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Jenner & Block: DOJ Not Required To Produce Interagency Memorandum in CERCLA Case

A recent Seventh Circuit decision rejected a PRP's efforts to obtain interagency memorandum and other communications between the Environmental Enforcement and the Environmental Defense Sections within the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ"). See Menasha Corp. et al. v. United States, (7th Cir. 2013) [enhanced version available to subscribers]. In 2010, the United States, on behalf of U.S. EPA and the Department of the Interior, filed a lawsuit seeking to compel a number of alleged PRPs to remediate the Fox River Superfund Site (which remediation has been estimated to be as high as $1.5 billion).

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, DOJ sought judicial approval of a proposed consent decree with several defendants in which the United States offered to contribute $4.5 million to the cleanup in recognition that other federal agencies (including U.S. EPA and the United States Army Corps of Engineers) had contributed to the PCB contamination in the Fox River. Menasha Corporation ("Menasha"), one of the defendants in the underlying litigation, challenged the consent decree in part on the grounds that the federal agencies' contribution to the contamination at the site was far greater than the $4.5 million that they were proposing to contribute to the site cleanup. Menasha was concerned that the consent decree would act as a bar to its contribution claims against the United States.

Menasha therefore sought to obtain communications between the enforcement and defense sections of DOJ, likely hoping that these communications might evidence some collusion between the defense and enforcement sections of DOJ. Menasha argued that since the two sections of DOJ represent separate governmental entities with divergent interests, they were in fact adversaries. Since communications between adverse parties results in a waiver of privilege, Menasha argued that it was entitled to those communications. The District Court agreed and ordered the requested materials be produced. The Seventh Circuit was not similarly convinced.

Although some might analogize this situation to the adversary relationship between the State's attorney and the public defender, the Seventh Circuit analogized the situation to one where a consumer sues a private company in a personal injury lawsuit. One division of the company might seek to have the case settled to avoid bad publicity while the other division would seek to litigate the case to avoid setting a bad precedent. The general counsel would then make a final decision but the Seventh Circuit opined that one wouldn't reasonably argue that communications between the two divisions should be produced because of the adversarial relationship between the two divisions.

The Seventh Circuit expressed concern that were it to order disclosure of internal communications between competing interests within the Justice Department, the result would be that the Justice Department could never shield attorney work product in a case like this without "a crippling reorganization of the Department." Instead, the Seventh Circuit concluded that since the only federal party in the underlying litigation was the United States, a single party represented by a single representative, DOJ, communications between the separate sections of DOJ were not communications between adverse parties. As such, the Seventh Circuit concluded that these communications were protected by the attorney work product privilege and need not be disclosed.

Some might argue, however, that where DOJ represents a site PRP (a defendant) and U.S. EPA (or in this case, the Department of the Interior) (in its enforcement capacity), even if there is only a single federal entity named in the litigation, DOJ should not be able to hide behind the attorney work product privilege to shield communications between the two DOJ sections. The Seventh Circuit seemed to have left this door open a little, referring in dicta to the possibility of a waiver in a situation where you have independent federal agencies "squaring off against each other as opposing parties in litigation." However, the court acknowledged that this was not the fact pattern before it and it therefore rejected Menasha's efforts to obtain disclosure of these communications.

   Steven M. Siros, Partner, Jenner & Block

Read more at Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog by Jenner & Block LLP.

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