- Professor John Hasnas, Georgetown Law
Once upon a time, corporations, government departments, and other entities made their own decisions about how long to retain documents created or received in the course of business. Today, document retention policies can present difficult issues for the entities, for the lawyers who advise them, and for the courts that are called on to decide the consequences when documents are no longer available. Particularly in the electronic age, where computers die, people delete their emails, and backups are not always reliable, document retention cannot be counted on. What are an attorney’s obligations? Should a lawyer bringing suit write to the other side and warn that entity not to engage in normal document destruction and to back up particularly important data? Does the company being sued have to comply? These are some of the questions that the panel will address.
In-house lawyers may face particular difficulties. Does the lawyer represent only the institution, or does the lawyer also have obligations to the employees? Should the lawyer advise the employees to censor themselves in emails sent via the employer’s email system? Should employees be encouraged to communicate about work through their personal email instead? How does an in-house lawyer handle the conflicts between representing individuals who do not want to disclose discoverable emails for emails unrelated to ongoing litigation (perhaps because they made impolitic comments about their supervisors)?
Finally, the panel will discuss if there are special obligations for counsel representing government entities. Government records have a unique status. They document the conduct of public business and are necessary for transparency and, more formally, are subject to retention and preservation requirements. Should lawyers advise government clients that backups cannot be destroyed for years, contrary to current IRS policy? Should lawyers inform government employees that their personal emails, if discussing issues related to their work, may also be discoverable? How does the government’s duty of transparency to the public affect its disclosure obligations and the lawyer’s corresponding obligations to her client?
The Federalist Society's Professional Responsibility & Legal Education Practice Group presented this panel on "'The Dog Ate My Emails!': Document Retention Policies, Litigation Holds, and Legal Ethics on Saturday, November 15, during the 2014 National Lawyers Convention.
The tragedy of asbestos continues to play out. The ensuing litigation has no counterpart in our history. Over 10,000 companies have been named as defendants, leading to 100 bankruptcies (and counting). While the litigation continues apace, it has undergone radical changes from the 1985-2003 period, when millions of nonmalignant asbestos claims, mostly of asbestosis, surged through the civil justice system. U.S. District Court Judge Janis G. Jack painstakingly documented that the litigation screenings which had generated approximately 90% these claims were permeated with fraud. As stated by Judge Jack:
"it [was] clear that the lawyers, doctors and screening companies were all willing participants [in a scheme] to manufacture. . . [diagnoses] for money."
Malignancies, most especially mesothelioma and lung cancer, account for a substantial percentage of the billions being paid out currently. Because of the unique nature of asbestos etiology and bankruptcies, trusts with assets of approximately $30 billion have been created from the assets of reorganized companies to compensate current and future victims of asbestos exposures.
Asbestos claimants today have two separate sources from which to seek compensation: claims against the trusts and suits against solvent defendants in the tort system. In “Fraud and Abuse in Mesothelioma Litigation,” 88 Tulane L. Rev. 1071 (2014), Professor Lester Brickman has examined the interplay between trust payments to claimants and tort claims. He presents evidence that plaintiffs and their counsel have routinely failed to identify exposures to the products of reorganized companies when suing defendants in the tort system even though they state, under oath, that the claimants had “meaningful and credible exposures” to the very products that plaintiffs have denied having exposed to in interrogatories, depositions, and trial testimony. Plaintiffs’ counsel steadfastly maintain that with a sole exception, there is no evidence that plaintiffs or their counsel have engaged in unethical or illegal conduct.
Recently, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George R. Hodges, in In re Garlock Sealing Techs., 504 B.R. 71 (Bankr. W.D.N.C. 2014), found a “startling pattern of misrepresentation” “of exposure evidence,” thus sustaining Professor Brickman’s expert testimony in the Garlock bankruptcy. The committee representing the interests of plaintiffs and their counsel have appealed Judge Hodges’ Order.
The significance of Judge Hodges’ Order is yet to be determined. Already, Garlock has filed RICO actions against several of the law firms that obtained substantial payments from Garlock. Insurers and defendants are undoubtedly conducting investigations based on the revelations in Garlock and newly emerging evidence that may result in additional lawsuits being brought against plaintiffs’ counsel. If so, we may be entering a new era in litigation.
Cy pres (from the French cy pres comme —“as near as possible”) originated in the trust context, but has more recently been applied to class action litigation, as courts try to determine what to do with sometimes significant amounts of settlement funds remaining after all identified plaintiff awards have been made. In recent decades, courts have agreed to award such remaining funds to third party recipients who, while not parties to the underlying suits, are deemed worthy by the court. Sometimes, the courts have selected these third party recipients based on recommendations from the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. What are the legal underpinnings for such awards to entities or people not party to the underlying case? What are the policy considerations in making or prohibiting such awards? These and other questions were discussed by our experts.