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October 08, 2018

Clawback Agreements - Friend or Foe?

Katharine E. Kohm

As construction attorneys, we are no strangers to voluminous productions of client documents and communications, both in electronic and hardcopy formats, during discovery.  Even with proper safeguards in place during document review, there exists the possibility that some privileged material may accidentally slip over to an opposing party.  Production of such material to a third party, especially an adversary, runs the risk of waiving attorney-client privilege or attorney work product privilege.

Rule 502(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence creates somewhat of a safety net for inadvertent disclosures, but requires compliance with a number of steps. Fed. R. Evid. 502(b) ("disclosure does not operate as a waiver in a federal or state proceeding if: (1) the disclosure is inadvertent; (2) the holder of the privilege or protection took reasonable steps to prevent disclosure; and (3) the holder promptly took reasonable steps to rectify the error, including (if applicable) following Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26 (b)(5)(B) [concerning inadvertent production of trial preparation materials].") Note also that the term "inadvertent" is not defined.  Id.  Whether those three requirements are met can be challenged by the opposing party.  

Clawback agreements, pursuant to Federal Rules 502(d) & (e) and equivalent state rules, are aimed at avoiding waiver of privileges without having to resort to proof under Rule 502(b). See Fed. R. Evid. 502(d) ("A federal court may order that the privilege or protection is not waived by disclosure connected with the litigation pending before the court--in which event the disclosure is also not a waiver in any other federal or state proceeding."); Fed. R. Evid. 502(e) ("An agreement on the effect of disclosure in a federal proceeding is binding only on the parties to the agreement, unless it is incorporated into a court order.").  Likewise, scheduling orders under Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure contemplate the Court approving the parties' clawback agreement in this regard ahead of time.  Fed. R. Civ. P. 16(b)(3)(iv) ("The scheduling order may . . . include any agreements the parties reach for asserting claims of privilege or of protection as trial-preparation material after information is produced, including agreements reached under Federal Rule of Evidence 502"). 

Here's the concern with clawback agreements - in the event of a dispute between parties, a court, depending on the circuit or state, may not be willing to enforce a generally stated agreement unless it explicitly speaks to the Rule 502(b) standard.  For example, in irth Solutions, LLC v. Windstream Communications, LLC, 2018 WL 575911 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 26, 2018), the district court confirmed the magistrate judge's decision that, per Federal Rule of Evidence 502(b), the defendant had waived its attorney-client privilege by twice producing 43 privileged documents to plaintiff's counsel notwithstanding that the parties had a clawback agreement.  Though the defendant's counsel did not dispute that the production of the 43 documents was "reckless," the defendant's counsel argued that the clawback agreement should trump the requirements of 502(b), which avoids waiver only upon an "inadvertent" disclosure.  The district court disagreed, instead focusing on whether the parties' agreement even spoke to dispensing with Federal Rule of Evidence 502(b)(2)'s requirement to "take reasonable steps to prevent disclosure."  The court noted that "the clawback agreement lacked any language to support a finding that the parties came to an understanding that there would be no pre-production review [and] [m]oreover, the email memorializing the parties' clawback agreement also contained a provision requiring the parties to provide privilege logs  . . . [indicating to the Court] that the parties did in fact contemplate meaningful pre-production privilege review."  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the defense had waived the privilege by producing the documents and that the clawback agreement did not preserve the privilege. 

The irth case recently was granted an interlocutory appeal to the Sixth Circuit to answer the question "what is the legal standard for determining whether a clawback agreement displaces the test under Rule 502(b) for evaluating if an inadvertent disclosure of privileged documents constitutes waiver of the attorney-client privilege? Defendant has argued that a clawback agreement, no matter how cursory, always prevails, such that an inadvertent disclosure does not waive the privilege." irth Solutions, LLC v. Windstream Communications, LLC, 2018 WL 1870140, at *1 (S.D.Ohio, 2018) (granting defendant's motion to certify and stay the case).

The appeal of irth will, of course, provide more guidance on this issue.  However, regardless of the circuit or state, drafting clawback agreements so each Rule 502(b) element is identified and addressed is a good rule of thumb to avoid the possible waiver of privileges.

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Katharine E. Kohm

Pierce Atwood LLP, Providence, RI, Division 1 (Litigation and Dispute Resolution)