This week, in an Opinion in Safety Test & Equipment Co. v. American Safety Utility Corp., 2014 NCBC 40, Judge Gale made a significant ruling on which party bears the burden of proof in showing a waiver of the attorney-client privilege (or showing the absence of a waiver)..
The elements that must be shown to make out the privilege are pretty well established. Communications between lawyer and client are protected by the privilege if:
(1) the relation of attorney and client existed at the time the communication was made, (2) the communication was made in confidence, (3) the communication relates to a matter about which the attorney is being professionally consulted, (4) the communication was made in the course of giving or seeking legal advice for a proper purpose although litigation need not be contemplated[,] and (5) the client has not waived the privilege.
Op. ¶11 (quoting Isom v. Bank of America, N.A., 177 N.C. App. 406, 411, 628 S.E.2d 458, 462 (2006))(emphasis added).
Case Of First Impression In North Carolina
But as to that requirement that "the client has not waived the privilege," does the party asserting the privilege need to prove that there has been no waiver? That’s the difficult task of proving a negative, and as Judge Gale observed, no North Carolina appellate decision has clearly considered whether "the party claiming privilege has an initial burden to prove the negative of a waiver or whether the privilege proponent need only prove absence of waiver in response to an adequately supported challenge." Op. ¶12.
The case before Judge Gale involved a letter from the counsel for Defendant American Safety to one of the individual Defendants (Price) regarding that Defendant’s possible employment with American Safety. As you might guess, this is a case between competing businesses alleging misappropriation of trade secrets.
Curiously, the Plaintiff already possessed a redacted copy of the otherwise privileged letter, though the parties disputed how Plaintiff had obtained the redacted copy. Plaintiff said that Price had voluntarily given it the letter, but Price denied that. The Defendants implied that the letter had been stolen.
The Plaintiff also sought by motion to compel to obtain another letter from the same counsel for American Security written about two weeks later, which was identified on a privilege log.
So who wins this skirmish? The party claiming the letter is protected by the privilege and denying any waiver, or the opposing party, with disputed evidence of waiver?
The Court Adopts A Burden-Shifting Approach
In resolving this question, the Court adopted a "burden-shifting approach," which it said was "'[t]he prevalent, albeit unstated, practice’ in the federal courts where issues of potential waiver arise." Op. Par. 13 (quoting 2 Paul R. Rice, Attorney-Client Privilege in the United States, §9:22, at 82 (2013-2014 ed. 2013).
That approach goes like this:
Under this burden-shifting approach, courts impose the initial burden of establishing the basic elements on the privilege proponent. This initial burden does not require the privilege holder to affirmatively negate waiver. Rather, once the proponent of the privilege establishes the basic elements of privilege, the burden of production of evidence shifts to the opponent to establish a prima facie case of waiver. If the privilege opponent establishes a prima facie case of waiver, the burden of going forward with evidence shifts back to the proponent to rebut the prima facie case by demonstrating that the privilege is still viable. Ultimately, the privilege proponent bears the burden of persuasion.
Op. ¶13 (citations omitted).
Given that the parties submitted conflicting evidence on the waiver issue, Judge Gale applied the principle that "[w]here the weight of the evidence is equal, the adverse ruling must be against the party with the ultimate burden of proof." Thus, the Defendant lost on its claim of privilege, and it was directed to produce an unredacted copy of the letter already in the Plaintiff’s possession.
Subject Matter Waiver Applies When The Waiver Is Not Intentional
The Defendants were also ordered to produce the second letter, the one which was not in the Plaintiff’s possession. Judge Gale said that he could not conclude that the waiver as to the first letter was inadvertent and that the waiver of privilege in the first letter therefore extended to the second. Op. ¶19.
The result would have been different if the waiver had been inadvertent. The Business Court has previously held that
[T]he general rule that a disclosure waives not only the specific communication but also the subject matter of it in other communications is not appropriate in cases of inadvertent disclosure . . . .
Morris v. Scenera Research, LLC, 2011 NCBC 34 at *33.
Judge Gale stanched the flow of blood there. He ruled that he would not require the Defendants to produce any other communications from their counsel.