Work Product Protection Extends to Oral Communications, Facts, and the Identity of Persons Interviewed by Counsel or Investigators, But Not to Identity of Interviewers

U.S. Bank N.A. v. PHL Variable Life Ins. Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143398 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 3, 2013):

The burden of establishing any right to work product protection is on the party asserting it. In re Grand Jury Subpoenas Dated March 19, 2002 & August 2, 2002, 318 F.3d 379, 384 (2d Cir. 2003) (party asserting work product protection faces "heavy" burden). The protection claimed must be narrowly construed and its application must be consistent with the purposes underlying the asserted immunity. Id.

The work product doctrine "shields from disclosure materials prepared 'in anticipation of litigation' by a party, or the party's representative, absent a showing of substantial need." United States v. Adlman, 68 F.3d 1495, 1501 (2d Cir. 1995) (quoting Fed R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3)). It is designed to protect "mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or theories concerning the litigation." United States v. Adlman, 134 F.3d 1194, 1195 (2d Cir. 1998). A document is prepared "in anticipation of litigation" if, "in light of the nature of the document and the factual situation in the particular case, [it] can fairly be said to have been prepared or obtained because of the prospect of litigation." Id. at 1202 (internal quotation marks omitted). Although work product protection  [*24] typically accrues to documents and tangible things, the doctrine also protects a witness from answering questions that "reveal [his] attorneys' legal opinions, thought processes, [or] strategy." Securities and Exchange Commission v. Gupta, 281 F.R.D. 169, 171 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (citing United States v. District Council of New York City and Vicinity of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, No. 90 Civ. 5722, 1992 WL 208284, at *6-7 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 18, 1992)); see also Banks v. Office of the Senate Sergeant--at--Arms, 222 F.R.D. 1, 4 (D.D.C. 2004) ("The federal courts also protect work product even if it has not been memorialized in a document. Questions of a witness that would disclose counsel's mental impressions, conclusions, opinions or legal theories may be interdicted to protect 'intangible work product.'").

Though it is often asserted that the work product doctrine does not prevent disclosure of facts, see, e.g., 8 Charles A. Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2023 (3d ed. 2010) ("The courts [have] consistently held that the work product concept [furnishes] no shield against discovery, by interrogatories or by deposition, of the facts that the adverse  [*25] party's lawyer has learned, or the persons from whom he or she had learned such facts, or the existence or nonexistence of documents, even though the documents themselves may not be subject to discovery."), the Second Circuit has noted that this is an overstatement:

 

   While it may well be that work product is more deeply concerned with the revelation of an attorney's opinions and strategies, and that the burden of showing substantial need to overcome the privilege may be greater as to opinions and strategies than as to facts, we see no reason why work product cannot encompass facts as well. It is helpful to remember that the work product privilege applies to preparation not only by lawyers but also by other types of party representatives including, for example, investigators seeking factual information. If an attorney for a suspect, or an investigator hired for the suspect, undertakes a factual investigation, examining inter alia, the scene of the crime and instruments used in the commission of the crime, we see no reason why a work product objection would not properly lie if the Government called the attorney or the investigator . . . and asked "What facts have you discovered in your  investigation?"

In re Grand Jury Subpoena dated October 22, 2001, 282 F.3d 156, 161 (2d Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted).

U.S. Bank asserts that its former counsel in this case, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP ("Orrick"), retained investigators to assist them in preparing for this and other litigation against PHL.... Orrick identified certain individuals to be contacted and "provided the investigators with information and directions as to the types of people" to contact "based on, among other things, information . . . about [PHL] and specific individuals and groups at [PHL]." ***

PHL seeks disclosure of the facts surrounding U.S. Bank's investigations. (MTC Reply at 3-4). More specifically, PHL seeks the following types of information: (1) the identities of those who ordered or directed the investigations; (2) the identities of those who conducted the investigations; (3) the identities of those who were contacted in connection with the investigations; (4)  the identities of those who were present during any contacts or meeting; (5) the dates on which the interviews occurred; and (6) confirmation of whether documents were collected from third parties in connection with the investigations. (MTC Reply at 3). The parties focus in particular on one category of information: the identities of those contacted in connection with the interviews.

It is an unsettled question whether the work product immunity protects the identities of those persons interviewed by an attorney or his agent in anticipation of litigation. Compare, e.g., Oregon Health & Science University v. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc., No. Civ. 01-1272, 2002 WL 31968995, at *2 (D. Or. Oct. 24, 2002) ("The names of the ex-employees [interviewed], the dates of these conversations, and the names of those who were present are not protected by the work product doctrine.") and Alexander v. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 192 F.R.D. 12, 19 (D.D.C. 2000) (requiring disclosure of names of those interviewed) with Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 572 Pension Fund v. Cisco Systems, No. C01-20418, 2005 WL 1459555, at *4 (N.D. Cal. June 21, 2005) (identifying names of investigatory interviewees "would  allow Defendants to infer the importance of these witnesses, revealing Plaintiff's legal theories and conclusion[s]") and In re MTI Technology Corp. Securities Litigation II, No. SACV 00-745, 2002 WL 32344347, at *3 (C.D. Cal. June 13, 2002) (stating, "Although the identity and location of witnesses that may have knowledge of any discoverable matter is not protected, the identity of witnesses interviewed by opposing counsel is protected," and collecting cases (footnote omitted)). However, courts in this district have noted that the identities of people interviewed as part of counsel's investigation into the facts of the case have the potential to reveal counsel's opinions, thought processes, or strategies, and are therefore protected. See Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union No. 630 Pension-Annuity Trust Fund v. Arbitron, Inc., 278 F.R.D. 335, 343 n.8 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (stating that, in "the circumstance in which a party demands a list of persons whom opposing counsel has interviewed," one party "is essentially seeking, and potentially piggybacking on, a roadmap of an adversary's pretrial investigation[,] [which] implicates core policies behind the work product doctrine," and collecting  cases); In re Initial Public Offering Securities Litigation, 220 F.R.D. 30, 35-36 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (citing with approval "the proposition that a party may not specifically demand the identities of witnesses interviewed or relied upon by counsel").

Here, U.S. Bank asserts that its former counsel's decisions regarding whom to interview had a strategic component based on information counsel had about PHL and about individuals at PHL.... In light of this assertion, and the persuasive reasoning of cases cited above, I find that the identities of the individuals U.S. Bank interviewed in its investigation are protected as work product. See Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union No. 630, 278 F.R.D. at 343 n.8; Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 572 Pension Fund, 2005 WL 1459555, at *4; In re MTI Technology Corp. Securities Litigation II, 2002 WL 32344347, at *3; see also Cason-Merenda v. Detroit Medical Center, No. 06-15601, 2008 WL 659647, at *2 (E.D. Mich. March 7, 2008) (holding "a discovery request [seeking a list of individuals selected by counsel for interviews] would implicate the work product doctrine, as it would threaten to disclose the thought processes and strategic assessments of plaintiffs' counsel"); Tracy v. NVR, Inc., 250 F.R.D. 130, 132 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) ("The better reasoned decisions . . . are those that draw a distinction between discovery requests that seek the identification of persons with knowledge about the claims or defenses (or other relevant issues) -- requests that are plainly permissible -- and those that seek the identification of persons who who have been contacted or interviewed by counsel concerning the case." ).

Other categories of information sought -- information about those who ordered and conducted the interviews, those who were present but not interviewed, and the dates of the interviews -- are not protected from disclosure because they are not likely to provide insight into counsel's opinions, thought processes, or strategy. See, e.g., Cason-Merenda, 2008 WL 659647, at *2-3 (allowing discovery of identities of those conducting investigation). Similarly, the question of whether documents were collected from third parties is not likely to impinge on attorney work product protection, as it does not implicate the "selection and compilation theory of work product," which protects from disclosure "counsel's sifting, selection and compilation" of otherwise unprotected documents. District Council of New York City, 1992 WL 208284, at *7 9. However, it is unclear how information relating to these questions could be relevant given that the identities of the interviewees will not be disclosed. The motion to compel is therefore denied without prejudice to PHL demonstrating the relevance of such information. See, e.g., Bank National Association v. PHL Variable Insurance Co., No. 12 Civ. 6811, 2013 WL 1728933, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. April 22, 2013) ("The burden of demonstrating relevance is on the party seeking discovery.").

 

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