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: https://www.lacba.org/docs/default-source/ethics-opinions/archived-ethics-opinions/ethics-opinion-531.pdf
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