Supreme Court Punts on Attorney-Client Privilege Question

In a surprising move, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) dismissed a dispute involving the proper test to apply when determining whether an unnamed law firm’s mixed bag of communications involving both legal advice and discussions of tax preparation was privilege. The dismissal came less than two weeks after oral arguments, with SCOTUS stating that “[t]he writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted” (commonly known as a “DIG,” which infrequently happens when SCOTUS determines there is no conflict warranting review, one or both parties have changed their position, or no consensus can be reached by the Justices and dismissal is preferable to fractured opinions with no controlling rationale).

BACKGROUND

The law firm and an unnamed company were each served with subpoenas for documents and communication related to a criminal investigation. Both produced some documents but withheld others on the grounds of attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine. The government moved to compel production, which the district court granted in part, explaining that the documents were not protected by any privilege, and they were discoverable under the crime-fraud exception. The company and law firm continued to withhold the documents, and the government filed motions to hold them in contempt. The district court ruled that certain dual-purpose communications were not privileged because the “primary purpose” of the documents was to obtain tax advice, not legal advice. On appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the law firm and the company argued that the court should have relied on a broader, “because of” test, not the “primary purpose” test. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and concluded that the “primary purpose” test governs, and the primary purpose of the communications was tax advice. SCOTUS granted certiorari in October 2022.

SUPREME COURT

In its brief, the law firm asked SCOTUS to adopt a more expansive “significant purpose” test, which was applied by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc. The law firm argued that the test applied in Kellogg “appropriately protects attorney-client dual purpose communications” and that the test “asks a single question that arises directly from the long-established test for attorney-client privilege: whether a client is seeking or obtaining confidential legal advice from his or her lawyer.”

The government argued that courts consistently emphasize the need to construe the attorney-client privilege narrowly and that the primary or predominant purpose test “thus molds the scope of the privilege to its purpose of encouraging effective legal advice, while avoiding sweeping in communications predominantly about a nonlegal matter.”

During oral argument, the Justices seemed skeptical of a need to change the test and expressed some confusion as to how any privilege analysis would change from a practice perspective. Justice Kagan invoked the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Shortly thereafter, SCOTUS issued the DIG.

Practice Point: More than a dozen lawyers and organizations submitted amicus briefs in In re Grand Jury, which was arguably the most watched privilege case in years. Unfortunately, lawyers will not have the benefit of more clarification or guidance now that SCOTUS has dismissed the case. Undoubtedly, the analysis of whether mixed communication is protected by attorney-client to privilege is certainly case and fact specific. Regardless of the name of the test though, expect judges to take a practical approach to sorting out where communication falls on the privilege line. For taxpayers and practitioners, this highlights the need for coming up with strategic approaches to ensure that legal advice is appropriately segregated from non-legal advice to provide as much privilege protection as possible.

Kevin Spencer
Kevin Spencer focuses his practice on tax controversy issues. Kevin represents clients in complicated tax disputes in court and before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at the IRS Appeals and Examination divisions. In addition to his tax controversy practice, Kevin has broad experience advising clients on various tax issues, including tax accounting, employment and reasonable compensation, civil and criminal tax penalties, IRS procedures, reportable transactions and tax shelters, renewable energy, state and local tax, and private client matters. After earning his Master of Tax degree, Kevin had the privilege to clerk for the Honorable Robert P. Ruwe on the US Tax Court. Read Kevin Spencer's full bio.


Sarah M. Raben
Sarah M. Raben focuses her practice on private client matters with particular experience in tax controversy. Prior to joining McDermott, she worked for the IRS Office of Chief Counsel. Read Sarah Raben's full bio.


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