June 3, 2014
The United States filed a motion for a protective order in the Fairholme Funds case in the Court of Federal Claims (the Fairholme Takings case). You may not be familiar with protective orders. By way of background, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) states that “The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense . . ..”
The federal government can request a protective order, like any other party. But there may be some unique policies at issue when the federal government makes such a request. For instance, the federal government may assert a variety of privileges to limit discovery. These may include the deliberative process qualified privilege. This privilege is asserted to protect communications about the government’s decisions. Another example would be the qualified government privilege for official information. This privilege would be asserted to maintain the confidentiality of official government records. These are just two examples – there are a whole other range of privileges that the government might assert. A court’s protective order analysis involving the federal government thus might take into account a variety of legitimate objectives that would not apply in a dispute between two private parties.
Here, the United States is seeking to limit discovery requests that “seek documents that relate in their entirety to the future termination of the conservatorships, with no end date” and “documents that relate (in part) to the future profitability of the Enterprises, again with no end date.” (2) The government argues that
Disclosure of these documents is contrary to the strictures of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which bars a court from taking “any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions” of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) as conservator. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f). The declaration of FHFA Director Melvin Watt explains that disclosure would “have extraordinarily deleterious consequences on the Conservator’s conduct of the ongoing and future operations of the conservatorships.” Decisions about when and how to terminate the conservatorships and the future profitability of the Enterprises are at the heart of FHFA’s responsibilities as conservator, and Court-mandated disclosure of information bearing on such matters would jeopardize the stewardship of the Enterprises. (2, footnotes and some citations omitted)
While some of the government’s language in the motion seems hyperbolic, the court should certainly focus on the deliberative process privilege that the government asserts. Defining its scope will have implications far beyond this case, no matter that this case is incredibly important itself.
As to this case itself, it is interesting to see how even procedural disputes in the GSE lawsuits implicate the current operations of the GSEs as well as their post-conservatorship future. There is no question that the plaintiffs are very aware of their effect on the broader debates about the housing finance system as they press their individual claims in court. It is not yet clear to me how much the Court will weigh those considerations in its decision regarding the reach of the deliberative process privilege.| Permalink