eDiscovery Case Law: Read Inadvertent Email, Get Disqualified from Case
March 18, 2011
Lesson of the day: When you receive an inadvertently sent privileged email, read it and don’t disclose receipt of it, you can get kicked off the case.
In Terraphase Engineering, Inc., et al. v. Arcadis, U.S., Inc, the court disqualified defendant's in-house and outside counsel for their handling of a disputed privileged email that was inadvertently sent by the plaintiffs' counsel to the defendant and shared with defendant’s outside counsel. For more information regarding this case, check out this Law Technology News article.
When a group of employees left Arcadis to form a competing company, relations between the two soured quickly and led to litigation. Just prior to filing their lawsuit, the plaintiffs' attorney sent a strategy email to his clients, which contained an attachment that, according to the former employees, included "Plaintiffs' privileged recitation of background and comments to and from legal counsel." Unfortunately for the attorney (or maybe fortunately, as it turned out), the email system’s auto-complete function (which completes a saved email address as soon as you begin entering it) entered an old Arcadis email address for one of the employees, which wasn’t caught before sending. The email and the attachment went directly to Arcadis, which had been monitoring the plaintiffs' email accounts since they resigned from the company.
Arcadis' in-house counsel read the email and the attached document and apparently shared the email with their general counsel and Arcadis’ outside counsel (Gordon & Rees, LLP), neither of whom notified the plaintiffs' attorney that they had received the email. Arcadis' counterclaim contained certain information that caused the plaintiffs to suspect that Arcadis and its counsel had reviewed their privileged communications, and Arcadis, when confronted, acknowledged that it had received the email and agreed to destroy all copies, but refused to identify who reviewed the e-mail. Eventually, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a protective order to disqualify Arcadis' counsel and prevent Arcadis from using the email or the attachment during the case, stipulating that attorneys are prohibited from using privileged material that they receive from an opposing party, and are under an ethical obligation to immediately notify the opposing party when such information is received.
Arcadis opposed the motion, arguing that in-house and outside counsel only conducted a cursory review of the email and attachment, and stated that it was not privileged because it was sent "unsolicited" to the plaintiff's work e-mail, in which he had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Arcadis also argued because the information itself was not privileged and would be disclosed during discovery, the plaintiffs would suffer no irreparable harm. And, since there was no active litigation between the parties when Arcadis received the email, they argued that the rules of professional conduct did not apply.
The court rejected Arcadis’ arguments and ruled for the plaintiffs, disqualifying Arcadis' outside counsel and the in-house counsel who reviewed the emails, also ruling that Arcadis' general counsel must be "removed from all aspects of the day-to-day management of the case, including . . . making any substantive or strategic decisions with regard to the case.". Arcadis was also ordered to dismiss its counterclaim and the plaintiffs were awarded their costs and fees in connection with bringing the motion against Arcadis.
A copy of the order can be found here.
So, what do you think? Have you ever been burned by an inadvertently sent email? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.