Cases and Concepts Related to the Work Product Doctrine

Firm News | March 20, 2024

In many cases, documents such as investigative reports, board meeting minutes and insurance claim notes reveal important facts about the incident that caused injury to your client. Many times, such documents are withheld on the basis of “work product” protection.  In Draggin’ y Cattle Co., Inc. v. Addink, Justice Rice noted that the law in the area of whether documents are protected by the work product doctrine is “sparse” in Montana. Draggin’ y Cattle Co. v. Addink, 2013 MT 319, ¶ 38, 372 Mont. 334, 345, 312 P.3d 451, 459. Therefore, I have compiled several cases and concepts that can hopefully assist if the defendant has cited the doctrine to avoid production of a document in your case.

1.    The Work Product Doctrine, Generally.

The work product doctrine protects from discovery “documents and tangible things that are prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial by or for another party or its representative (including the other party’s attorney, consultant, surety, indemnitor, insurer, or agent).” Dion v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 185 F.R.D. 288, 292 (D. Mont. 1998).

There are two types of work product. Ordinary work product relates to factual matters and is only discoverable upon a showing of substantial need “to the extent that it is not privileged and is ‘relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action.’ ” Opinion work product relates to the mental impressions, opinions, conclusions or legal theories of counsel and is given additional protection. Palmer by Diacon v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 261 Mont. 91, 115–16, 861 P.2d 895, 910 (1993) (citation omitted).

The core purpose of the work product doctrine is to “‘shelter[ ] the mental processes of the attorney, providing a privileged area within which [s]he can analyze and prepare h[er] client’s case.’” Id. at 116, 861 P.2d at 910 (quoting U.S. v. Nobles, 422 U.S. 225, 238, 95 S.Ct. 2160, 2170, 45 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975)).

2.    Documents Withheld Must Be Identified on a Privilege Log Unless Doing So Would Reveal Protected Information.

The Montana Rules of Civil Procedure require a party to identify all documents withheld on the basis of the work product doctrine in a privilege log:

(6) Claiming Privilege or Protecting Trial-Preparation Materials.

(A) Information Withheld. When a party withholds information otherwise discoverable by claiming that the information is privileged or subject to protection as trial-preparation material, the party must:

(i) expressly make the claim; and

(ii) describe the nature of the documents, communications, or things not produced or disclosed — and do so in a manner that, without revealing information itself privileged or protected, will enable other parties to assess the claim.

Mont. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(6).

Importantly, the rule does not require a privilege log when the very act of compiling the log would reveal privileged or protected information. This qualification saves attorneys from a requirement to compile lists of gathered documents related to a particular defendant or its product, commonly referred to as a “Morris Inquiry.”

Such documents—as a group assembled by counsel—are not discoverable because the very selection and subsequent grouping of the documents collected outside of the discovery process would reveal an attorney’s mental impressions. See Petersen v. Douglas County Bank & Trust Company, 967 F.2d 1186, 1189 (8th Cir. 1992) (documents selected and compiled in anticipation of litigation are protected by the work product doctrine); Sporck v. Peil, 759 F.2d 312 (3rd Cir. 1985) (the selection process of attorney in grouping certain documents together of thousands is work product); Omaha Public Power District v. Foster Wheeler Corp., 109 F.R.D. 615, 616 (D.Ne. 1986) (the selection and segregation of the particular documents is work product); James Julian v. Raytheon Company, 93 F.R.D. 138, 144 (D.Del. 1982) (“the process of selection and distillation is often more critical than pure legal research”); In re: Grand Jury Subpoena Dated Nov. 8, 1979, 622 F.2d 933, 936 (6th Cir. 1980) (work product includes attorney’s efforts of assembling of information and determination of relevant facts (citing Hickman)); Berkey Photo, Inc. v. Eastman Kodak Company, 74 F.R.D. 613, 616 (S.D.N.Y. 1977) (counsel’s order of “facts,” in a notebook constitutes work product).
By contrast, where an investigative report, claims note or other correspondence has been withheld under the guise of the work product doctrine, disclosing such a document’s existence will not disclose the work product itself. Therefore, adequate disclosure on a log must occur or the privilege is waived.

3.    The Author of the Document Must be Identified in the Privilege Log.

Many courts have recognized the importance of author identity to an assertion of privilege:
Although not expressly stated in [Fed. R. Civ. P. 26], courts have held that a party may satisfy the requirements of the rule by providing a detailed privilege log. One court recently described the requirements of a privilege log as follows:

The requisite detail for inclusion in a privilege log consists of a description of responsive material withheld, the identity and position of its author, the date it was written, the identity and position of all addresses and recipients, the material’s present location, and specific reasons for its being withheld, including the privilege invoked and grounds thereof. Kephart v. Natl. Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 2007 WL 2253608, at *2 (D. Mont. Aug. 2, 2007) (emphasis added); In re Dailey, 2017 WL 4480737, at *2 n. 4 (Bankr. D. Mont. Sept. 14, 2017) (“requisite detail for inclusion in a privilege log” includes “identity and position of … author”) (citing U.S. v. Construction Products Research Inc., 73 F.3d 464, 473 (2nd Cir. 1996)).


Privilege log entries that fail to identify an author are inadequate because the party requesting the documents cannot make an adequate assessment of the assertion of privilege. Kephart, 2007 WL 2253608, at *2; see also S.E.C. v. Yorkville Advisors LLC, 300 F.R.D. 152, 162 (S.D. N.Y. 2014) (the privilege log “fails to provide adequate descriptions of the subject matter, authors and recipients of the withheld documents” and does not disclose sufficient information “to enable other parties to assess the claim”); Exp.-Imp. Bank of U.S. v. Asia Pulp & Paper Co., 233 F.R.D. 338, 343 (S.D. N.Y. 2005) (deficiencies in the privilege log include that: “It is impossible to tell who wrote dozens of Norton Rose documents because no person is listed as author.”); Exp.-Imp. Bank of the U.S. v. Asia Pulp & Paper Co., 232 F.R.D. 103, 111 (S.D. N.Y. 2005) (privilege log inadequate where, inter alia, some entries failed to identify author of document).

4.    The Party Resisting Discovery Has The Burden to Demonstrate That Withholding the Document is Appropriate.

A party opposing discovery carries a “heavy burden” of showing why discovery should not be allowed. Blankenship v. Hearst Corp., 519 F.2d 418, 429 (9th Cir. 1975). “The party who resists discovery has the burden to show that discovery should not be allowed, and has the burden of clarifying, explaining, and supporting its objections.” DIRECTV, Inc. v. Trone, 209 F.R.D. 455, 458 (C.D. Cal. 2002). The party resisting discovery of documents identified in a privilege log that were withheld on the grounds of the work product doctrine bears the burden of establishing the right to withhold the documents. Kephart v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 2007 WL 2253608, *2 (D. Mont. 2007). “The party asserting the work product doctrine has the burden of establishing, for each document, the rule’s application.” HSS Enterprises, LLC, 2008 WL 163669 at *4.

5.    Documents Prepared in the Ordinary-Course-of-Business Are Not Protected.

To qualify for protection against discovery under Rule 26(b)(3)(A), “documents must have two characteristics: (1) they must be ‘prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial’, and (2) they must be prepared ‘by or for another party or by or for that other party’s representative.’” In re Grand Jury Subpoena (Mark Torf/Torf Environmental Management), 357 F.3d 900, 907 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The requisite “anticipation of litigation” requires “more than the mere possibility of litigation[.]” Heath v. F/V ZOLOTOI, 221 F.R.D. 545, 549 (W.D. Wash. 2004).

In considering whether a particular document was prepared in anticipation of litigation, “[i]t is well established that documents prepared in the ordinary course of business are not protected by the work-product doctrine because they would have been created regardless of the litigation.” Heath, 221 F.R.D. at 549–50 (quoting Advisory Committee Notes to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3)).
Businesses frequently prepare documents for multiple purposes, such as “to supervise corporate employees, administer self-insurance programs, analyze safety, prevent accident reoccurrences, respond to regulatory agencies, and comply with state and federal statutory and regulatory law.” Fru–Con Construction Corp. v. Sacramento Municipal Utility District, 2006 WL 2050999, *3 (E.D. Cal. 2006). Documents generated in these ordinary-course-of-business circumstances are generally not afforded work product protection. Moe v. System Transport, Inc., 270 F.R.D. 613 n. 7 (Lynch, J.).


In Draggin ‘y Cattle Co., Inc. v. Addink, the Montana Supreme Court cited the following cases as examples where work product protection would not apply:

  • Lanelogic, Inc. v. Great Am. Spirit Ins. Co., 2010 WL 1839294, at 5*, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44392 at 13–15 (N.D.Tex. May 6, 2010) (insurance investigative records held not work product because not created in anticipation of litigation but rather for ordinary business purpose of determining if coverage existed);
  • Mole v. Millard, 762 S.W.2d 251, 254 (Tex.App. Houston 1988) (documents in claim files of hospital and its insurer not work product because “no evidence showing any involvement of an attorney in the case prior to or during the generation of the documents”);
  • U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Bunge N. Am., Inc., 247 F.R.D. 656, 657–58 (D.Kan.2007) (“Certainly by implication the … rule precludes any idea of extending the work product doctrine to reports or statements, even if written, obtained by the client or his investigators which are not prepared under the supervision of an attorney in preparation for trial.”).

6.    Investigative Reports Are Typically Not Protected.
An investigative report developed in the ordinary course of business will not be protected as work product even if it was completed at an attorney’s direction or with the attorney’s involvement. Wikel v. Wal-Mart Stores, 197 F.R.D. 493, 495-96 (N.D. Ok. 2000).[1]  And, the fact that, “…litigation did in fact occur, that a party has consulted or retained an attorney, that a party has undertaken investigation, or engaged in negotiations over the claim, is not enough to establish a reasonable anticipation of litigation.…”  United States v. Ernstoff, 183 F.R.D. 148, 155 (D. N.J. 1998) (citations omitted).

In Pippenger v. Gruppe, Pippinger’s assertion that documents sought by defendants related to preparation, strategy, and appraisals of strengths and weaknesses of lawsuit, and to attorney’s activities in preparing case, did not satisfy plaintiff’s burden – who was the proponent of work product immunity – of coming forward with specific facts supporting finding of immunity. Pippenger v. Gruppe, 883 F. Supp. 1201, 1211-1212 (S.D. Ind. 1994). In that case, the plaintiff did not provide detailed description of materials in dispute or specific explanation of why each document was privileged or immune from discovery. Id.

Further, in Jackson v. Kroblin Refrigerated Xpress, Inc., defense counsel’s assertion that statements were privileged was conclusory and facts had to be presented which would enable an independent determination of verity of that conclusion and, if statements were not work product of attorney for defendant, they would be subject to discovery. 49 F.R.D. 134, 138 (N.D.W. Va. 1970).

7.    Even If Particular Documents Were Drafted in Anticipation of Litigation, Disclosure Is Appropriate Where There is Substantial Need.

Even if some documents fall within the boundaries of the work product privilege, documents may still be discovered if it is proven that the requesting party has “substantial need” of the materials and is “unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by other means.” Toledo Edison v. GA Technologies, Inc., 847 F.2d 335, 341 (6th Cir. 1988).
In determining whether a party seeking discovery of materials “prepared in anticipation of litigation” was unable without undue hardship to obtain the substantial equivalent of the materials by any other means, courts may consider factors such as that: the witness may have given a fresh and contemporaneous account in a written statement while he is available to the party seeking discovery only a substantial time thereafter, and that the witness may deviate from his prior statement. Hamilton v. Canal Barge Co., Inc., 395 F. Supp. 975, 977 (D.C. La. 1974).

8.    Even If The Work Product Privilege Applies and The Court Finds No Exception, Information Other Than The Mental Impressions and Legal Theories of Counsel Should Be Disclosed.

The work product doctrine only “protects documents that reveal an attorney’s mental processes and legal theories when prepared by the attorney in contemplation of litigation.” United States v. Real Property, 142 F.R.D. 431, 433 (W.D. Pa. 1992) (citing Hickman v Taylor, 329 U.S. 495, 509-510 (1947). When the document at issue contains factual material, and not the mental impressions or theories of counsel, then the need for protection under work product privilege is minimal. U.S. ex rel. Burns v. A.D. Roe Co., Inc., 904 F. Supp. 592, 594 (W.D. Ky. 1995).

I hope you found this helpful and can use some of these cases and concepts to discover the documents you need to prove your case.

[1] Not only are investigative reports discoverable, the Ninth Circuit has held that they may be admissible evidence as well.  Sana v. Hawaiian Cruises, 181 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 1999). See also, Reid Bros. Logging Co. v. Ketchikan Pulp Co., 699 F.2d 1292, 1306 (9th Cir. 1993); and, In re Aircrash in Bali v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 871 F.2d 812, 816 (9th Cir. 1989).