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Protecting Privilege when Communicating with PR Consultants

In high-profile cases in 2001[1] and 2003,[2] federal courts recognized exceptions to the third-party waiver rule for privileged communications shared with public relations (PR) consultants. Since then, courts have repeatedly been tasked with determining the status of PR firms for purposes of asserted waivers of attorney-client privilege and deciding whether Kovel[3]or the third-party waiver exceptions recognized in In re Copper or In re Grand Jury Subpoenas apply. Recently, multiple courts have rendered decisions on whether a third-party PR consultant falls within the scope of the privilege by virtue of one of the exceptions. These decisions have demonstrated that, as of 2020, the standards for these doctrines remain fluid, if not illusive. By contrast, disclosure of attorney work product to third parties does not so readily waive protection. Below we review recent cases and offer best practices to maintain privilege and work-product protection.

Third-Party Waiver Exception Doctrines Applied to PR Firms

The attorney-client privilege protects communications made in confidence with counsel for the purpose of legal advice, but the privilege is waived if the communication is shared with a third party. Starting in 2001, courts applied two developing exceptions to the third-party waiver rule to PR firms. The court in In re Copper Market Antitrust Litigation[4] held that a PR firm was the functional equivalent of an employee such that the privilege was not waived when counsel shared communications with the firm.[5] In doing so, the court recognized that the PR firm was within the scope of privilege as defined by Upjohn Co. v. United States.[6] Two years later, the court in In re Grand Jury Subpoenas Dated March 24, 2003,[7] applied the Kovel[8]third-party waiver exception to retention of a PR firm and held that the communications of a grand jury target with that PR firm did not waive the privilege because counsel needed to engage in frank discussions of the facts and strategies.

Decisions Finding No Waiver

In NECA-IBEW Pension Trust Fund v. Precision Castparts Corp.,[9] the plaintiffs in a securities action moved to compel documents listed on the privilege log drafted by counsel for Precision Castparts Corp. (PCC) and shared with AMG, PCC’s PR firm, for comments. The defendant asserted that the documents were privileged, arguing that AMG was the functional equivalent of an employee such that disclosure did not constitute a waiver.[10] The court agreed:

AMG is the functional equivalent of an employee under Upjohn and Graff. PCC retained AMG in August 2014 to provide “public relations counsel and other strategic communications services.” AMG’s retainer was not a test run, as the relationship was established by the time Berkshire and PCC began talks in March 2015 and was apparently maintained throughout the acquisition. Under the terms of its engagement, AMG was required to “take instructions from [PCC] and . . . consult with other members of [PCC] management and with [PCC’s] legal and financial advisors as necessary, while PCC promised to “provide AMG with the information and resources necessary to carry out [PCC’s] instructions.”[11]

Significantly, in addition to serving as a functional equivalent of an employee, the court found that AMG was clearly receiving “legal advice from corporate counsel to guide its work for the company.”

In Stardock Systems v. Reiche,[12] a federal trademark action, Reiche’s counsel retained PR firm Singer to provide PR counseling. Reiche withheld communications between its counsel and Singer as privileged.[13] Citing In re Grand Subpoenas,[14] Reiche asserted that Singer had been retained to help present a balanced picture and that the withheld communications related to legal advice about the appropriate response to the lawsuit and making related public statements.

The court found that Reiche’s counsel hired Singer for the purposes of litigation strategy and that the communications between Singer and counsel pertained to “giving and receiving legal advice about the appropriate response to the lawsuit and making related public statements.”[15] The court cited specific examples of privilege log entries that all “relate[d] to Defendants’ counsel’s litigation strategy in dealing with the present suit.”[16] The court also held that the attorney work-product doctrine had not been waived because the work product shared was intended to be kept confidential.

Cases Where Courts Found Waiver

Other courts, however, have reached different conclusions. Following the premiere of “Blackfish,” a film critical of SeaWorld, SeaWorld and its counsel retained two “crisis” PR firms to work with counsel in developing a legal strategy, including considering potential litigation. In Anderson v. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.,[17] the PR firms produced documents regarding their work with SeaWorld, but SeaWorld redacted some documents and withheld others based on attorney-client privilege and attorney work product.

The court, relying on Behunin v. Superior Court, the only California decision addressing the issue as applied to PR firms,[18] held the standard of “reasonably necessary” had not been met:

[I]n order for disclosure to a third party to be “reasonably necessary” for an attorney’s purpose, and thus not to effect a waiver of privilege, it is not enough that the third party weighs in on legal strategy. Instead, the third party must facilitate communication between the attorney and client. Here, the evidence submitted and documents lodged for in camera review show at most that SeaWorld and its counsel sought advice from public relations firms to better predict the public reaction to legal activities and other efforts it considered in response to Blackfish, and to determine how best to present such activities to the public and other entities.[19]

The court rejected SeaWorld’s argument that its PR consultants were functionally equivalent to employees, stating that, even assuming that the remaining elements of the test were satisfied, “there is no evidence that any such consultant “possessed information possessed by no one else at the company,’” [20] one of the factors established by In re Bieter Company,[21] which established the functional equivalent doctrine in the Eighth Circuit.

However, the court held that disclosure of the attorneys’ work product to the PR firms had not waived work-product protection because there can be no waiver “unless it has substantially increased the opportunity for the adverse party to obtain the information.”[22]

In Universal Standard Inc. v. Target Corp.,[23] a trademark infringement and unfair competition case, Target sought to compel production of emails sent among Universal Standard, its attorneys and its PR firm, BrandLink, arguing that privilege had been waived. Universal argued that BrandLink was the functional equivalent of an employee, hired to serve as Universal’s “public relations arm” with independent decision-making authority. The court found no evidence of that, however; the only specific evidence was that BrandLink would monitor and respond to inquiries directed to a PR email address, duties unrelated to legal advice. Further, BrandLink had no independent authority to issue a press release — the email in dispute suggested the Universal overruled BrandLink’s recommendation.

Further, BrandLink did not work exclusively for Universal and provided services for more than a dozen other brands:

It is of no great significance that, as Universal Standard argues, BrandLink has “particular and unique expertise in the area of public relations, whereas Universal Standard does not.” Or that BrandLink “works closely with Universal Standard’s owners on a continuous basis regarding PR issues. To the contrary, the evidence presented by the parties “contradict[s] the picture of [BrandLink] as so fully integrated into the [Universal Standard] hierarchy as to be a de facto employee of [Universal Standard]”[24]

The court also rejected the assertion that the In re Grand Jury Subpoenas exception applied because there was no evidence that the purpose of the communications with BrandLink was to assist counsel in providing legal advice.[25]

Finally, the court in Pipeline Productions, Inc. v. Madison Cos.[26]reached a mixed result. In this case arising out of a failed music festival, the plaintiff moved to compel documents listed on the defendants’ privilege log that involved two third-party contractors — Suzanne Land, hired to negotiate related transactions, and Marcee Rondan, a PR consultant. The court found that Land was the functional equivalent of an employee, citing affidavits from the defendant:

Madison submitted a detailed factual record that establishes Ms. Land was an authorized representative for purposes of seeking and receiving the legal advice at issue. Mr. Gordon’s affidavit explains that he brought Ms. Land on board in the winter of 2014-2015 as his “right hand person” to oversee negotiating certain proposed business transactions, including the dealings with Pipeline that are the subject of this litigation. . . . He authorized and asked Ms. Land to communicate with counsel and other Madison representatives in order to obtain information needed or requested by Madison’s attorneys, he authorized Ms. Land to act in this capacity as Madison’s representative, and he relied upon her to do so.[27]

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the purpose of communications with Rondan was to guide their counsel relating to PR issues with potential litigation:

These descriptions suggest only that the predominant purpose of the communications was to obtain public relations advice from Ms. Rondan and, even further afield, as they sought to set up a call about that advice. Although Madison argues counsel was included on all communications and that the communications would not have occurred “but for the fact that a lawsuit was filed,” these considerations are insufficient to show that Ms. Rondan provided any information to Madison’s attorneys to enable them to render legal advice or to provide legal services.[28]

Best Practices

While each case will turn on its facts, there are steps counsel can take to best ensure privileged and protected communications with PR firms retain their protection by making a clear record of what role the PR firm will play.

First, it should be counsel who engages a PR firm, and counsel should provide a clear, written description of the PR firm’s role in the litigation in their engagement letter. To the extent that an engagement expands beyond the initial scope, additional engagement letters should make clear what the PR firm’s role will be in each.

Not every communication with PR firms will involve the provision of legal advice and so companies should not try and overreach by copying counsel on routine communications. If a communication is to remain privileged, there must be a legal reason why the PR firm is involved. Communications designed to address nonlegal matters, like public perception, will not be deemed privileged. Privileged communications should only be shared with PR firms to the extent necessary, and only with PR consultants so integrated into the client’s business and structure that the consultant can be qualified as a functional equivalent of an employee.

When challenged, counsel should prepare affidavits that evidence the specific tasks assigned to the PR firm and why its involvement was necessary for the provision of legal advice. If establishing that the consultant is the functional equivalent of an employee, the affidavits should establish the PR firm’s integration into the company’s structure and routine interaction with counsel for legal advice.

Finally, regardless of whether a communication remains privileged, because attorney work-product protection is not so easily waived, counsel should demonstrate that disclosure did not make the information available to their adversaries.

 


[1] See In re Copper Mkt. Antitrust Litig., 200 F.R.D. 213 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), where the court held that the public relations firm was the functional equivalent of the corporation’s employee and, therefore, the attorney-client privilege was not waived when the corporation’s counsel shared communications with the public relations firm. In so holding, the court rejected the argument that third-party consultants came within the scope of the privilege only when acting as conduits or facilitators of attorney-client communications, the requirements of the original third-party waiver doctrine adopted in United States v. Kovel, 296 F.2d 918 (2nd Cir. 1961).

[2] In In re Grand Jury Subpoenas Dated March 24, 2003, 265 F. Supp. 2d 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2003), a target of a grand jury investigation hired a public relations firm to assist in influencing the outcome of the investigation. When subpoenaed by the government to produce documents and testify before the grand jury regarding communications with the target, the public relations firm asserted the attorney-client privilege on behalf of the target. The court upheld the privilege, recognizing the need for lawyers to be able to engage in frank discussion of facts and strategies with the lawyers’ public relations consultants.

[3]United States v. Kovel, 296 F.2d 918 (2nd Cir. 1961). The Second Circuit held that the privilege could extend to communications between a client and a nonattorney third party if “the communication [is] made in confidence for the purpose of obtaining legal advice from the lawyer.” Id. at 922. In applying this rule, the court found that the privilege could reasonably extend to an accountant assisting a law firm in an investigation into an alleged federal income tax violation.”

[4] 200 F.R.D. 213 (S.D.N.Y. 2001).

[5] Id. at 219-20 (citing In re Bieter, 16 F.3d 929 (1994) (privilege would apply to communications between independent consultants hired by the client and the client’s lawyers if those consultants were the functional equivalents of employees)).

[6]449 U.S. 383, 391 (1981) (Supreme Court rejected that only corporation's high-level "control group" could communicate with attorneys without the privilege being waived and held that lower-level employees could be used as agents of the corporation when they had relevant information needed by corporate counsel to advise client).

[7] 265 F. Supp. 2d 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).

[8] United States v. Kovel, 296 F.2d 918 (2nd Cir. 1961).

[9] No. 3:16-cv-017756, 29019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168088 (D. Or. Sep. 27, 2019).

[10] Id. at *14-15 (“The Eighth Circuit . . . applied Upjohn to cover communications between corporate counsel and outside consultants” when the outside consultant “was in all relevant respects the functional equivalent of an employee.”) (citations omitted).

[11] Id. at *17-18, distinguishing Universal Standard Inc. v. Target, 331 F.R.D. 80 (S.D.N.Y. May 6, 2019).

[12] 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 204438 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 30, 2018).

[13] Id. at *5.

[14] 265 F. Supp. 2d 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).

[15] Id. at *17.

[16] Id. at *17-18.

[17] 329 F.R.D 628 (N.D. Cal. 2019)

[18] 9 Cal. App. 5th 833, 215 Cal. Rptr. 3d 475 (App. 2d Dist. 2017) (court held Behunin had not proven the communications were reasonably necessary for counsel’s representation and determined the privilege had been waived).

[19] 329 F.R.D. at *634.

[20] Id.

[21] 16 F.3d 929 (8th Circ. 1994).

[22] Id. at *635-36.

[23] 331 F.R.D. 80 (S.D.N.Y. 2019).

[24] Id. at 90 (citations omitted).

[25] Id. at *91-92.

[26] No. 15-4890-KHV, 2019 U.S. DIST Lexis 71601 (D. Kan. Apr. 29, 2019).

[27] Id. at *3-4.

[28] Id. at *5-6.

© 2020 Pepper Hamilton LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 114

TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS


About this Author

Matthew J. Hamilton Health Care Lawyer
Partner Health Sciences Pepper Hamilton

Matthew J. Hamilton is a partner in the Health Sciences Department of Pepper Hamilton LLP. He has more than twenty-four years’ experience representing clients in complex pharmaceutical products liability and commercial litigation, with a primary emphasis on the defense of federal multidistrict litigation, coordinated state court actions, class actions and other complex matters. He leads the firm’s Legal Project Management and Knowledge Management initiatives, serves on the firm’s Information Governance committee, and is certified in legal project management and Legal...

215.981.4053
Donna L. Fisher Products Liability Attorney Pepper Hamilton
Special Counsel Pepper Hamilton

Donna L. Fisher is special counsel in the Health Sciences Department of Pepper Hamilton LLP, resident in the Harrisburg office. She concentrates her practice in civil litigation, with an emphasis in the defense of pharmaceutical and medical device companies regarding marketed drugs, medical devices and over-the-counter drug products in product liability cases. Ms. Fisher has also practiced extensively in  the commercial, energy and construction litigation fields. Ms. Fisher serves on the firm’s Paralegal Committee and Audit Letter Committee.

Ms. Fisher’s recent products liability experience includes defending a medical device company in nationwide litigation involving spinal implants and biologics, a pharmaceutical company in multi-district litigation involving prescription diabetes medicine, a pharmaceutical company in litigation involving prescription anti-depressant medication, and has managed and directed large-scale hard copy and electronic discovery in complex, multi-state litigation, including technology assisted review or predictive coding and related large volume privilege reviews. She has written and lectured on attorney-client privilege and attorney work product, technology assisted review, and social media discovery. Ms. Fisher has also litigated toxic tort cases and products liability cases involving diagnostic laboratory claims, industrial explosions and mold exposure. 

Ms. Fisher’s construction law practice includes representing contractors, subcontractors and sureties in state and federal courts. She also has been involved in arbitration and mediation proceedings. Representative construction litigation matters in which she has been engaged include EIFS (synthetic stucco) and moisture intrusion litigation, mold litigation, delay and disruption disputes, change order disputes and differing site conditions disputes. Ms. Fisher has lectured on defending mold claims and on multiple construction topics.

717.255.1166