The Attorney-Client Privilege, ERISA and the Administrative Record

No doubt at least some of you have noticed my fixation on the attorney-client privilege, and where its borders should be drawn when a party’s counsel plays a central role in the events that may or may not trigger insurance coverage or show bad faith. I have the same sort of cartographer’s obsession with mapping where those borders should be when the administrator of an ERISA governed plan makes a benefit determination based on the investigation and legal conclusions of counsel. What happens to the privilege, for instance, if a company’s in-house counsel interprets the plan’s terms and applies them to the facts, thereafter recommending to the plan administrator what decision to render on a claim? And what happens if the plan administrator then adopts that recommendation as its determination? One can picture the same scenario involving reliance on outside counsel to do the same work.

Well, as this well-developed post from the Health Plan Law blog discusses, the plan administrator can delegate in this manner to counsel, and adopt counsel’s findings, at least as a general statement. But what effect would doing so have on the attorney-client privilege that would otherwise normally attach to communications between counsel and a client? Health Plan Law has this to say on that topic:

The question is this: while a plan may consistent with exercise of fiduciary discretion delegate duties as to claim investigation to legal counsel, is there a concomitant sacrifice in scope of privileged communications?
A fundamental legal principle states that the attorney-client privilege may be waived expressly or by implication. Implied waivers are consistently construed narrowly.See, In re Lott, 424 F.3d 446, 452 (6th Cir.2005). On the other hand, “an attorney-client communication is placed at issue when the party makes an assertion that in fairness requires examination of protected communications.” Clevenger v. Dillard’s Department Stores, Inc. Slip Copy, 2007 WL 27978 (S.D.Ohio 2007) (Dillard’s defendants impliedly waived the privilege for communications with legal counsel related to plan termination). The concern raised here is succinctly stated as follows: ‘the attorney-client privilege cannot at once be used as a shield and a sword.’ United States v. Bilzerian, 926 F.2d 1285, 1292 (2d Cir.1991)
And then again, to what extent does privilege apply in fiduciary matters in any event? In this connection consider the following regarding the “fiduciary exception”:
Most courts, including the Seventh Circuit, have recognized the existence of a fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege. In J.H. Chapman Group, Ltd. v. Chapman, No. 95 C 7716, 1996 WL 238863 (N.D.Ill. May 2, 1998), for example, the court explained that “[t]he fiduciary duty exception ‘is based on the notion that a communication between an attorney and a client is not privileged from those to whom the client owes a fiduciary duty.”See also Bland v. Fiatallis North America, Inc., 401 F.3d 779, 787 (7th Cir.2005) (recognizing fiduciary exception in the ERISA context).

On more of a concrete and less abstract level, you can think about this in terms of the administrative record; there are exceptions, but in most circumstances and in most courts, the administrative record would make up the universe of evidence that the court can consider in ruling on a challenge to an administrator's determination of a particular claim.  Generally speaking, the administrative record is to contain the information relied upon or considered by the administrator in making that determination.  But what about attorney advice received by the administrator and relied upon by it?  The scope of the attorney-client privilege can impact whether or not that advice should be part of the administrative record.