Do Witness Interview Memoranda Deserve Opinion or Merely Fact Work Product Protection?: Part I

March 18, 2015

Unlike the absolute attorney-client privilege, the work product doctrine offers two possible levels of protection. Lawyers’ (and other client representatives’) opinions deserve absolute or nearly absolute protection in most courts. In contrast, non-opinion fact work product provides only a qualified privilege — which an adversary can overcome by proving “substantial need” for the documents, and the inability to obtain their “substantial equivalent” without “undue hardship.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3)(A)(ii).

In United States ex rel. Landis v. Tailwind Sports Corp., Case No. 1:10-cv-00976 (CRC), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4610 (D.D.C. Jan. 12, 2015), the court addressed the work product protection level for litigation-related witness interview memoranda. In bicyclist Floyd Landis’s qui tam action, Lance Armstrong sought to discover government agents’ witness interview memoranda. The court first dealt with memoranda government agents prepared in their civil investigation of Armstrong. The court noted that even the memorandas’ factual portions reciting the witnesses’ statements had been “‘sharply focused or weeded'” by lawyers (quoting In re Sealed Case, 124 F.3d 230, 236 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Id. at *5. The court therefore held that all the memoranda in question deserved opinion work product protection — because government lawyers “‘shape[d] the topics that were covered’ and ‘frame[d] the questions that were asked.'” Id. at *9 (citation omitted). The court rejected Armstrong’s discovery efforts, because the D.C. Circuit considers opinion work product “virtually never discoverable.” Id. at *4.

The court then turned to witness memoranda government agents prepared during their now-closed criminal investigation of Armstrong — which the court described as “a different kettle of fish.” Id. at *9. Next week’s Privilege Point will discuss those memoranda.