D.C. Circuit Restores Attorney-Client Privilege Protection for Internal Investigations

Companies doing business in highly-regulated industries, including the health care industry, were left holding their breath after a D.C. district court ruled that the attorney-client privilege doctrine did not attach to a company’s internal investigation conducted under the direction of in-house legal counsel. United States ex rel. Barko v. Halliburton Co., No. 05-cv-1276 (D.D.C. Mar. 6, 2014). The decision shattered the previously-held belief that, in most cases, the attorney-client privilege attaches to communications made in the course of an internal investigation led by legal counsel.

However, these industries, and their legal departments in particular, can now breathe easy after the D.C. Circuit Court overturned the district court’s decision and restored the attorney-client privilege to its previously-recognized applicability to internal investigations. In Re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al., No. 1:05-cv-1276 (D.C. Circuit, May 7, 2014).

Factual Background and District Court’s Ruling
Harry Barko, a former employee of defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc. (“KBR”), filed a False Claims Act compliant under the qui tam provision alleging that KBR defrauded the federal government by inflating costs and accepting kickbacks while administering military construction contracts in Iraq. During discovery, Barko requested that KBR produce certain documents related to KBR’s previously-conducted internal investigations looking into the alleged fraudulent activity. The investigations were conducted at the direction of KBR’s in-house legal counsel, and KBR asserted the attorney-client privilege in refusing to produce the documents.

In a potentially groundbreaking decision, the district court held that the attorney-client privilege did not attach to the requested documents because “the communication would not have been made ‘but for’ the fact that legal advice was sought.” The district court concluded that KBR’s internal investigation was conducted for a business, not legal, purpose and “undertaken pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”

In so holding, the district court distinguished the facts in KBR from those in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981), in which the Supreme Court held that the attorney-client privilege applies to corporations. The district court held that Upjohn did not apply because: (i) outside counsel was not involved in KBR’s investigation; (ii) non-attorneys conducted many of the interviews; and (iii) KBR did not inform the interviewees that one purpose of the interviews was to assist KBR in obtaining legal advice.

The district court’s ruling caught the attention of the health care industry, among others, where internal investigations into fraudulent or illegal activity are common and, in some instances, required by law. Many health care businesses lack the necessary resources to involve outside counsel in every internal investigation or to have an attorney conduct every employee interview, and the district court’s ruling threatened the presumed protections of the attorney-client privilege doctrine.

Circuit Court’s Ruling
In a much anticipated decision, and to the relief of the health care industry, the circuit court overturned the district court’s decision and held that the attorney-client privilege attached to the requested documents.

The circuit court found that the facts of KBR were “materially indistinguishable” from the facts in Upjohn and rejected the reasoning used by the district court to distinguish the two cases. First, the circuit court held that Upjohn does not require the involvement of outside counsel. Rather, the “general rule…is that a lawyer’s status as in-house counsel ‘does not dilute the privilege.'” Second, the circuit court held that, while the interviews in Upjohn were conducted by attorneys, “communications made by and to non-attorneys serving as agents of attorneys in internal investigations are routinely protected by the attorney-client privilege.” Third, the circuit court held that there is no requirement in Upjohn that a company use “magic words” to advise its employees that the investigation is being conducted to assist the company in obtaining legal advice. Nevertheless, the circuit court found that, as in Upjohn, the KBR interviewees “knew that the company’s legal department was conducting an investigation of a sensitive nature and that the information they disclosed would be protected.”

More importantly, the circuit court rejected the “but for” test applied by the district court as inapplicable to the attorney-client privilege analysis. The circuit court clarified the “primary purpose test” and held that the proper test asks the question: “Was obtaining or providing legal advice a primary purpose of the communication, meaning one of the significant purposes of the communication?” If so, then the attorney-client privilege attaches, regardless of whether the internal investigation was conducted pursuant to company policy, a statute or a regulation.

The circuit court acknowledged the significance of its decision when it branded the district court’s opinion a “novel approach” that “would eradicate the attorney-client privilege for internal investigations conducted by businesses that are required by law to maintain compliance programs, which is now the case in a significant swath of American industries.”

In an ever-changing industry where some health care providers are subject to compliance program requirements for Medicare enrollment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or are encouraged to implement voluntary compliance programs), health care businesses should take note of both the circuit court’s and the district court’s opinions. These opinions are a reminder of the importance of having attorneys actively direct the internal investigation and document their involvement. This includes providing written instructions to non-attorneys working on the investigation clarifying that they are working at the direction of the legal department and that a significant purpose of the investigation is to assist the business in obtaining legal advice.

The circuit court’s opinion also reminds us that the attorney-client privilege protects against the disclosure of privileged communications, not the underlying facts if the facts can be obtained through non-privileged sources. Additionally, only confidential communications are protected. Therefore, it is important to ask interviewees to keep communications confidential. Also, although “magic words” are not required for the attorney-client privilege to attach, it is prudent to inform the interviewees that the interview is for the purpose of obtaining legal advice for the business. Once conveyed to the interviewee, the interviewer should memorialize in writing that the instructions were conveyed to and understood by the interviewee.

Lastly, it remains to be seen whether other courts will follow the D.C. Circuit’s opinion. Therefore, out of an abundance of caution and if the resources are available, businesses should consider having legal counsel conduct employee interviews and should consider engaging outside counsel, if appropriate.

If you have any questions about any of the topics discussed in this article, please contact Adrienne Dresevic at adresevic@thehlp.com or Leslie Rojas at lrojas@thehlp.com (or by phone at 248-996-8510).

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