Managing the Limits of the Work Product Doctrine

29 Dec 2015 2:00 PM | Lynette Pitt (Administrator)

by Colleen Byers, Bell Davis & Pitt

Although often wielded as such, the work product doctrine is not an impenetrable shield. Whether advising a client pre-suit or during the pendency of a lawsuit, both lawyers and their clients should be cautioned that just because a lawyer was involved in the preparation of a document or the communication with a third-party does not necessarily make the document, the communication or the information learned thereafter sacrosanct. The work product doctrine is not an absolute privilege, but rather a qualified immunity. See, e.g. Evans v. United Services Auto. Ass’n, 142 N.C. App. 18, 541 S.E.2d 782 (2001). Courts must strike a balance between the need for relevant, non-privileged discovery and the need to safeguard the lawyer’s work in developing the client’s case. Lawyers would be wise to consider and strategically maneuver around the limits of the work product protection long before they begin drafting objections to written discovery. Although the general rule that documents prepared in anticipation of litigation are not discoverable holds true, there are several notable exceptions and limitations to this rule.

1. Substantial need and undue hardship.

Pursuant to Rule 26(b)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure if a document is created in anticipation of litigation, the party seeking discovery may access the document only by demonstrating a “substantial need” for the document and “undue hardship” in obtaining its substantial equivalent by other means. It is important to note, however, that the requesting party must show both a substantial need and an undue hardship in order to overcome the work product protection. See, e.g. North Carolina State Bar v. Harris, 137 N.C. App. 207, 527 S.E.2d 728 (2000) (even if the attorney, who was the subject of disciplinary proceedings, showed a substantial need to discover reports and witness interview notes of State Bar’s investigator, the attorney failed to show an undue hardship where he failed to exercise his right to depose the witnesses who were the subject of the investigator’s notes and reports). Moreover, where a substantial need and undue hardship have overcome the work product protection, the producing party should consider requesting an in camera review and redactions of the mental impressions, conclusions, opinions and legal theories of an attorney contained therein, which are entitled to a heightened level of protection from disclosure, in order to limit discovery to the fact work product contained in the document(s).

2. Only applicable to documents and tangible things.

The work product protection only applies to documents and tangible things. [Rule 26(b)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.] Accordingly, the protection does not extend to actions taken or the identification of persons contacted by a party or the party’s counsel. Brown v. American Partners Federal Credit Union, 183 N.C. App. 529 645 S.E.2d 117(2007); Young v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 219 N.C. App. 172, 724 S.E.2d 552 (2012).

3. Ordinary course of business exceptions.

Because the work product doctrine only protects documents and tangible things prepared in anticipation of litigation, it does not apply to materials prepared in the ordinary course of business or to facts known by any party. For example, e-mails containing nothing more than that which would be sent in the ordinary course of business that are copied to an attorney are not protected by the work product doctrine solely because they were sent while a lawsuit was pending. Isom v. Bank of America, 177 N.C. App. 406, 628 S.E.2d 458 (2006). Additionally, internal investigations may not be protected if they are conducted in the ordinary course of business and are completed prior to the reasonable anticipation of litigation. Fulmore v. Howell, 189 N.C. App. 93, 657 S.E.2d 437 (2008) (trucking company’s accident report and internal investigation following fatal traffic accident were conducted for safety purposes in the normal course of business and, therefore, subject to discovery in subsequent negligence action); Evans, 142 N.C. App. 18 (in coverage dispute, investigative report completed by independent claim adjusters prior to insurer’s denial of claim was not protected by work product doctrine because it was completed in the ordinary course of the insured’s business and the insured could not reasonably anticipate litigation of a coverage question before the investigative procedure was completed and the claim was denied); Cook v. Wake Co. Hosp. System, Inc., 125 N.C. App. 618, 482 S.E.2d 546 (1997) (hospital’s accident report prepared after physician’s slip and fall in hospital was not prepared in anticipation of litigation, but rather for routine, business risk management purposes and was, therefore, discoverable in physician’s personal injury action).

4. Certain communications with experts.

Effective October 1, 2015, Rule 26(b)(4)(e) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure now expressly identifies the circumstances under which communications between an attorney and an expert witness are discoverable. Communications between an attorney and an expert witness, regardless of the mode of communication, are protected from discovery except to the extent that the communications do any of the following: (i) relate to compensation for the expert’s study or testimony; (ii) identify facts or data that the party's attorney provided and that the expert considered in forming the opinions to be expressed; or (iii) identify assumptions that the party's attorney provided and that the expert relied on in forming the opinions to be expressed. To avoid an in camera review and a redaction fight, consider keeping protected communications with an expert witness separate from those that are discoverable under the recently revised Rule 26(b)(4)(e).

Although the work product doctrine is not without its limits, a little strategic planning can go a long way to mitigate the impact of those limits.

Endnote:  This article is limited to North Carolina state law, but it should be noted that, unlike the attorney-client privilege, the analysis of the work product rule in federal court is governed by federal law rather than the state law of the jurisdiction. Bowne of New York City, Inc. v. AmBase Corp., 150 F.R.D. 465 (S.D.N.Y. 1993).

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