More Courts take a Narrow View of Subject Matter Waivers

October 21, 2015

Thanks to common law developments and Federal Rule of Evidence 502, the frightening specter of subject matter waivers now usually only arises when litigants affirmatively rely on privileged communications to gain some litigation advantage.

In In re General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, Nos. 14-MD-2543 & 14-MC-2543 (JMF), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106170 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 11, 2015), the court handling the GM ignition switch MDL rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to depose Jenner & Block partner Anton Valukas about the basis for his widely-publicized report on GM’s conduct. The court pointed to GM’s pledge not to make offensive use of the Valukas Report at trial, or call Valukas to testify. The court concluded that GM’s commitment “undermines” plaintiffs’ attempt to explore witnesses’ disagreement with Valukas’ conclusions. Id. at *1004. One day earlier, another court dealt with a GM trademark issue. In Cue, Inc. v. General Motors LLC, Civ. A. No. 13-12647-IT, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104638 (D. Mass. Aug. 10, 2015), plaintiff argued that GM triggered a subject matter waiver by pointing to its lawyer’s trademark advice as demonstrating its lack of bad faith. The court “agree[d] that GM’s use of that fact would place its counsel’s advice at issue,” but took GM at its word that the company “did not intend to rely on advice of its counsel” at trial. Id. at *24. The court therefore denied plaintiff’s motion to compel disclosure of related privileged communications — “without prejudice to renewal if GM seeks to use the legal department’s ‘okay’ in order to show a lack of bad faith.” Id.

Corporations should be relieved that courts are increasing focus on documents and arguments the corporations plan to use at trial — rather than on the disclosure of privileged communication during fast-paced discovery or pretrial pleading skirmishes.