Attorney/Client Privilege: Its Importance to Health Care Providers, and TIPS to Avoid Potential Pitfalls as to Former Employees
This blog is intended to provide TIPS to health care providers who have any amount of attrition with staff members and why these TIPS as to attorney/client privilege are so important.
First, I’d like to say, for the past few weeks, I have been moving homes and firms, concurrently. Add in a trial or two into the mix and I haven’t been able to blog as often. But I’m fairly moved in now (to both) and have one of the trials mostly wrapped up.
The idea for this blog, in particular, actually came to me while Robert Shaw, Senior Counsel, and I were Santa Fe, New Mexico for a trial.
While preparing the witnesses for trial, I re-realized an important aspect of attorney/client privilege that is vital to health care providers if there is any attrition in their staff.
I say “re-realized” because I already knew the importance of attorney/client privilege, but I realized the importance for health care providers to understand its importance, as well…hence, this blog.
If, for whatever reason, your company is forced to lay off staff or, even, if you have staff voluntarily leave your office, you need to read the entirety of this blog and pay special attention to the TIPS at the bottom.
What if you need to rely on that former employee for testimony in a hearing?
For example, you are CEO of a small or large health care provider company and your Medical Director or Compliance Director leaves your employment and you need the former employee to testify in the future. Your former employee and your attorney will not be protected by attorney/client privilege.
You may be thinking…so what?
But attorney/client privilege is key in trial.
Let me give you an illustrative example:
You own a dental practice and accept Medicaid. Lucy is your office manager. She oversees the Medicaid billing, ensures regulatory compliance, and deals with denials that come from NCTracks. She also enters the data into NCTracks. You, as the dentist, provide dental services, but you have little to do with what Lucy does. You trust her and she does her job well.
DHHS via Program Integrity conducts an audit and determines that you owe $750,000 in alleged overpayments. Maybe the auditor didn’t know that the notation “cavies” means cavities and dinged you for billing for filling a cavity because the auditor could not discern from the service note that a cavity was actually filled. Or, maybe you coded the service for scraping the wall of a gingival pocket, and the auditor did not understand what “curettage” is in the service note.
Regardless, you receive a Notice of Overpayment on May 4, 2015. On May 7, 2015, Lucy tells you that she is having her first baby and wants to be stay at home mother. You congratulate her and begin your search for another office manager. You end up hiring Bill.
By the time that you need to get ready to defend your $750,000 overpayment with your attorney, Lucy has given birth to Annie and hasn’t worked for you for over a year.
But your attorney, in order to defend the overpayment, will need Lucy to testify at court. Before a witness testifies in court, your attorney must meet with him or her to prepare the witness for direct examination and cross examination by opposing counsel. (If your attorney does not, instruct him or her to do so).
When I am in a situation such as the one I have outlined above. I am extremely careful. Because there is no attorney/client privilege between “Lucy” and me because she is a former employee, I am very precise in my prep. For example, I would never discuss legal strategy with Lucy. I would never show privileged information; I would never try to “lead” Lucy’s opinion. Leading a witness’s opinion could come across like, “Lucy, If I ask you on the stand whether your opinion is that curettage means scraping a gingival pocket, you would agree, correct?” Instead, I would ask, “Lucy, what do you understand curettage to mean and how would you normally code the procedure?”
Any attorney worth his or her salt knows that attorney/client privilege does not attach to a former employee.
Why does that matter?
Any opposing attorney worth his or her salt will cross exam Lucy as to every detail possible involving the meeting between Lucy and me. And I mean every detail.
Q: “You met with Ms. Emanuel in preparation for this meeting, correct?”
Q: “When exactly was that?”
A: “Two weeks ago.”
Q: “What documents did Ms. Emanuel show you?”
A: “She showed me my direct examination.”
Q: “What do you mean? A hard copy of the questions that you would be asked?”
Q: “Ms. Emanuel, I expect that you have no problem providing me with a copy of what you showed Lucy?”
Me: “Not at all.”
Boom! By Lucy testifying that I showed her my hard copy of my direct examination questions, opposing counsel is entitled to review my draft questions along with any notes I may have notated on that hard copy of Lucy’s direct testimony. What happens if I have privileged notes contained within my questions? My attorney notes contained within the questions are now discoverable by the other side.
[BTW: I would never show Lucy my actual list of questions, unless I fully anticipated giving my list to opposing counsel.]
But you can see the potential pitfalls. Anything discussed or shown to Lucy by your counsel will be discoverable by opposing counsel. What if your counsel, without thinking, tells Lucy that he or she thinks this is a weak case? Or tells Lucy that he or she hopes the other side doesn’t pick up on…..X?
Even if the attorney prepping Lucy states something disparaging about opposing counsel, or God forbid, the judge, those remarks are discoverable and Lucy must testify to those comments on the stand.
On one occasion, I actually had opposing counsel question my witness about our conversation during a 10 minute break, during which I was smart enough not to speak about the case. My witness answered, “We discussed that I think you are b$#@!” But counsel’s question was valid and allowable. Because just as easily, during the break, I could have said, if I were not worth my salt, “Lucy, I did not like how you answered that question. You need to say…..X.”
Judges do not look favorable on coached testimony.
As a health care provider, what measures can you take that if you are forced to call former employees as witnesses, you are poised for the best result?
1. Try to maintain a cordial relationship with former employees.
I know this can be difficult as every provider needs to terminate staff or has disgruntled employees. But, even if you are firing staff, try to do so in a professional, amicable manner. Explain that it is a business decision, not personal (regardless the reason). Give the soon-to-be-fired employee notice, such as 30 days, if possible. If you would recommend the employee to a colleague, let the employee know and to whom. These small steps can help your future in case of trial.
2. Re-hire the employee.
In my opinion, this avenue has an aura of attempted deceit, and I do not recommend this route unless you are re-hiring the employee in good faith. For example, if you truly did not want to fire the staff member and you genuinely could use that person back in your office, or, if, in the case of Lucy, she decides that she wants to come back to work of her own volition and you still have the need.
An employee is protected by attorney/client privilege, generally.
3. Be knowledgeable or hire a knowledgeable attorney.
If you are concerned that your attorney may disclose something otherwise confidential in witness prep of a former employee, have a lengthy discussion with your attorney prior to the preparation session. Sit in with your attorney during the prep of the former attorney.
Along the same lines as above, come to an understanding with your attorney which documents may be considered “hot docs” and essential to the case, and, which should not be discussed with a former employee at all.
4. Test the waters.
Prior to your attorney contacting Lucy, call Lucy yourself. Have a chat. Catch up. Ask Lucy whether she is willing to testify on your behalf. If Lucy starts cussing you out, you may want to think of alternative witnesses. If there are no alternative witnesses, you may want to discuss with your attorney whether an affidavit or deposition could substitute for Lucy’s testimony at trial.
5. Pay for Lucy’s time
There is nothing wrong or unethical about compensating Lucy for her trial preparation and appearance at trial. Obviously, this compensation is discoverable by opposing counsel and questions can be asked about the compensation situation. But I believe it is better to have a happy Lucy, who feels that her time is valuable, rather than an increasingly frustrated Lucy, as each second ticks along.
6. Think ahead
If you know you will be terminating an employee or if you receive notice that an employee is leaving, think about the most important aspects of his or her job and memorialize the procedures. For example, in the case of Lucy, ask Lucy to draft a memo to the file as to her procedures in billing Medicaid. Have her write which service notes are billed for which codes and the reasons in support and how she manually enters data into NCTracks. It may seem tedious, but these notes will be invaluable during any future litigation.
Along the same vein as above, if possible, have Lucy train Bill prior to her leaving. That way, if Lucy is an undesirable witness, Bill can testify that he follows the same protocol as Lucy because Lucy trained him and he follows her protocol.
Hopefully, these TIPS will be helpful to you in the future in the case of employees leaving your practice. Print off the blog and review it whenever an employee is leaving.