attorneys alone to invoke privilege.
  2. BrandLink was not a “functional equivalent” of an employee or agent of Universal Standard: The court cited that BrandLink did not represent the company to third parties, maintain an office at the company, nor seek legal advice from Universal Standard’s counsel, failing the “functional equivalent” standard.
  3. BrandLink was not hired to complete legal tasks: The court noted a distinction regarding privilege in that there is a difference between when a client hires a third party versus when an attorney hires a third party to implement a legal strategy.  As BrandLink was hired for business purposes, the court held this exception did not apply.

 

The Court also rejected Universal Standard’s for work product doctrine protection as “conclusory” when they stated all the emails were created in anticipation of litigation and reflected the opinions of their counsel, as these statements were confined to a single sentence, and, as the court stated, a mere recital of the law.

 

Thus, when communicating with an attorney and the utilizing the convenience of email, it is important to be diligent on who you are including in your communications and what necessity they bring to the privileged conversation.

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