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In re Method For Processing Ethanol Byproducts and Related Subsystems Patent Litigation

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

May 15, 2015



Debra McVicker Lynch United States Magistrate Judge

Defendant Iroquois Bio-Energy Company, LLC has moved to compel the production of documents withheld by CleanTech or the inventors as attorney-client privileged communications. (Master Dkt. 1394).[1] The communications include those between inventors Cantrell or Winsness with their original patent prosecution counsel (Mr. Dorisio) and communications between the inventors or principals of CleanTech with lawyers at the Cantor Colburn law firm. Iroquois’s motion contends that the crime-fraud exception applies and vitiates the privilege.

The court has addressed the parties’ arguments regarding the crime-fraud exception previously, primarily in connection with its order on CleanTech’s motion to quash a deposition subpoena served on Cantor Colburn lawyer Charles O’Brien. (See Order of June 30, 2014, Master Dkt. 1241.) In that order, the court discussed the contours of the crime-fraud exception as well as the waiver and work product principles implicated by that motion. The court concluded in that order that the defendants had provided at that time an insufficient evidentiary foundation to apply the crime-fraud exception.


At the outset of its analysis of the current motion, the court will address the overarching theme of CleanTech’s opposition to the motion: that there have been no new developments since last year’s order and the court should therefore, necessarily, rule again that there is an insufficient evidentiary foundation to pierce the attorney-client privilege based on the crime-fraud exception. CleanTech’s characterization of the state of the record and of the factual mosaic underlying Iroquois’s current motion is simply wrong. First, there have been new developments since that order (and there may be new developments to come). Since that order, certain computer forensics work has been done. Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Winsness have been deposed again. Expert forensic analysis of key documents has been performed, and expert reports have been served. The court has issued its summary judgment order, which includes findings and conclusions that may ultimately be germane to the inequitable conduct (and hence, crime-fraud) issue. Information regarding Mr. Cantrell’s, Mr. Winsness’s, and other witnesses’ financial stake in the patents has become known. Second, Mr. Dorisio and Mr. Hagerty will be deposed a second time regarding PTO prosecution matters. Third, the court observed in its 2014 order that defendants’ prior briefing in support of the crime-fraud exception was too generalized to support a ruling that the attorney-client privilege should be pierced. The current motion, on the other hand, is supported by a lengthy, detailed citation of facts and inferences Iroquois asserts are reasonably drawn from those facts. Although, as explained below, the court will not now adopt those facts and inferences as findings, no reasonable reading of them could lead to the conclusion that they are too general.

But the fact that Iroquois can articulate a plausible predicate for application of the crime-fraud exception does not end the inquiries this court must make. Most important, the court must consider the appropriate level of proof necessary to vitiate the privilege, the proper manner in which the court should determine the factual disputes that underlie the assertion of the exception, and the best juncture in the case for deciding whether the crime-fraud exception applies. To these issues the parties have given scant attention in the briefing. And to decide them, the court must balance the important policies served by both the attorney-client privilege and its crime-fraud exception. Significantly, the Seventh Circuit has made clear that the questions about how to determine whether the crime-fraud exception applies, such as whether to do so in the context of an adversarial hearing, are left to the district court’s discretion. United States v. Boender, 649 F.3d 650, 657-58 (7th Cir. 2011).

Iroquois cites cases for the proposition that it need make only a “prima facie” showing of a crime or fraud, described as “evidence that gives color to the charge by showing some foundations in fact” and which is “enough to require explanation” by the adverse party why the privilege should remain intact. E.g., United States v. Pons, 2013 WL 1093107 at *4 and 6 (N.D. Ill. March 15, 2013) (quoting United States v. Boender, 649 F.3d at 655, United States v. BDO Seidman, LLP, 492 F.3d 806, 815 (7th Cir. 2007), and Matter of Feldberg, 862 F.2d 622, 625 (7th Cir. 1988)). See also Clark v. United States, 289 U.S. 1, 16 (1933) (analogizing loss of juror deliberation privilege to crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, stating: “A privilege surviving until the relation is abused and vanishing when abuse is shown to the satisfaction of the judge has been found to be a workable technique for the protection of the confidences of client and attorney.”)

As courts have recognized, however, the “prima facie” standard is elusive, confusing, and misleading in the crime-fraud context. See, e.g., In re Napster, Inc. Copyright Litigation, 479 F.3d 1078, 1091-96 (9th Cir. 2007), abrogated on other grounds, 558 U.S. 100 (2009) (in the non-grand jury context, “prima facie” for purposes of the crime-fraud exception means demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence).

The questions of the nature and quality of the proof and of how to address underlying factual disputes and the inferences that ought to be drawn from those facts are particularly acute here. None of the cases cited by Iroquois (or CleanTech, for that matter) involves the unique circumstances presented by this case. Here, the very same conduct, evidence, and inferences on which Iroquois relies to make its case for application of the crime-fraud exception are the foundation of the defendants’ inequitable conduct defense for which they seek to compel discovery based on the crime-fraud exception. That distinction between the cited authorities and this case is critical. Iroquois’s motion attempts to demonstrate in discovery briefing the very abuse that must be “shown to the satisfaction of the judge” at the inequitable conduct trial. Clark v. United States, 289 U.S. 1, 16 (1933).

The magistrate judge will not conduct what would amount to an inequitable conduct trial on the papers in the context of this discovery motion. The inequitable conduct trial itself will permit the airing of the evidence cited by Iroquois, along with the court’s evaluation of the credibility of witnesses, which may be an important component in the court’s evaluation of the evidence. The persuasive value or strength (or lack thereof) of certain of the evidence identified by the defendants as indicative of fraud, including the intent element, may depend in large part on a fact-finder’s evaluation of the credibility of witnesses. For example, one of the defendants’ inequitable conduct theories is that inventor Cantrell executed an affidavit he knew to be false and would be (and was) filed with the PTO.[2] Some evidence underlying that theory includes analysis of letters signed in ink by Mr. Cantrell and apparent changes in letterhead logos, for which there is dueling expert testimony to be evaluated. The theory also depends, in part, on the believability of testimony to be offered by or elicited from Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Winsness surrounding their contacts with Agri-Energy, their failures (and the failure of others such as Mr. Lauderbaugh) to produce the August 1 email, Mr. Cantrell’s initial refusal to answer questions regarding the email and his “flight” response to the defendants’ possession of the email, the inventors’ 2003/2004 statements recorded on documents or in communications with investors that the invention had been discovered in June 2003, and the inventors’ later position that the June 2003 testing was a “failure.”

The Seventh Circuit approved, in one case, the district court’s conduct of an adversarial hearing to determine whether it was satisfied with the quantum and quality of evidence that an attorney-client relationship had been abused in furtherance of a fraud before piercing the privilege. That was an appropriate means to protect against the risk of compromising legitimate privileged attorney-client communications. See Boender, 649 F.3d 650.[3]

The obvious other side of the court’s balancing of a proper remedy or procedure is the desire of the defendants to obtain in advance of trial evidence they believe will be relevant to their inequitable conduct defense, particularly under the heightened Therasense standard. The court makes several observations in that regard.

First, the defendants have developed a significant body of evidence already on which they rely to advance the crime-fraud exception and the inequitable conduct defense.[4]

Second, the court must consider the consequences of an incorrect decision to apply the crime-fraud exception before full airing of the existing evidence. The compelled disclosure of otherwise privileged communications cannot be undone, but the defendants’ problem of not having every piece of evidence they ...

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