“Burn Files” and Employee Self-Help: Effective Policies Protect Documents Wrongfully Taken by Former Employee

A New Jersey appellate court recently upheld the disqualification of a former employee’s attorneys in a whistleblower claim against his former employer, because the employee had improperly taken documents containing privileged attorney-client communications to use against the employer “when they try to get him.”

Facts

The defendant, Maquet Getinge Group (“Maquet”), a German pharmaceutical company, designs, develops, manufactures, and distributes medical devices.  Because of the medical and technological focus of defendant’s business, Maquest maintains sensitive research and development data, new products, quality processes and procedures and protocols for the preparation of inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) on its computer systems.  Maquet had in place comprehensive policies designed to protect its confidential, proprietary information, including a “Standards of Conduct” policy, an “End User Acceptable Use Policy.”  Plaintiff, Oscar Sanchez (“Sanchez”), was employed by Maquet as the Chief Quality and Compliance Officer for approximately 18 months, until he was terminated in April 2015.  As a condition of his employment, Sanchez and other similarly situated employees had to sign a “Confidential Information, Invention Assignment, and Non-Compete Agreement.”  This agreement contained, inter alia, a “Covenant Not to Disclose” and a provision on “Return of Company Documents.”  Two months prior to his termination, Sanchez was disciplined after an investigation into numerous complaints about his conduct and deportment involving employees who reported to him.  After receiving the complaints, Sanchez informed a Senior Vice President of Marketing at Maquet that “he had personally retained copies of all kinds of Maquet-owned documentation – which he referred to as his ‘burn files’ and which included copies of . . . two executives’ hard drives and a binder full of emails and documents,” which he allegedly told his co-worker he “would use the ‘burn files’ to “f***” Maquet ‘when they tried to get him.’”

On July 2, 2015, Sanchez filed a complaint against Maquet alleging he had been wrongfully terminated for whistleblowing activities, in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).  Maquet served Sanchez with its First Request for the Production of Documents in October 2015, to which plaintiff responded on February 1, 2016.  Upon receipt of the documents, Maquet claimed the documents plaintiff’s counsel had produced were owned by Maquet and had been improperly taken by Sanchez without Maquet’s knowledge or consent. Further, Maquet claimed the documents produced contained privileged attorney-client communications between Maquet’s staff and its attorneys, including correspondence regarding FDA compliance issues, results of third-party audits, budgeting issues, research and development, quality processes and procedures, and FDA findings.

Lower Court Decision

Defendant moved to preclude plaintiff from using these documents against defendant, and to remove plaintiff’s chosen counsel and his firm from continuing to represent plaintiff in the case.  In its decision, the lower court rejected plaintiff’s argument that Maquet had waived the attorney-client privilege. The Judge then found that Plaintiff’s chosen counsel “knew or should have known the material was privileged” yet failed “to promptly notify the opposing side that they had received privileged information” until nine (9) months after the case had been initiated. In disqualifying chosen counsel from serving as plaintiff’s counsel, the Judge found he would neither be harmed in the prosecution of the case nor that he would be unable to secure competent substitute counsel, as the case was still in its early stages.

Appellate Court’s Decision

Sanchez appealed arguing that the motion judge erred in reaching her decision to disqualify his chosen counsel without conducting an evidentiary hearing and that the judge misapplied the multi-factor analysis the NJ Supreme Court established in the seminal case, Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Appellate Division concluded the motion judge properly found the documents in question to be covered by the attorney-client privilege, particularly finding that the motion judge had noted the documents in dispute contained communications between Sanchez, Maquet’s Global Chief Quality Assurance & Regulatory Officer, and Maquet’s General Counsel. The record also indicated the documents included emails labeled “ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGE” by plaintiff. The Appellate Division found no legal basis to question the motion judge’s conclusion that Maquet’s counsel was included in the communications to offer legal advice and guidance if he so chose.

The Appellate Division then rejected as untimely and legally unnecessary, plaintiff’s argument that the motion judge should have conducted an evidentiary hearing to consider the Quinlan factors.  Quinlan set forth seven (7) factors to consider when an employee may take or use documents belonging to his or her employer. The first consideration a judge must make is “how the employee came to have possession of, or access to, the document.” In reviewing the record, the court found that Sanchez removed the documents at issue in direct violation of Maquet’s policies related to confidential documents containing proprietary information in an act that was outside of his ordinary duties because he wanted to [get] the company when they tried to get him.  The court also noted that Sanchez copied the documents to share with his attorneys for the purpose of evaluating whether he had “a viable cause of action” against Maquet and conversely, that Maquet had a strong interest in keeping the materials confidential.

Finally, while recognizing that the disqualification of counsel is a harsh discretionary remedy that must be used sparingly, the Appellate Division concluded that Sanchez’ extra-judicial self-help measures deprived Maquet of the opportunity to prevent the disclosure of the privileged information and that plaintiff’s counsel’s unreasonable delay in disclosing this information rendered futile any attempt to mitigate this harm.

Bottom Line

Employers need to maintain robust policies related to maintaining and access to proprietary and confidential information, and in appropriate circumstances, agreements like those used by Maquet. These policies should: (1) set forth what materials are confidential or proprietary; (2) specify who within the company is permitted access to the proprietary and confidential information, whether by job title, level, need to know basis, etc.; and (3) set forth the purpose for which the employee is granted access and any limitations on access to the proprietary and confidential information. These policies and agreements will be critical in allowing a court to determine the employee was unauthorized in taking the documents and acted outside their ordinary duties of employment.

For more information about the potential impacts of this ruling or what steps your company can take to effectively prevent and address whistleblower complaints, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

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