The Limits of Confidentiality

May 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

When most of us in the legal profession think of client confidentiality, we tend to think in absolute terms. That is, if it involves a communication between lawyer and client, or client documents or other forms of client secrets, it can not be disclosed.

The rule is not absolute, however. Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 1.6 provides six exceptions by which the lawyer may reveal otherwise confidential information of a client. RPC 3.3 and 4.1 complement 1.6.

MRE 502 is the lawyer-client privilege rule. It states that a lawyer may invoke the privilege on behalf of a client in order to keep attorney-client communications confidential. Subsection (d) sets out five exceptions in which the privilege may not be invoked: (1) if the lawyer acted to aid a client in committing a crime or fraud; (2) claimants through the same deceased client; (3) if the communication is relevant to a claim of breach of duty by a lawyer to a client; (4) if the communication pertains to an attested document to which the lawyer is the attesting witness; and (5) communications relevant to interests of joint clients in certain situations.

That third exception reads that there is no privilege under MRE 502:

… As to a communication relevant to an issue between parties who claim through the same deceased client, regardless of whether the claims are by testate or intestate succession or by inter vivos transaction.

Exception 3 was the subject of an interlocutory order entered by the MSSC May 8, 2014, in the case of Flechas v. Pitts. The matter was before the court on “Motion for Immediate, Extraordinary Relief, and Petition for Reconsideration and/or Rehearing of Previous Ruling Based on Newly Discovered Evidence and Related Legal Issues filed by Petitioner; the Motion to Dismiss and to Strike the Motion for Immediate, Extraordinary Relief, and Petition for Reconsideration and/or Rehearing of Previous Ruling Based on Newly Discovered Evidence and Related Legal Issues, or to Partially Strike filed by Respondent; Respondent’s Rule 48A(d) Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure Motion for Access to Sealed Document, and all responses and rebuttals.”

The issue arose in the course of litigation involving a will contest between Alyce Pitts and Todd Pitts, who claimed to be beneficiaries of the decedent, Troy Pitts, under competing wills. Attorney Flechas had represented Troy Pitts in various matters. He also represented Todd in the will contest. Flechas was served by Alyce with a subpoena duces tecum for “all files, records, electronic communications, written or any documents . . . including . . . all divorce files, personal injury defense files, estate files, Will or trust files, [and] deed preparation files.”

Flechas responded to the subpoena with a motion to withdraw, since the subpoena placed him in a testimonial role as to the contested matter at issue. He also objected to the subpoena on grounds of attorney-client privilege. The chancellor overruled both the motion and the objection based on MRE 503(d), ordering the attorney to produce all of the requested information. Flechas appealed.

The MSSC reversed the chancellor’s ruling, directing that he conduct an in camera inspection of every document produced in order to determine whether it is relevant to the issues in the will contest, and that he limit disclosure to those relevant documents. The MSSC’s rationale, involving analysis of MRE 502, MRCP 26, and MRCP 45, and applicable case law, is worth your time to read.

Alyce noted for the first time in her response to Flechas’s motion that she had filed pleadings with the trial court to disqualify the attorney, and asking that he be directed to disgorge funds allegedly held fraudulently. The chancellor defended his actions, in part, based on the fraudulent acts provision of MRE 502(d)(1). The Supreme Court took note, but did not alter its position.

In an age where lawyers are increasingly finding themselves in the cross-hairs of litigation involving themselves or others, this order is important authority for the proposition that you may be called upon to disclose your client’s information entrusted to you, along with your work product, and you had better be ready to help the court understand the limitations involved.

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