Receipt of Inadvertently Disclosed Materials from Opposing Party
Opinion rules that a lawyer in receipt of materials that appear on their face to be subject to the attorney-client privilege or otherwise confidential, which were inadvertently sent to the lawyer by the opposing party or opposing counsel, should refrain from examining the materials and return them to the sender.
Editor's Note: To the extent that this opinion is contrary to Rule 4.4, Respect for Rights of Third Persons, paragraph (b) and comments  and , as revised in 2003 and thereafter, the rule and comment are controlling.
Insurance Company is the liability carrier for Defendant Motorist. Plaintiff is represented by Attorney C. After settlement discussions failed, Attorney C filed suit on behalf of Plaintiff. Insurance Company hired Attorney X to defend the suit. Before responsive pleadings were filed, adjuster for Insurance Company erroneously sent the company's claim file to Attorney C. The claim file was sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, addressed to Attorney C. The cover letter was also addressed to Attorney C. However, the letter's salutation read "Dear Attorney X." A copy of the letter to the defendant from the adjuster was also enclosed with the file. This letter incorrectly informed the defendant that he would be defended by Attorney C. In addition to a photo of Plaintiff's vehicle, Plaintiff's medical records, and Attorney C's demand letter, the file included a "claim diary" that Attorney C read and believes contains prima facie evidence of an unfair and deceptive trade practice by Insurance Company.
Attorney C sent a copy of the file to the adjuster and to Attorney X. Attorney X demands the return of the original file. Is Attorney C required to return the original file to Insurance Company?
Yes. Attorney C has a duty of honesty and a duty of courtesy to all persons involved in the legal process. See Rule 1.2(c) and Rule 7.1(a). The original file does not belong to Attorney C or to his client. From the cover letter, it could be readily ascertained that the accompanying materials were subject to the attorney-client privilege or otherwise confidential and were sent to Attorney C inadvertently. Upon realizing that the materials were not intended for his eyes, Attorney C should have (1) refrained from reviewing the file materials, (2) notified the opposing counsel of their receipt, and (3) followed opposing counsel's instructions as to the disposition of such materials. Under these circumstances, the receiving attorney may not use the substance of the materials inadvertently sent to him to the advantage of his client.
Was it acceptable for Attorney C to read the cover letter and examine the claim file although Attorney C realized from the salutation on the cover letter that the letter and the attached materials were sent to him erroneously?
No. A lawyer who is the recipient of an inadvertent disclosure of written materials by an opposing party or opposing counsel is required to discontinue reading the materials as soon as the lawyer realizes that the materials may be subject to the attorney-client privilege of others, or are otherwise confidential communications involving an attorney, and the materials were not intended for his or her eyes. This requirement is consistent with a lawyer's duty of honesty as well as a lawyer's duty to avoid offensive tactics and treat with courtesy and consideration all persons involved in the legal process. Rule 1.2(c) and Rule 7.1(a)(1). It also respects the opposing party's confidentiality. See Rule 4.
Would the response to inquiry #2 be different if the inadvertently disclosed materials were sent by opposing counsel instead of a representative of the opposing party?