SJC “Likes” Aspects of Facebook’s Work Product Argument

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by Bret Cohen, Jillian Hart, and Matthew Brown

Case Focus

The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently issued its anticipated decision in Attorney General v. Facebook, Inc., 487 Mass. 109 (2021), addressing the extent to which the work product doctrine or the attorney-client privilege protects internal investigations from disclosure.

The decision affirmed in part and reversed in part a Superior Court decision (Attorney General v. Facebook, Inc., 2020 WL 742136 (Jan. 17, 2020) (Davis, J.)) that held that the work product doctrine did not apply to documents the Massachusetts Attorney General (“AG”) sought from social media giant Facebook, Inc.’s (“Facebook”) internal investigation into a data privacy breach.

The SJC’s decision provides an important reminder for companies to tread carefully and always consult with counsel before launching an internal investigation to understand what may be discoverable in future litigation. 

Facts and Background

After a widely publicized data breach incident involving one of its third-party applications (“apps”), Facebook undertook an internal investigation, led by outside counsel, to determine the extent to which the platform’s apps misused user data and to evaluate associated liability.  Facebook intended for the app developer investigation (“ADI”) to identify any other apps that misused user data and to assess Facebook’s potential liability from the incident.  Both in-house and outside counsel “designed, managed, and overs[aw]” the ADI and “devised and tailored the ADI’s methods, protocols, and strategies to address the specific risks posed by these legal challenges.”  Outside counsel also retained third-party technical experts and investigators to assist in the ADI.  

As a result of the data breach incident, the AG opened its own investigation into whether Facebook misrepresented the extent to which it protected or misused user data.  In accordance with its authority under M.G. L. c. 93A, the AG issued a series of civil investigative demands to Facebook.  Facebook complied in part, but refused on privilege grounds to honor six of the AG’s requests.  The first five requests sought information related to the identities of certain apps and app developers that Facebook identified and reviewed during its ADI.  The sixth request, in contrast, sought Facebook’s internal communications and correspondence regarding certain apps.

The AG filed a petition to compel compliance with its demands in the Superior Court’s Business Litigation Session.  The Superior Court sided with the AG, holding that the work product doctrine did not cover Facebook’s ADI and, even if it did, the AG made the required showing of a substantial need for the information that it could not obtain without undue hardship.  As to Facebook’s asserted attorney-client privilege, the Superior Court held that the privilege did not cover the information sought by the AG’s first five requests, and ordered the production of responsive documents.  Regarding the sixth request, however, the Superior Court held that it did seek the disclosure of potentially privileged material, and accordingly ordered Facebook to provide the AG with a detailed privilege log.

Facebook appealed and the SJC heard the case on direct appellate review.

Decision

The SJC affirmed in part and reversed in part the Superior Court’s decision. 

Work Product Doctrine:  Addressing the first five requests, the SJC held that the work product doctrine did apply, because Facebook conducted the ADI in anticipation of litigation.  The Court, however, carefully distinguished fact work product from opinion work product.  It held that as to documents constituting fact work product, the AG demonstrated substantial need and undue hardship requiring production.  At the same time, the SJC held that remand was necessary to determine whether any of the responsive documents that Facebook withheld constituted opinion work product.  The SJC held that, if any of the withheld documents constituted opinion work product, such documents are only “discoverable, if at all, in rare or extremely unusual circumstances.”  Facebook, 487 Mass. at 128 (internal quotations omitted).

Attorney Client Privilege: Addressing the sixth request, the SJC agreed with the Superior Court that to the extent Facebook objected on the basis of attorney-client privilege, Facebook must produce a detailed privilege log so that the AG could assess (and potentially contest) the privilege assertions.  The SJC reasoned that the request sought information dating back years before the ADI began, as well as communications that did not involve attorneys, both of which might fall outside the scope of the attorney-client privilege.  The SJC held that the attorney-client privilege did not cover the first five requests as they merely sought underlying facts rather than attorney-client communications.  In doing so, the SJC emphasized that “the attorney-client privilege only protects communications between attorneys and a client about factual information, not the facts themselves,” noting that “this distinction is important and somewhat collapsed by the advocacy in the instant case.” Facebook, 487 Mass. at 123.

Key Issues

In its decision, the SJC identified and discussed three important issues pertaining to employers contemplating or conducting internal investigations.

First, the SJC considered whether the work product doctrine applies to an internal investigation.  In the instant case, the SJC held that the work product doctrine applied to the ADI because: (1) documents were prepared; (2) by or for Facebook for its agents; and (3) in anticipation of litigation.  The SJC specifically found that, although Facebook had an ongoing compliance program, the ADI was “meaningfully distinct” from the compliance program, with its own distinct methodology focused on past violations, rather than improving ongoing operations in the normal course of business.  In short, the mere fact that the ADI also served Facebook’s business purposes did not mean that the work product doctrine was inapplicable.

Second, the SJC discussed whether the information sought by the AG constituted fact work product or opinion work product.  As the SJC stated, “the line between fact work product and opinion work product is not always clear.”  In this regard, the SJC noted that although Facebook made multiple public statements about the ADI and the investigatory process (which Facebook could not then claim to constitute opinion work product), any “undisclosed strategic decision-making by counsel, including the assessment of legal risk or liability [] revealed by the factual analysis” might qualify as opinion work product.    

Third, the SJC considered whether, in relation to fact work product, the party seeking disclosure established a substantial need for and undue hardship from denied access to the work product sufficient to warrant its discovery.  The SJC held that the AG met its burden by demonstrating both.  With respect to the AG’s substantial need, the SJC found that the app-related information sought was central to the statutorily authorized c. 93A investigation.  Likewise, with respect to the AG’s asserted undue hardship, the SJC distinguished the ADI from a routine internal investigation that “involved simply interviewing key employees and other witnesses or reviewing a manageable number of documents, tasks that can be easily replicated by third parties or government investigators.”  Here, the ADI was a years-long investigation involving a vast quantity of information and included analysis of millions of apps by hundreds of outside experts. Therefore, the SJC ruled that the enormous costs and time required to duplicate the ADI was sufficient to demonstrate undue hardship.

Implications

Although this area of law is far from settled, the Facebook decision provides helpful guidance for companies contemplating and conducting internal investigations.  Key guideposts include:

  • Engage counsel in advance of an internal investigation to discuss the objective and parameters of such investigation.
  • Any outside experts involved in the investigation should be retained by outside counsel and should be bound by confidentiality agreements.
  • Review what records and files the company develops in the regular course of business and be mindful that these records may be discoverable if not created in anticipation of litigation.

During the internal investigation, consider carefully what information and documents may be characterized as fact (versus opinion) work product and, therefore, may be discoverable.  As the SJC cautions, the line between the two is “not always clear” and, consequently, aspects of internal investigations, especially fact work product, may be discoverable.

Bret Cohen chairs the Labor & Employment and Trade Secrets & Employee Mobility Practice Groups at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. His practice covers a wide range of areas, including the enforcement of non-compete and employment agreements, complex commercial and trade secrets litigation, and advice and counsel on termination and transition of high-level executives.  

Jillian Hart is an associate in the Labor & Employment Group at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. Jillian focuses her practice on employment and trade secrets litigation and also advises clients on a variety of employment matters, including restrictive covenants and wage and hour issues.   

Matthew Brown is an associate in the Labor & Employment Group at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. Matthew focuses his practice on trade secrets and non-compete litigation and advice and counsel on a variety of issues, including worker classification and employment agreements. 


In the Matter of a Grand Jury Investigation, 485 Mass. 641 (2020)

by Victor Hansen

Case Focus

In one of his last opinions before his untimely passing, Chief Justice Ralph Gants addressed the unique and important responsibility of the criminal prosecutor to do justice.  In fulfilling this responsibility, the prosecutor acts not as an extension of law enforcement but as an important check against corrupt and abusive practices.  These reminders came in the Matter of a Grand Jury Investigation involving two police officers (the petitioners) who admitted filing false police reports regarding the use of force by a fellow officer.

While on duty, the petitioners observed, but did not participate in, the arrest of a citizen charged with, among other things, resisting arrest.  The arresting officer, Michael Pessoa, claimed that the arrestee was noncompliant and threatening, and that force had to be used to subdue him, as a result of which the arrestee was injured.  The petitioners supported Pessoa’s version when they completed an internal departmental report of the arrest.  However, video evidence revealed that the arrestee had not resisted.  Rather, Pessoa had struck the compliant arrestee with his head and shoulder, knocking the arrestee to the ground “in a violent manner.”

During an ensuing grand jury investigation into Pessoa’s conduct, the petitioners testified under grants of transactional immunity and admitted to lying in their departmental reports.  The district attorney sought permission from the Superior Court to disclose this information to criminal defendants in other cases where the petitioners could be potential witnesses, asserting that due process required the disclosure of this potentially exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972).  The petitioners sought to prevent the disclosure of their testimony.

In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed three questions: (1) whether Brady requires disclosure of this information in unrelated cases; (2) whether, if there is such an obligation, the district attorney could disclose the evidence even if it was obtained pursuant to a grant of immunity and order to testify before the grand jury; and (3) whether, if there is a Brady obligation, the prosecutor must seek prior judicial approval before disclosing the evidence.  The Court concluded that the prosecution had an obligation to produce the discovery at issue without a court order.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Gants powerfully reaffirmed that prosecutors do not serve a narrow constituency and are not merely an arm of law enforcement. Rather, the prosecution has the unique and important responsibility to seek justice.

First, the Court took a broad view of the type of evidence that falls within the scope of Brady. Brady covers not merely direct evidence of a defendant’s possible innocence, but equally information that challenges the credibility of key prosecution witnesses (the type of evidence at issue in this case).  The Court also noted that the prosecution’s disclosure obligations are broader than Brady, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the Rules of Professional Conduct require prosecutors to disclose all evidence or information that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigate the offense.  The Court thus included within Brady not only the constitutional obligation to disclose exculpatory information but also the broader obligation to make disclosure under Massachusetts rules.

Second, the petitioners argued that the failure to disclose this evidence in other criminal cases would not automatically require new trials in those cases because, even if a defendant were convicted, the information is not exculpatory.  The Court rejected this argument for two reasons: it reflected a too narrow view of the scope of a prosecutor’s Brady obligation, and because such an approach would encourage prosecutors to game the system and only consider how much exculpatory information they could safely withhold. Chief Justice Gants reminded us that we expect more from prosecutors than gamesmanship: rather than operating close to the ethical sidelines, prosecutors must operate in the middle of the field.  According to the Chief Justice, “once the information is determined to be exculpatory, it should be disclosed – period.” And if the prosecutors are at all in doubt about the exculpatory nature of the evidence, they should err on the side of caution and disclose it.

Applying this standard, the Court had little difficulty determining that, when police officers lie in official reports, such information is exculpatory and must be disclosed to any criminal defendant in whose case those officers may testify.

The petitioners also argued that the immunity grant they had received in exchange for their grand jury testimony should be applied broadly.  They contended that, if their falsehoods were disclosed to defendants in other cases, it would penalize the police officers for invoking their privilege against self-incrimination and violate the protections they received from the immunity grant.  The Court concluded, however, that, while the evidence was compelled, that did not affect the prosecutors’ Brady obligations.  Even though the disclosed exculpatory information might paint the petitioners in a bad light and reveal their “dirty deeds,” the grant of immunity protected the petitioners only from prosecution and not embarrassment. Chief Justice Gants reminded prosecutors that complying with their Brady obligations might be inconvenient, uncomfortable, embarrassing or worse, but that prosecutors cannot fail to disclose Brady material out of a misplaced sense of duty or loyalty to law enforcement, or to prevent embarrassing themselves or members of their office, public officials or potential witnesses.  Although avoiding needless or gratuitous embarrassment is worthwhile, that interest never outweighs a criminal defendant’s due process rights. Disclosure is always the correct choice, even when it may have a short term impact on the relationship between prosecutors and others, including law enforcement officials.

Finally, the Court addressed whether prior judicial approval is required before disclosing Brady material that was part of a grand jury proceeding.  The Court again referred to the duties of the prosecutor.  While maintaining grand jury secrecy is important, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure governing grand jury secrecy provide that prosecutors may disclose matters occurring before the grand jury doing so is within the official performance of their duties. Just as prosecutors have an official duty to present inculpatory evidence to a grand jury, they have an equally important duty to disclose exculpatory information that may enable defendants to prove their innocence.  Accordingly, the prosecution can disclose this Brady information without a court order as part of their official duties. Chief Justice Gants again emphasized that prosecutors represent not an ordinary party, but of a sovereignty whose obligation is to govern impartially.

Many familiar with the role and functions of the prosecutor may not find the Court’s ruling surprising. The ethical and constitutional obligations of the prosecutor are broad and, to its credit, the lawyers in the district attorney’s office recognized those obligations and proactively complied with them.  One might wonder, then, why Brady violations continue to be a persistent problem in the criminal justice system, both nationally and in Massachusetts. Indeed, one of the most egregious Brady violations in the Commonwealth’s recent history occurred not long ago, when prosecutors failed to disclose the breadth of an Amherst drug lab technician’s substance abuse problems, which affected many hundreds of criminal cases.

The reasons why Brady violations persist are complicated and varied, including confirmation bias, the difficulty of prosecutors policing themselves, the desire of prosecutors to have good working relationships with law enforcement, job security, and even racial bias.  It is a fitting testament to Chief Justice Gants’ legacy that he clearly recognized that none could outweigh a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. The Chief Justice’s opinion serves as a poignant and important reminder that our criminal justice system is far from perfect, and that prosecutors, when they are motivated and guided by a sense of doing justice, have a critical role to play to ensure it is just.

Professor Victor M. Hansen, Professor of Law, directs the Criminal Practice and Procedure certificate program and teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Prosecutorial Ethics at New England Law | Boston. He is the author of several articles and books on criminal and military law, evidence, and national security issues, and is an elected member of the American Law Institute.