Appellate Court of Illinois Orders in Camera Review of Potentially Privileged Documents in Action for Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Business litigation is necessarily an adversarial process – the stakes are high and as such the opposing parties in most lawsuits will fight over many issues during the case. One of the most contentious segments of any case is the discovery process. Because the information obtained during discovery can make or break a case, it is important to understand the law in this area. In that vein, our Berwyn business attorneys would like to share a recent Illinois Appellate Court decision that may affect many of our clients the next time they go to court.

In Mueller Industries Inc. v. Berkman, Defendant Berkman worked for Plaintiff as president of a company owned by Plaintiff pursuant to an employment contract. During his employment, Defendant formed an investment partnership and obtained a 10% ownership interest in a company that was one of Plaintiff’s primary suppliers. Defendant’s lawyer – whose firm was also counsel for Plaintiff – advised him how to structure the investment venture so as to not run afoul of his employment contract with Plaintiff. The initial employment agreement subsequently expired, and a new open-ended agreement was consummated that contained a non-compete clause and other restrictive covenants governing outside financial interests and business opportunities. Defendant then had his attorney form a new company to compete with Plaintiff, and Defendant subsequently resigned his position with Plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed suit for breach of his employment contract and breach of fiduciary duty, alleging Defendant profited personally at the expense of Mueller through his investment partnership. A discovery dispute ensued when Defendant refused to produce documents related to his investment in the supply company and his creation of the competing company. Defendant refused production based upon the 5th amendment and attorney-client privileges. Plaintiff filed a motion to compel production, which was granted by the trial court.

Defendant appealed the trial court’s grant of the motion, and reasserted that the documents were privileged. The Appellate Court reversed in part, holding that Defendant’s pre-existing relationship with his lawyer kept all communication prior to the attorney’s firm’s representation of Plaintiff privileged. However, all communications after the dual representation began were no longer so protected because Defendant no longer had any reasonable expectation of confidentiality. Finally, the Court found that Defendant had failed to demonstrate that producing the requested documents would amount to incriminating testimony, but remanded the case with orders for the lower court to perform an in camera review of the disputed documents and urged the trial court to make a detailed record of its findings.

Lubin Austermuehle is a full-service litigation firm based in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois that concentrates in handling all of the legal issues confronting businesses in today’s world. We represent both plaintiffs and defendants, and we have experience representing clients in matters ranging from shareholder disputes to actions for breach of fiduciary duty. Our attorneys have over two decades of experience in business litigation and have won favorable verdicts in “bet the business” lawsuits. Lubin Austermuehle has Chicago business litigation lawyers who can identify and understand the legal issues in a dispute, no matter how complex they may be. We will use our resources and knowledge to formulate a plan of action that will help further your interests, resolve your problems, and get you back to growing your business. Our focus with each client is to resolve the legal issues efficiently and with minimal costs, while still providing outstanding representation. If your business is being sued or you are seeking advice to stay out of court, call our Chicago business lawyers to discuss what Lubin Austermuehle can do for you. For a consultation, call 630-333-0333 or send us an email through our website.

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