California ethics opinion addresses issues related to a lawyer accepting damaging document provided by a witness

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent California ethics opinion which addresses ethics issues related to accepting a damaging document provided by an individual (witness).  The ethics opinion is Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) Ethics Opinion 531 (July 24, 2019) and is here:

The detailed opinion sets forth the scenario when a lawyer is offered access, by a witness who is an unrepresented former employee of the opposing party, to potential documentary evidence and is advised that it will show the adverse party’s failure to comply with discovery obligations.  The opinion discusses whether the lawyer can and/or should ethically use the document and “the ethical risks and potential adverse consequences of taking possession or reviewing the material are significant” when there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the document contains protected or privileged information.

According to the opinion, the lawyer must first determine whether the individual violated the law by obtaining or possessing the materials.  If the lawyer does not have the competence to make that decision, he or she should consult with another lawyer who has knowledge of criminal law. If a law was violated and the lawyer obtains the document, he or she may be ethically required to turn over the document to the court or to the appropriate legal authorities.

The lawyer should also address whether the document or data includes material that is subject to protection under the attorney-client privilege, confidentiality, or the attorney work-product doctrine. If it becomes “reasonably apparent” to the lawyer that the documents are privileged, the lawyer would be ethically obligated to stop reviewing the document and provide notice to the privilege holder, the owner of the work product, or their counsel.

The lawyer should also keep the client informed when receiving the evidence is a significant development or if it limits the actions that the lawyer is able to take and the lawyer may be required to inform the client about the impact of any dispute over entitlement to the evidence, including the potential financial impact, including legal costs, and potential delay.  The lawyer should also consider other issues to be reviewed and discussed with the client, which would include the possibility of the lawyer being disqualified from the case and possible sanctions that could adversely affect the client’s case.

Bottom line: This California ethics opinion provides a good overview of the ethical issues (i.e. minefields) which are present when an individual tries to provide the lawyer with an alleged “smoking gun” document and discusses what the lawyer should do to protect him or herself ethically.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670


About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
This entry was posted in Attorney ethics, attorney-client privilege, Attorney/client confidentiality, Attorney/client privilege, California ethics opinion using improper document, California ethics opinion using improperly obtained document, competence, Confidential Information, Confidentiality, corsmeier, diligence, Ethics Opinions, joe corsmeier, joseph corsmeier, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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