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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Federal Rule of Evidence 502: Protecting Against the Inadvertent Waiver of the Attorney-Client Privilege

By Kelly Prior, Esq.

President Bush recently signed a bill creating new Federal Rule of Evidence 502, which addresses the disclosure of communications and information protected by either the attorney-client privilege or the work-product doctrine. The purpose of FRE 502 is two-fold: 1) to resolve the conflicts which have arisen between courts in the area of inadvertent disclosure and subject matter waiver; and 2) to bring some measure of control over spiraling discovery costs that are due in part to the concern that any disclosure, however small or unintentional, will result in the subject matter waiver of all protected communications and information. The Rule provides several protections, as follows:

Subsection (a) applies to disclosures which are made in a federal proceeding or to a federal office or agency. When a disclosure is made in that context and the privilege or protection is waived, the waiver will only apply to undisclosed communications or information when the waiver is intentional, the same subject matter is involved and “fairness” dictates that the disclosed and undisclosed communications or information be considered together. Thus, subject matter waiver is reserved for those cases where a party intentionally produces protected information in a selective, misleading and unfair manner.

Subsection (b) applies to inadvertent disclosures which are made in a federal proceeding or to a federal office or agency. In such cases, the inadvertent disclosure does not constitute a waiver if the holder of the privilege or protection took “reasonable steps” to both prevent the disclosure and to rectify the error.

Subsection (c) addresses the difficulties which often arise when the disclosure of protected communication or information is made in a state proceeding, the communication or information then becomes part of a federal proceeding on the grounds that the disclosure constituted a waiver, and there is a conflict between the state and federal laws as to whether a waiver occurred. Rule 502(c) instructs the federal court to apply the most protective law as between the two.

Subsection (d) provides that the terms of confidentiality orders (pertaining to the disclosure of privileged or protected communication or information) entered into in federal proceedings are enforceable against non-parties in any state or federal proceeding.

Subsection (e) makes it clear that while the parties in a federal proceeding may enter into a binding agreement to limit the effect of waiver by disclosure between themselves, such an agreement is not binding on non-parties. The agreement must be made part of a court order in order for it to bind non-parties.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how effective the new rule is in preserving attorney-client privilege and work product protections and in reducing discovery costs.

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