Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk”

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Privilege (pd)Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.

In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:

Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK

NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS

Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.  

Continue reading “Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk””

What Do eBay, The “40 Year-Old Virgin,” And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Jonah hillNot much, but please keep reading.

In the movie, the 40-Year-Old-Virgin, an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill has a very small, but funny, part. He plays a customer at the “We Sell Your Stuff On Ebay” store, which is owned by Steve Carell’s character’s love interest, played by Catherine Keener. According to IMDB.com, Hills plays “Ebay Customer,” who is, to say the least, having trouble understanding how the store works. He wants to buy some "wonderful" shoes that he found at the store. Keener's character explains that she does not actually sell any of the items in her store at the store, she sells them on eBay. Hill's character just doesn't get it, eventually telling Keener's character that he just wanted to buy the shoes and take them home, but that she was "making it extremely difficult" for him to do so.

The recent Appellate Division decision, XCalibur Communications v. Karcich, involved a dispute over the sale of the plaintiff’s merchandise on eBay. No word on whether any of those sales involved shoes like the ones Hill’s character was looking to buy, but the decision helps clarify the scope of the litigation privilege, which is broader than many people think. 

Continue reading “What Do eBay, The “40 Year-Old Virgin,” And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?”

For Richer And For (Perhaps Very Shortly) Poorer: Wife Must Testify About Husband’s Allegedly Hidden Assets

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

For husbands, the lesson from a recent Appellate Division opinion is that you cannot assert the marital privilege in an attempt to keep their wives from being deposed by a judgment creditor about assets that you might be trying to conceal from that judgment creditor. In U.S. Electrical Services, Inc. v. Electrical Solutions Group, Inc., plaintiff obtained a judgment for approximately $165,000 against defendants (a corporation and an individual who was alleged to be the sole shareholder of the corporation). In post-judgment proceedings, plaintiff applied for, and obtained, an order of discovery permitting the deposition of the individual defendant's wife based upon plaintiff's assertion that she had knowledge of certain assets that the individual defendant had failed to disclose.

The individual defendant moved to vacate the order, arguing that any testimony from his wife would be subject to the marital privilege — codified at N.J.SA 2A:84A-22 — and that he did not consent to the disclosure of the information. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the individual defendant's wife could be deposed about her "first-hand knowledge and observations of facts and occurrences." The individual defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order. It started with the general proposition that privileges must be narrowly construed. With this in mind, it turned to the specific elements of the marital privilege: (1) a communication; (2) made in confidence; (3) between spouses. The Appellate Division further noted that the purpose of the privilege is to "encourage[] free and uninhibited communication between spouses, and, consequently, [to] protect[] the sanctity and tranquility of marriage." But, because the "only effect" of the privilege is to "suppress[] [] relevant evidence," it must be "confined as narrowly as is consistent with the reasonable protection of marital communications."

In U.S. Electrical Services, the individual defendant argued that any "personal and business financial records" that he "brought into the martial home where [his wife] may have seen them [were] necessarily [ ] confidential communication[s] between spouses." The Appellate Division disagreed for a number of reasons.

First, it held that documents that were stored in the marital home and were observed by a spouse do not a "confidential communication" make. The privilege protects communications, not conduct or occurrences. Thus, a wife's observations of what her husband did, including bringing documents into the marital home, are not covered by the privilege. The court did hold, however, that communications about the documents could potentially be protected under the marital privilege "provided the right proofs" (which were not present in the instant case).

Second, the Appellate Division held that the contents of the documents were not automatically privileged "just because both parties have seen them." In this regard, the court held that many business and financial records are generated by, or submitted to, third parties outside of the marital home. As a result, they may not be confidential at all. Moreover, the Appellate Division observed that, even if documents were initially confidential, "placement in the home where another member of the household or a guest could discover them does not guarantee continued confidentiality." At a minimum, a party seeking to assert the privilege would have to demonstrate that the underlying documents remained confidential while in the marital home.

Third, the Appellate Division held that the act of leaving document in the marital home does not encourage communications between spouses or protect marriages, the very purpose behind the privilege. Absent convincing evidence that applying the privilege would protect and further the interests it was designed to advance, the Appellate Division saw no reason to recognize the privilege.

Ultimately, the take home message from U.S. Electrical Services is that simply bringing documents into the marital home, and even sharing them (or making them visible or available to  your spouse) does not bring the existence or content of those documents within the marital privilege. But, both the trial court and Appellate Division left open the possibility that communications about such documents, in the right situation, might be privileged.