February 13, 2019
A recent Law 360 story by Matt Fair, “Pa. Justices to Mull Privilege for Atty Bills in Estate Dispute,” reports that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to wade into a dispute over whether attorney-client privilege barred the release of legal bills from K&L Gates LLP and another firm as part of a case over the management of the estate of a deceased Allegheny County man. The appeal comes as two beneficiaries of the estate pursue claims that the trustee, William H. McAleer, who is the dead man's son, had spent too much money on legal fees and other administrative costs in connection with management of the estate.
In a one-page order, the justices agreed to consider whether “the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrines protect communications between a trustee and counsel from discovery by beneficiaries when the communications arose in the context of adversarial proceedings between the trustees and beneficiaries.”
According to court records, McAleer has been acting as trustee of an estate established by his father, William K. McAleer, in November 2012. But after the son filed an accounting of the estate a little less than a year after his father’s May 2013 death, court records say his stepbrothers, Michael and Stephen Lange, filed objections and sought additional information related to two bank accounts.
In response, court records say that McAleer tapped K&L Gates for legal assistance to back up counsel from Julian Gray Associates who was already representing him. After a second accounting of the estate, court records say the Langes claimed that McAleer had been paying excess trustee and attorney fees in connection with management of the trust. When the Langes sought billing statements for all attorney fees, however, McAleer turned over redacted copies.
An Allegheny County trial judge eventually ordered McAleer to turn over unredacted copies of the bills, which led to an appeal to the state’s Superior Court. The Superior Court ultimately quashed the appeal in June after finding that the trial judge’s order compelling discovery could not be challenged independently before the case was resolved in its entirety. While issues of attorney-client privilege and work product protections are often allowed to be appealed even before a case is resolved, the Superior Court noted that McAleer had only raised questions about privilege during oral argument before a trial judge on whether to compel discovery of the billing records.
“Our review of the record reflects that, prior to the trial court’s order compelling [McAleer] to produce the discovery documents in question, [he] did not provide any facts to support his attempt to invoke the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine protections,” the Superior Court said.
The case is In re: the Estate of William K. McAleer, case number 6 WAP 2019, before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.