How not to maintain privilege – 4 key points for privilege logs

Document logs are a necessary, if unloved, feature of privilege disputes. A privilege log is inherently difficult to create, since it must describe the relevant documents but not reveal the privileged information in them. And because a log often lists many documents on the same subject, it can quickly become dull and repetitive. But proper preparation of a log is key to litigating about privilege, as the Fifth Circuit recently held in EEOC v. BDO Seidman LLP when it rejected the sufficiency of the defendant’s log in an employment case. No. 16-20314 (May 4, 2017). The opinion provides four practical tips for attorneys involved in privilege disputes.

The case began when Hang Bower, a former HR manager at BDO Seidman, alleged that she had been subjected to gender discrimination. In response to an EEOC subpoena, BDO prepared a privilege log listing 278 documents. The EEOC filed an enforcement action in federal court, offering a declaration from Bower in support. In it, she said that many of the communications “were made for the primary purpose of conveying business directives or factual information.” She also said that “BDO required her . . . to include in HR-related emails a false designation that the communication was prepared ‘at the request of legal counsel.’”

The magistrate judge found that BDO’s log was adequate, declined to do an in camera review of the documents, and denied relief to the EEOC. The district judge affirmed and the Fifth Circuit reversed, identifying four particular areas of concern:

  1. Substance. “[N]umerous log entries fail to identify a sender, recipient, date, or provide a substantive description of the subject matter . . . [s]ome entries have only vague descriptions such as ‘discrimination claim,’ ‘internal investigation,’ or ‘work environment claim’”
  2. Email chains. “Emails involving counsel are also problematic, as the log’s descriptions do not indicate whether a particular entry consists of one email or a string of emails – a distinction that may be dispositive as to whether the privilege applies.”
  3. Business/Legal distinction. “[N]ot only does the log include conclusory descriptions of ‘legal advice,’ it does so in the context of communications with in-house counsel – an area court have acknowledged presents unique challenges . . . further compounded where HR personnel, such as Bower, are involved.” The Court noted the issues raised in Bower’s declaration.
  4. Disclosure. “[T]he log leaves open questions about (1) whether emails courtesy copied to a third party remained privileged . . . (2) whether matters communicated to attorneys were done so with the intention of remaining privileged . . . and (3) whether non-attorney individuals to whom communications were sent were within the sphere of confidence . . . .”

Because the log lacked sufficient detail to establish BDO’s prima facie case of attorney-client privilege as to all the entries, the Fifth Circuit found that the magistrate judge’s legal analysis was flawed and remanded. The Court observed: “Although we leave to the district court’s discretion how to proceed on remand, we note that in camera review will likely be necessary given the facts and circumstances of this case.”

In addition to reminding about four key components of a good privilege log, this opinion reinforces the importance of evidence in resolving a privilege dispute. Bower’s declaration raised questions about the information in the log, which could not be resolved by the log entries themselves. Counsel preparing a privilege log thus needs to not only consider the completeness of the log entries, but how those entries will be supported by evidence and in camera review if there are further proceedings.

A second look at log construction

The Fifth Circuit recently “walked back” its May opinion in EEOC v. BDO USA, which identified three problems with a privilege log. A revised opinion removed that discussion, in favor of a shorter, more general observation about there being “no presumption that a company’s communications with counsel are privileged.” The new opinion observed: “Given the ‘broad’ and ‘considerable discretion’ district courts have in discovery matters, we will not analyze the privilege logs in the first instance.” EEOC v. BDO USA, No. 16-20314 (revised Nov. 16, 2017).