Yesterday, news broke about the FBI raiding the home and office of longtime Donald Trump attorney, Michael Cohen. All the major news outlets and talking heads are discussing the matter. Naturally, I felt I should join in and add some food for thought from the expert witness perspective. Assuming the case against Michael Cohen goes to trial, there are likely to be a variety of experts called to opine on different issues. At the time of this writing, reports indicate the federal government is investigating Mr. Cohen for both bank fraud and wire fraud.
Here is what we have learned since yesterday. According to NBC News:
“On Monday, the FBI raided the law office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. They were seeking information about a $130,000 payment the attorney says he personally made to adult film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election, sources told NBC News.
The search warrants were sought and executed by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in New York in coordination with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after an initial referral from Mueller’s office.”
We have further discovered that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would have to consult with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if his investigation discovered evidence unrelated to Russian interference in the US election. If such information was discovered, Rosenstein would then have to decide to expand the scope of Mueller’s investigation or refer the new investigation to another US Attorney’s office. It appears the Cohen investigation was referred to the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
In essence, search and seizure of a lawyers office, where that lawyer maintains protected attorney-client communications, had to go near the top of the Justice Department. Thereafter, a warrant had to be approved by a federal judge, before the FBI could conduct the raid and seize these protected communications (among other evidence).
What about attorney-client privilege?
We should start with a simple definition of the attorney-client privilege. Here is a definition from Nolo.com: “The attorney-client privilege is a rule that preserves the confidentiality of communications between lawyers and clients. Under that rule, attorneys may not divulge their clients’ secrets, nor may others force them to.”
Finding the violation of attorney-client privilege a little disconcerting (note, I am not addressing the possible crime-fraud exception to the rule), I reached out to one of our legal and judicial ethics experts for comment. Experts.com member, Mark Harrison, Esq., is an Arizona-based civil and appellate litigator at the firm of Osborn Maledon, PA. He has extensive experience litigating and testifying in cases involving legal malpractice, legal ethics, and judicial ethics.
My request of Mr. Harrison was as follows, “Do you see any issues arising from this seizure related to fiduciary duties, attorney-client privilege, judicial ethics, or other items?”
Mr. Harrison provided me with a rather thorough explanation based on available information. Details about the subpoena or the documents seeking the subpoena have not been reported at this time. I have included several pertinent comments from Mr. Harrison, below:
“As I am sure you are aware, in order to get a subpoena issued in this situation the US Attorney had to satisfy a magistrate judge or a federal district judge that there was good cause for the issuance of the subpoena.
The potentially dicey ethics aspect involved in a situation of this kind is the risk that confidential client information – other than the information clearly covered by the subpoena – is inadvertently or unintentionally taken by the FBI officers executing the subpoena.”
According to news reports, none of us know whether Mr. Cohen has clients other than President Trump. If he does have other clients, Mr. Harrison explained, “the FBI officers executing the subpoena must exercise great care not to compromise the confidentiality afforded the information of other clients in Mr. Cohen’s files or to compromise the confidentiality of information relating to Mr. Trump that is beyond the scope of the subpoena.”
My personal experience in law firms and my professional responsibility education in law school left me with the belief that the attorney-client relationship was sacred. There was good reason for this as it encouraged clients to be open and honest with counsel so counsel could zealously represent their interests. As such, I am hoping the FBI does exercise great care in the review of these files. However, in reviewing documents, the FBI has to view the documents to know whether or not they are “beyond the scope of the subpoena.”
I had one follow up question for Mark Harrison. I asked if he thought a judge would ask an expert on legal ethics to oversee the review of attorney-client files to make sure the federal agents didn’t go beyond the scope of the subpoena? In asking this question, I also realized that the judge is likely to fill that role. However, I was interested to see if additional oversight might be necessary in this case.
Mr. Harrison said “I would be surprised if the judge or magistrate appoints an expert for that purpose unless Cohen’s lawyer seeks that oversight.”
So, based on information available to us at this point, the attorney-client privilege has or will be breached by the federal agents in their review of documents maintained by Mr. Cohen.
It’ll be interesting to see how this case develops and what other expert witnesses may be involved in a future criminal prosecution.
Does this open Michael Cohen to professional malpractice?
Some questions I have for future blog posts are as follows: Does the breach of attorney-client privilege by the FBI, expose Mr. Cohen to malpractice liability? Does the attorney have a duty to conduct himself in a way that would have precluded the FBI or anyone else from seizing all of his files? Does an attorney have a professional responsibility to avoid suspicion that may potentially place confidential client information at risk of being breached? Or, does the issuance of a search warrant protect the attorney from civil liability?