Waiver of Privilege by Sharing Documents with the CFPB

March 12, 2012 at 10:36 pm Leave a comment

On January 4, 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) issued a Bulletin declaring that, upon request, CFPB supervised institutions must disclose privileged materials to it, but those institutions need not fear waiver of privilege.  Despite the CFPB’s self-serving assurance that a waiver of privilege will not occur, it is important that officers and directors of CFPB supervised institutions have some understanding of the risk associated with producing privileged information to the CFPB.

Background Information

Financial institutions and their counsel have sought protection from disclosure by asserting one or more of the following privileges: (i) attorney-client privilege, (ii) work-product privilege, (iii) self-assessment privilege and (iv) accountant-client privilege.  When a privilege attaches, the materials and communications are generally immune from discovery unless the privilege has been waived.  A privilege may be waived in a number of ways, but it occurs most commonly when a client voluntarily discloses the privileged information to a third-party.  For financial institutions required to disclose materials to their regulators, the possibility that a court could waive the aforementioned privileges because of previous disclosures to their regulators caused concern among supervised institutions and their counsel. 

Federal Statute Enacted to Protect Privilege

To alleviate this concern, Congress enacted a Federal statute in 2006 that allows supervised institutions to submit privileged materials to their regulators without waiving privilege.  Specifically, 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x) states that:

[t]he submission of information to any Federal banking agency, State banking supervisor, or foreign banking authority for any purpose in the course of any supervisory or regulatory process of such agency, supervisor, or authority shall not be construed as waiving, destroying, or otherwise affecting any privilege such person may claim with respect to such information under Federal or State law as to any person or entity other than such agency, supervisor, or authority.

The term “Federal banking agency” is currently defined as “the Comptroller of the Currency, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.”  12 U.S.C. § 1813(z).  Thus, as long as a disclosure is made to the OCC, Federal Reserve, or FDIC “for any purpose in the course of any supervisory or regulatory process,” the supervised institution will not waive any privilege attached to the disclosed materials.

The Dodd-Frank Act Creates Uncertainty

When Congress enacted the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”), it did not amend the definition of “Federal banking agency” to include the CFPB. Without this statutory protection, depository institutions and their affiliates subject to examination by the CFPB are faced with a difficult decision when asked by the CFPB to produce privilege materials or communications: (i) produce the requested material and risk that a court in a future proceeding will hold that the disclosure waived the privilege and, as a result, compel the institutions to produce the privileged material in those proceedings, or (ii) refuse to produce the privileged material and face an enforcement action by the CFPB.   

The CFPB Bulletin

The Bulletin issued by the CFPB assures institutions that disclosure of privileged materials will not result in a waiver of privilege for two reasons: (i) the disclosure of privileged material would not be voluntary and, thus, could not waive privilege, and (ii) “Congress intended the [CFPB’s] examination authority to be equivalent to that of the prudential regulators” and, as such, the CFPB is authorized to receive information without effecting privilege to the same extent as the OCC, Federal Reserve and FDIC.  For these reasons, the CFPB declared that it will pursue all available remedies under 12 U.S.C. § 5565 if a CFPB supervised institution refuses to provide privileged information responsive to a CFPB supervisory request.

The Bulletin also explains that the CFPB recognizes the importance of this issue and “is prepared to take all reasonable and appropriate steps to assist supervised institutions in rebutting any claim that they have waived privileges by providing information to the [CFPB].”  Ultimately, while the Bulletin issued by the CFPB is helpful to CFPB supervised institutions and may reduce the risk of waiving privilege, the Bulletin is not a legal regulation, court decision or a substitute for an amendment to the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (“FDIA”) to expressly include the CFPB as a “Federal banking agency,” which would conclusively resolve the uncertainty.  

Courts may disagree with the CFPB’s analysis and conclusion

While courts have not directly addressed whether a disclosure of privileged material to the CFPB waives the privilege as to the same information in a subsequent civil case, the case law in similar contexts illustrates that a court could easily disagree with the CFPB’s Bulletin.  To predict how a court may rule, we look to the how courts have addressed this issue in the context of other federal agencies that, like the CFPB, do not have a statute explicitly protecting disclosure of privileged material.  A review of these decisions provides little comfort to CFPB supervised institutions as courts have reached inconsistent, even contradicting, results in their analysis of whether disclosure of privileged material to a federal agency waives privilege.  In fact, the majority rule articulated in Westinghouse Elec. Corp. v. Republic of the Philippines, 951 F.2d 1414 (3d Cir. 1991), holds that privilege is waived following disclosure of privileged data to federal agencies.

Going Forward

Officer and directors of CFPB supervised institutions need to understand that producing privileged documents to the CFPB could waive the institutions right to later assert privilege as to those documents.  Until the FDIA is amended to include the CFPB as a “Federal banking agency,” entities supervised by the CFPB must take proactive measures to protect the privilege in order to limit the possibility that a future court will deem the disclosure to the CFPB a waiver of privilege.  To respond to a request by the CFPB for materials, we recommend, at a minimum, the following:

  1. Immediately consult with your counsel to determine what response, if any, is appropriate in the circumstance;
  2. Request a written demand from the CFPB that (i) clearly identifies the privileged material, (ii) clarifies that the institution’s disclosure of the material is not voluntary, and (iii) clarifies that the disclosure is made in the course of the CFPB’s supervisory and examination powers; and

Require the CFPB to certify that it will treat the information confidentially and not disclose the privileged information to third parties without the consent of the supervised institution or a court order compelling the CFPB to produce the material.

Entry filed under: Dodd-Frank Act. Tags: , , , , , .

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