Autotech Techs. Ltd. Partnership v., Inc. 237 F.RD. 405 (N.D. Ill. 2006). (Cole, Mag. J.).

In this impressively detailed opinion, Magistrate Judge Cole grants defendant’s motion for a protective order limiting plaintiff’s in-house counsel’s access to sensitive customer information and communications.  The parties faced a common problem, they had agreed that customer information, including customer identities and communications, would be limited to attorneys’ eyes only, but could not agree as to whether plaintiff’s in-house counsel could access the information.  Plaintiff argued that its in-house counsel played a lead role in the case and, therefore, required access to the information.  Defendant argued that in-house counsel were corporate decision makers, in addition to counselors, and would not be able to separate the knowledge of defendant’s customers they would be exposed to when performing business-related functions.

The Court first stated that it believed counsel’s assurances that they would not violate the Court’s protective order or their ethical obligations, noting that that was "the beginning and not the end of [the] analysis."  The Court held that:

. . . proper analysis requires a careful and comprehensive inquiry into in-house counsel’s actual (not nominal) role in the affairs of the company, his association and relationship with those in the corporate hierarchy who are competitive decision makers, and any other factor that enhances the risk of inadvertent disclosure.  That risk must then be balanced against the harm that will result to the party employing in-house counsel from restrictions on the latter’s access to the protected information.

The Court then performed a detailed analysis of plaintiff’s counsel’s responsibilities and place in plaintiff’s corporate hierarchy.  The Court ultimately held that in-house counsel could not have access to customer information because of in-house counsel’s central importance to plaintiff and because restricting access would not harm plaintiff’s ability to litigate the case.