District Court Grants Motion to Compel Against SEC, Holding that "Facts" Are Not Work Product In SEC Confidential Witness Interviews

In a recent Securities & Exchange Commission (“SEC”) investigation, the SEC interviewed three persons who had proffer agreements with the SEC and United States Attorney. In a subsequent SEC enforcement action, a defendant served interrogatories asking the SEC to identify the factual information disclosed in those proffer sessions. The SEC objected, and the defendant moved to compel. The SEC opposed the motion to compel, arguing that defendant sought information protected by the attorney work product doctrine, had not shown substantial need and unavailability, and had not deposed any of the witnesses, despite their identification in Rule 26 disclosures more than a year before. The magistrate judge granted defendant’s motion to compel, and the United States District Court for the Northern District of California confirmed the ruling. SEC v. Sells, No. C 11-4941 CW, 2013 WL 1411247 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 8, 2013).

There had already been an order in the case directing the SEC to answer identical interrogatories about another third-party witness. The SEC had acknowledged it was relying upon that witness’s statements as a basis for the allegations against the same defendant. The court rejected the SEC’s attorney work product objection because the interrogatories sought factual information, and not an attorney’s strategies or mental impressions. The court relied on an earlier decision, In re Convergent Technologies, 122 F.R.D. 555, 558 (N.D. Cal. 1988), in which the court reiterated the well-established principle that “the law does not permit counsel or litigants to use the work product doctrine to hide the facts themselves.” Nor does it shield from discovery the identities of the persons from whom an attorney learned such facts or the existence or non-existence of documents.

An interesting side note about the three witnesses is that their interviews were not recorded, unlike the other fourteen witnesses in this case. Because of this, any inconsistencies, disclosures of motives for their proffers or other potential impeachment evidence were not “otherwise available” to defense counsel. The SEC also advised the court that the three witnesses might testify at trial.

The lesson of this case is not to underestimate the value to defendants in SEC enforcement proceedings of specific, simply stated interrogatories. The SEC was not ordered to turn over its attorneys’ notes. Instead, it was ordered to answer interrogatories. This case also reminds lawyers not to give up, even when your adversary is far more powerful. In the words of the magistrate judge who handled “every possible objection” that the SEC had asserted to avoid answering, “Sunshine is ordinarily the best medicine for a party that is keeping discoverable information hidden in the dark. But where, as here, one party is repeatedly withholding relevant information, stronger medicine may be required.”

For further information, please contact Bob Rose at (619) 338-6661.