A recent ruling of the Delaware Court of Chancery provides a useful refresher on the standards that must be met for various exceptions or waivers of the attorney/client privilege to apply. In Drachman v. BioDelivery Sciences International, Inc., C.A. No. 2019-0728-LWW (Del. Ch. Aug. 25, 2021), the Court addressed the following theories which, if applicable, could prevent one from enjoying the protection of the attorney/client privilege, and might lead to the disclosure of otherwise privileged communications:
- The Garner doctrine;
- Crime-Fraud exception;
- At-Issue exception (placing the privileged document in question “at issue” or using it as both a sword and a shield)
Selected Key Facts
The case involves a stockholder claim that the approvals required by DGCL Section 242 were not obtained for amendments to the corporate charter, and that the related actions of the board of directors were a breach of their fiduciary duties.
The Court began with the basics. Chancery Rule 26(b) essentially allows discovery of relevant data that is proportional to the needs of the case. But Delaware Rule of Evidence 502(b), which codifies the attorney/client privilege, insulates from discovery “confidential communications made for the purpose of facilitating the rendition of professional legal services to the client.”
Sometimes referred to as the “fiduciary exception”, the Court notes that this is not actually an exception to the privilege rule. See n. 34. When applicable it provides that “when a stockholder sues a fiduciary for behavior inimical to the stockholder’s interests, she may invade the corporation’s privilege upon a showing of “good cause”.
There are 9 enumerated factors that must be considered, but the first two are “gatekeepers” and the parties in this case focused on the first three factors. Although the party who moved to compel “cleared the first two gates”, the movant did not demonstrate that the data was unavailable from other sources (discovery was in the early stages) or that the data was needed to prove her claim. See Slip op. at 10-17.
The At-Issue Exception
The Court noted that whether this is an exception or a waiver deserves attention but is not determinative in practice. See n. 62. After a thorough analysis and application of the facts, the Court explained why the moving party did not meet the threshold for this exception to apply.
Any reader who needs to know the necessary requirements to determine if this exception applies, should read pages 23 to 26 of this letter ruling to understand why the moving party did not persuade the Court that this exception applied.