A recent Pennsylvania federal court decision highlights the difficulty in keeping third party communications privileged.  (King Drug Co. of Florence, Inc. v. Cephalon, Inc., No. 06-CV-1797, 2013 WL 4836752 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2013)).  In Cephalon, the court found third party communications privileged because the third party performed a role for Cephalon substantially identical to that of Cephalon employees.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had sought an order requiring Cephalon to produce documents shared with or created by its third party consultants in connection with work the consultants performed for Cephalon that Cephalon withheld or redacted based upon the attorney-client privilege.

In keeping the documents protected, the court followed other courts and adopted the broader “functional equivalent” approach to third party communications.  According to the court, this approach “reflects the reality that corporations increasingly conduct their business not merely through regular employees but also through a variety of independent contractors retained for specific purposes.”  Cephalon, 2013 WL 4836752, at *7.  The broader “functional equivalent” analysis looks at the following factors.  First, third party consultants must perform a role substantially identical to that of an employee.  For example, in Cephalon, the consultants worked closely with employees by providing managerial support, strategic advice, and participating in making preservations to senior management.  The consultants also had dedicated office space and were subject to confidentiality agreements.  Second, the documents or communications must be kept confidential.  And, third, the documents or communications must be made for the purpose of providing or obtaining legal advice.

However, not all courts agree with this broader approach.  Other courts have adopted a narrower “functional equivalent” test.  The main differences with the narrower approach are that consultants must be incorporated into the staff to perform a corporate function that is necessary in the content of actual or anticipated litigation, and possess information needed by attorneys in rendering legal advice.  See In re Bristol-Myers Squibb Sec. Litig., No. 00-1990, 2003 WL 25962198, at *4 (D.N.J. June 25, 2003).

The varying scope of the functional equivalent test highlights that the most important factor in keeping third party communications privileged is to know your jurisdiction’s viewpoint.  Other considerations include making certain that consultants are the functional equivalent of employees, and that the communications are kept confidential and created for the purpose of obtaining or providing legal advice.

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