Attorneys: A Common Interest Agreement May Not Be Worth the Paper It’s Written On
It is a very common practice for counsel to co-defendants or co-plaintiffs to enter into agreements that shield their communications. The agreements are expressions of intent that the communications will be protected by the “common interest doctrine” that extends the attorney-client privilege to discussions with parties that share a common interest. Under the doctrine, the attorney-client privilege is not waived when such communications are made between parties sharing a common legal interest.
In Ambac Assur. Corp. v Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 27 NY3d 616 (2016), the New York Court of Appeals expressly limited the application of the common interest doctrine to “co-defendants, co-plaintiffs or persons who reasonably anticipate that they will become co-litigants.…” In doing so, the Court of Appeals clarified that the policy underpinning the doctrine was to enable two or more parties to coordinate a common claim or defense without fear that such efforts might later become the subject of disclosure.
Despite the frequent use of common interest agreements, there are limitations that may vitiate the privilege entirely and leave communications unprotected and discoverable to the other side. In applying the holding in Ambac, a New York County Supreme Court judge recently ruled that the common interest doctrine did not apply to communications between counsel where one party assigned claims to the other.
In 59 S. 4th LLC v A-Top Ins. Brokerage, Inc., 2017 N.Y. Slip. Op. 30050[U] (Sup. Ct., N.Y. County, Jan. 10, 2017), an owner of a residential development project initiated a lawsuit against an insurance broker, alleging that the broker had misrepresented the scope of work the general contractor could undertake with its current insurance. In addition, the owner obtained an unconditional assignment of any potential claims the general contractor may have possessed against the broker regarding the procurement of insurance. Subsequent to the assignment and during the litigation, the plaintiff owner and (non-party) general contractor entered into a “common interest agreement” before entering into a series of discussions. That agreement contemplated that certain communications between the owner and the general contractor would be privileged and confidential. When counsel for the broker sought production of those communications, the owner refused to produce them citing the common interest doctrine. The broker then moved to compel.
In granting the broker’s motion, the Court reaffirmed the limited applicability of the common interest doctrine as set forth by the Court of Appeals in Ambac. The Court reasoned that, because the assignment completely divested the general contractor of any interest it may have had in the outcome of the litigation, the general contractor could not – by definition – become a co-plaintiff in the action. As a result, the entirety of verbal and written communications between the owner and general contractor were deemed not privileged and subject to disclosure to the other side.
Following the holdings in Ambac and 59 S. 4th LLC, any lawyer considering entering into a common interest agreement should be mindful that these agreements are not automatically upheld. Instead, careful practitioners must confirm whether their situation meets the requirements set forth in Ambac above, or they, too, may see their private communications deemed unprotected.