US v Sanmina: Attorney Client Privilege and Work Product Protections

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

US v Sanmina involves a long running discovery dispute. At issue is whether a taxpayer’s disclosing two memoranda created by in house tax counsel led to the waiver of various privilege claims. The Ninth Circuit held that Sanmina did not expressly waive work-product protection merely by providing the memos to outside counsel but it impliedly waived the privilege when it subsequently used the counsel report to support a worthless stock deduction that IRS was reviewing in audit. The important opinion highlights waiver in the context of both attorney client privilege and work-product protection. 

read more...

Facts and Procedural Background

I have previously discussed the discovery dispute here and here. On its 2009 tax return, Sanmina had claimed about a half billion in a worthless stock deduction in one of its subsidiaries. The purportedly worthless subsidiary had two related party receivables with an approximate $113 million book value. Notwithstanding the healthy book value, Sanmina claimed that the FMV of the receivables was zero.

IRS examined Sanmina’s tax return and sent an information document request for documents that supported the deduction. Sanmina gave to IRS a valuation report from DLA Piper (DLA Report), its outside counsel. That report (not surprisingly) supported the taxpayer’s view that the receivables had no fair market value.

Included in the DLA Report was a footnote that referenced but did not describe internal memos that Sanmina’s in house tax counsel had prepared, one in 2006 and the other in 2009.

IRS asked for those two in house memos; Sanmina resisted, leading the IRS to summons them and bring an enforcement action when Sanmina did not comply.

In 2015, the district court held that both in house memos were protected by attorney client and work product privilege and that the “mere mention” of the memos in the DLA Report did not amount to the party’s waiving the privilege.

The government appealed, and in 2017 the 9th Circuit remanded the case “for the district court to review the 2006 and 2009 memos in camera to determine whether the documents requested by the government are privileged to any degree” and “retain[ed] jurisdiction over this appeal.” 

After some more procedural wrangling the 9th Circuit modified its remand, leaving the district court to decide (1) whether the memoranda are privileged in the first instance and (2) whether such privilege was waived. 

On remand the district court reviewed the documents in camera and in a more detailed discussion explained that the memoranda are protected by the attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product doctrine but also found that the privileges were “waived when Sanmina disclosed the memoranda to DLA Piper to obtain an opinion on value, then turned over the valuation report to the IRS.” 

Sanmina appealed that finding, and while both parties for purposes of the appeal agreed that the documents were covered by the attorney client privilege and work product protection they disagreed as to whether Sanmina’s disclosing either the in house memos to DLA Piper or the DLA Report to the IRS resulted in a waiver of either the attorney client privilege or work product doctrine.

Ninth Circuit Agrees With Lower Court on Existence of Privilege But Not on Work Product Waiver

With that by way of background, we can address the main takeaways from the most recent opinion. A starting point to the opinion is the 9th Circuit’s reminder that, because the parties agreed that the memos were subject to both attorney client privilege and work product protection, to order disclosure the court had to find that there was waiver of both privileges. 

The Court Finds that There Was a Waiver of the Attorney Client Privilege When Sanmina Gave the Memos to DLA Piper

This is a key part of the opinion. In reaching its conclusion that there was a waiver, the opinion notes that there are several ways to waive the attorney client privilege, including by express and implied waiver. An express waiver occurs when a party voluntarily discloses documents to third parties. 

Even in the absence of an express waiver, a court can find an implied waiver when a party puts the lawyer’s performance at issue during the course of litigation. As the opinion notes, implied waiver rests on a fairness principle, which

is often expressed in terms of preventing a party from using the privilege as both a shield and a sword. . . . In practical terms, this means that parties in litigation may not abuse the privilege by asserting claims the opposing party cannot adequately dispute unless it has access to the privileged materials. 

Closely related to implied waiver is subject matter waiver, where “voluntary disclosure of the content of a privileged attorney communication constitutes waiver of the privilege as to all other such communications on the same subject.” 

The district court had found that Sanmina’s providing the two in-house memos to DLA Piper amounted to an express waiver, based on its finding that Sanmina had sought non legal advice from DLA as to the valuation of the stock rather than legal advice.  

Whether a party engaging tax counsel is seeking legal advice or non legal advice comes up in a variety of contexts. Even assuming one can cleanly draw a line where tax advice crosses to legal advice, an engagement such as the one with DLA Piper often spans multiple purposes, especially when the tax position is intertwined with valuation issues. The 9th Circuit addressed the subtleties of that inquiry, and noted that courts both within and outside the circuit have approached a “dual-purpose” inquiry differently, with some courts looking to see if the primary purpose of the relationship was for legal advice and others having “transported the ‘because of’ test from the work-product context, and looked to “the totality of the circumstances” to determine “the extent to which the communication solicits or provides legal advice or functions to facilitate the solicitation or provision of legal advice.” 

After acknowledging that there was no decided path in the Ninth Circuit to resolve the issue, the opinion was able to sidestep it, essentially concluding that it could find no clear error with the lower court’s finding that Sanmina’s engagement with DLA had a non legal purpose:

Despite some evidence that Sanmina may have had a “dual purpose” for sharing the Attorney Memos to DLA Piper, the district court’s finding that Sanmina’s purpose was to obtain a non-legal valuation analysis from DLA Piper, rather than legal advice, was not clearly erroneous because it was not “illogical, implausible, or without support in the record.” 

Waiver for Attorney Client Privilege Differs From Waiver of Work Product Protection

After deciding that there was an express waiver for attorney-client privilege purposes, the opinion disagrees with the lower court’s approach that had essentially analyzed waiver with respect to attorney-client privilege and work product in the same way. As the opinion notes, because there was no dispute that the in house memos were both attorney-client communications and protected attorney work product, to order disclosure the court had to find that Sanmina waived both privileges. 

That allowed the panel to discuss how express waiver differs in the context of attorney work-product, with the circumstances warranting an express waiver in the work product context more narrow. The key is that unlike in attorney client privilege waiver analysis, in work product cases it is not sufficient to disclose to a third party; that third party must also be an adversary. The Sanmina opinion explored the distinction: 

[T]he overwhelming majority of our sister circuits have espoused or acknowledged the general principle that the voluntary disclosure of work product waives the protection only when such disclosure is made to an adversary or is otherwise inconsistent with the purpose of work-product doctrine—to protect the adversarial process. 

In framing the issue the court looks to United States v. Deloitte LLP, 610 F.3d 129, 140 (D.C. Cir. 2010): 

Addressing whether Deloitte was a “potential adversary” to Dow, the D.C. Circuit framed the relevant question as “not whether Deloitte could be Dow’s adversary in any conceivable future litigation, but whether Deloitte could be Dow’s adversary in the sort of litigation the [work-product documents] address.” Id. at 140. In concluding “that the answer must be no,” the court noted that, in preparing the work product, “Dow anticipated a dispute with the IRS, not a dispute with Deloitte,” and the work product concerned tax implications that “would not likely be relevant in any dispute Dow might have with Deloitte.” Id

While it was easy for the Sanmina opinion to conclude that DLA Piper was not an adversary (after all it engaged DLA to help with its tax reporting), the opinion notes that courts have expanded the inquiry to see if the work product could be considered disclosed because the actions substantially increased the chances that an adversary would obtain the documents.

The opinion helpfully situates this latter inquiry as part of a “conduit” analysis. In other words, a party cannot avoid a finding that there was an express waiver of the attorney work product doctrine if it was reasonable to expect that the third party would not keep the documents confidential and disclosure to the third party increased the odds that an adversary would get access to the documents. Leaning on the DC Circuit, the court frames the conduit inquiry as follows:

As to the “conduit to an adversary” analysis, the D.C. Circuit noted that its prior applications of the “maintenance of secrecy” standard have generally involved “two discrete inquiries in assessing whether disclosure constitutes waiver.” The first inquiry is “whether the disclosing party has engaged in self-interested selective disclosure by revealing its work product to some adversaries but not to others.If so, “[s]uch conduct militates in favor of waiver” based on fairness concerns. The second inquiry is “whether the disclosing party had a reasonable basis for believing that the recipient would keep the disclosed material confidential.” 

The government argued that DLA should be viewed as a conduit because the DLA Report “was intended for disclosure to interested tax authorities” and any “expectation of confidentiality was therefore absent.”  

In the Ninth Circuit’s view the government take on the conduit analysis was lacking because it failed to focus on the underlying in house counsel documents: 

The relevant inquiry, however, is not whether Sanmina expected confidentiality over the DLA Piper Report. It is whether Sanmina “had a reasonable basis for believing that [DLA Piper] would keep the [Attorney Memos] confidential” In the process of producing its valuation analysis. Deloitte, 610 F.3d at 141. That Sanmina shared the Attorney Memos with DLA Piper to obtain a valuation report for the IRS does not necessarily mean that Sanmina knew or should have known that the resulting DLA Piper Report would disclose or make reference to its attorney work product. If anything, Sanmina’s enlistment of DLA Piper’s assistance in anticipation of litigation with the IRS indicates a “common litigation interest” between Sanmina and DLA Piper insofar as the Attorney Memos are concerned. 

What About the Disclosure of the DLA Report to the IRS?

The above discussion focuses on Sanmina’s possible waiver arising from its providing the in house memos to DLA Piper. A separate issue is whether Sanmina’s turning over the DLA Report to the IRS itself constituted a waiver of the work product protection. This issue turns on whether the DLA Report, which identifies and cites to the existence of the memos in a footnote but does not describe their contents, is enough to conclude that there is waiver of work product protection over the identified documents. 

The opinion notes that the position that disclosure requires some elaboration on the content of documents is both intuitive and supported by case law. Yet that was not enough for the court to conclude that there was no waiver. To fully analyze the issue, the opinion draws on the differences between express and implied waivers:

As we have recognized in the attorney-client privilege context, there is a difference between express and implied waivers. This framework is also applicable in the context of work-product protection, where an express waiver generally occurs by disclosure to an adversary, while an implied waiver occurs by disclosure or conduct that is inconsistent with the maintenance of secrecy against an adversary. 

Drilling down deeper into the issue, the court sets out the relevant task for the court: 

Thus, the focal point of our waiver inquiry is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, Sanmina acted in such a way that is inconsistent with the maintenance of secrecy against its adversary in regard to the Attorney Memos. More broadly, we must ask whether and to what extent fairness mandates the disclosure of the Attorney Memos in this case.

The key consideration is the relationship between the party seeking to maintain the confidentiality and the overall adversary process. On this last point the opinion highlights that Sanmina could have chosen to substantiate its worthless stock deductions with documents or evidence that did not reference the attorney memos, but it chose to reveal their existence when it gave the IRS the DLA Report:

Assuming that Sanmina reasonably expected confidentiality over the Attorney Memos when sharing them with DLA Piper, this expectation became far less reasonable once Sanmina decided to disclose to the IRS a valuation report that explicitly cited the memoranda as a basis for its conclusions. In doing so, Sanmina increased the possibility that the IRS, its adversary in this matter, might obtain its protected work product, and thereby engaged in conduct inconsistent with the purposes of the privilege.

After finding that the actions amounted to waiver, the court then refined its analysis even further, noting that the next step is to focus on the scope of the waiver “which must be ‘closely tailored . . . to the needs of the opposing party’ and limited to what is necessary to rectify any unfair advantage gained by Sanmina from its conduct.” 

That led the court to distinguish between differing parts of the in house counsel memos: 

Based on Sanmina’s overall conduct, Sanmina has implicitly waived protection over any factual or non-opinion work product in the Attorney Memos that serve as foundational material for the DLA Piper Report. However, the IRS provides no reason why the scope of this implied waiver should encompass the opinion work product contained in the Attorney Memos. Besides its general argument the Attorney Memos are needed to understand the DLA Piper Report, the IRS does not explain why the “mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or legal theories” of Sanmina’s in-house attorneys are specifically at issue or critical to its assessment of the deduction’s legal validity. Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495, 508 (1947). 

As such, the court held that the IRS was not entitled to parts of the in house memos that contained the internal lawyers’ discussion of the legal issue, as that “may potentially undermine the adversary process by allowing the IRS the opportunity to litigate ‘on wits borrowed from the adversary’ in a future legal dispute with Sanmina. Hickman, 329 U.S. at 516 (Jackson, J., concurring). 

Conclusion

The opinion closes by ordering disclosure of the factual portion of the lawyers’ memos, all to be accomplished by a remand that will require the district court to determine which portions of the memos involve factual work product.  Sanmina will still be able to keep from the IRS its lawyers’ mental impressions, opinions, and legal theories.  As Jack Townsend has discussed in a recent blog post, the opinion highlights the difference between factual and opinion work product, and it remains difficult to force disclosure of true legal analysis. The devil, however, is in the details, and the district court will have to carefully distinguish between fact and legal analysis. Perhaps that too will lead to more litigation—all of course as predicate to a possible challenge to the merits of the deduction. 

About Leslie Book

Professor Book is a Professor of Law at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Comment Policy: While we all have years of experience as practitioners and attorneys, and while Keith and Les have taught for many years, we think our work is better when we generate input from others. That is one of the reasons we solicit guest posts (and also because of the time it takes to write what we think are high quality posts). Involvement from others makes our site better. That is why we have kept our site open to comments.

If you want to make a public comment, you must identify yourself (using your first and last name) and register by including your email. If you do not, we will remove your comment. In a comment, if you disagree with or intend to criticize someone (such as the poster, another commenter, a party or counsel in a case), you must do so in a respectful manner. We reserve the right to delete comments. If your comment is obnoxious, mean-spirited or violates our sense of decency we will remove the comment. While you have the right to say what you want, you do not have the right to say what you want on our blog.

Speak Your Mind

*