Companies Accidentally Waiving Attorney-Client Privilege

In the digital age, most companies rely heavily on email to communicate, even with their attorney. Generally, attorney-client privilege will apply to these emails, but when the client forwards the email, questions about privilege can arise. As several cases in 2016 highlight, many employees will forward an attorney’s email without significant thought, but prior to forwarding the email, care should be taken to avoid inadvertently waiving privilege.

 

As highlighted by AU New Haven, LLC v. YKK Corp., No. 1:15­CV­3411­GHW, (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2016), when a company employee forwards an attorney communication to non-attorney employees, several rules will apply. As a default, generally, if the email is forwarded to employees of the company, the privilege will be retained. Similarly, if everyone receiving the email is deemed to have a common interest, even if not a direct employee, privilege is often retained. However, if one person doesn’t share the common interest, privilege is broken.  An example of broken privilege, in Newman v. Highland School District No. 203, 381 P.3d 1188 (Wash. 2016), the court refused to uphold privilege because the employee was no longer employed by the company. Thus, the court determined that privilege did not apply because the employee that received the communication was now a former employee.

 

Overall, these two cases highlight the fact specific nature of whether privilege is retained when an employee of a company forwards an email from the company’s attorney. Moreover, the determination of whether privilege was retained will be specific to the state. Thus, employees of a company receiving privileged communication should take steps to retain privilege, including having internal policies about forwarding emails from the company attorney.

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