Disclosure of Confidential Information to Liability Insurer
Opinion rules that a lawyer may disclose confidential information to his or her liability insurer to defend against a claim but not for the sole purpose of assuring coverage.
Attorney B has represented Company X for many years in connection with various tax and legal matters. Company X later learned that for several years it has failed to file certain informational returns, which could subject it to significant criminal and civil penalties. Attorney B, as Company X's lawyer, may in turn be liable for any penalties that Company X incurs arising out of its failure to file. Company X does not make any formal claim or demand against Attorney B, however, and does not retain separate counsel to represent its interests against Attorney B.
Attorney B is insured by Insurance Company. The insurance policy with Attorney B provides, in relevant part:
V. Notice of Claim or Suit
As a condition precedent to coverage afforded by this policy, upon any Insured becoming aware of any act or omission which could reasonably be expected to be the basis of a claim or suit covered hereby, written notice shall be given to the Company or any of its authorized agents as soon as practicable, together with the fullest information obtainable. If claim is made or suit is brought against any Insured, such Insured shall immediately forward to the Company every demand, notice, summons or other process received by that Insured...
The Insured shall cooperate with the Company and at the Company's request make available all records and documents and submit to examination(s) under oath by a representative of the Company.
Attorney B notifies Insurance Company of Company X's potential claim, but fails to identify Company X specifically or provide information whereby Company X could be identified, on the grounds that such information would constitute disclosure of confidential information.
After receiving notification, Insurance Company retains Attorney C to assist Attorney B in remedying Company X's failure to file tax returns and to defend Attorney B against any claims by Company X. Attorney C asks Attorney B for more information about Company X, pursuant to the terms of the insurance policy.
- May Attorney B disclose the identity of Company X and other relevant background information about Company X, such as the number of its employees and nature of its business to Insurance Company without obtaining Company X's consent?
- May Attorney B disclose this information to Attorney C without obtaining Company X's consent?
- If the answer to (1) is no and the answer to (2) is yes, may Attorney C then reveal the information to Insurance Company?
The identity of a client is not normally considered confidential information protected by Rule 4, whereas the fact that Company X has failed to file income tax returns normally would constitute confidential information. In this case, however, because Attorney B has already revealed the failure to file returns, but not the name of the company, disclosure of Company X's identity would effectively disclose Company X's secret for the first time.
Because Company X's identity is a confidence under these circumstances, it may not be revealed, unless one of the exceptions to the confidentiality rule set out in Rule 4(c) is present. Under Rule 4(c)(5), a lawyer may reveal confidences to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to establish a defense between the lawyer and a client.
While Company X has not yet filed a claim against Attorney B, the comment to Rule 4 indicates that a lawyer need not wait until an action is commenced before responding to a claim or accusation. On the other hand, the comment also makes it clear that any disclosure should be closely tailored to the attorney's need to defend him or herself. It is the opinion of the Ethics Committee that Attorney B may reveal information about Company X to Attorney C who will represent B in the event of a claim by Company X, but that Attorney B should only reveal that which is absolutely required under the policy. B is Attorney C's client to whom he owes primary responsibility. Accordingly C may not reveal information received from B to the insurance company without B's consent.
There is no exception to the lawyer's obligation to preserve client confidences for the purpose of assuring Lawyer B's coverage under his professional liability policy.
The question of what exact information must be revealed and whether it should be revealed to Attorney C or to Insurance Company directly to comply with Insurance Company's policy is a question of law beyond the authority of the Ethics Committee.