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4th Circuit orders magistrate, not feds, to review materials seized from law firm

A federal appeals court ordered the review materials seized from a law firm in June to be reassigned from prosecutors to a magistrate judge Thursday.

Attorneys appeared before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday to argue the appropriateness of a “filter team” for the U.S. Attorney’s Office combing through files and emails seized before giving them to those investigating two Baltimore criminal defense lawyers.

The seizure occurred June 18 and though filings with the appellate panel redact or otherwise shield the firm and attorneys in question, Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP previously confirmed a warrant was served there in June. Prosecutors are investigating Brown, Goldstein & Levy partner Joshua Treem, according to media reports, and his client, Baltimore attorney Ken Ravenell.

But the breadth of the search, which included all of Treem’s emails and electronic files, raised concerns that the confidentiality of his other clients would be compromised by federal prosecutors looking through them despite the filter team established to review them for attorney-client privilege.

Attorneys for Treem argued in their brief to the 4th Circuit that a filter team of prosecutors set up to review materials was “fishing in an ocean of unrelated client confidences” and that a magistrate judge and a special master should conduct the review.

James P. Ulwick, of Kramon & Graham P.A., who represents Brown, Goldstein & Levy, argued Tuesday that the raid was an “adversary review of privileged material” that “goes against attorney-client privilege.”

The three-judge appellate panel issued an order Thursday assigning the “duties and functions previously assigned to the Filter Team” to a magistrate judge. An opinion in the case will be issued at a later date, according to the order.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday, “We will certainly abide by the court’s decision.”

Friday, Ulwick praised the court’s speed in ruling on the law firm’s request.

“The Law Firm filed this motion to protect the privileges and confidences of its clients,” Ulwick said in an emailed statement. “We are pleased that the Court agreed with us that the U.S. Attorney’s proposed method of review of those documents was wrong and needed to be stopped.”

Ulwick added that the firm will work with the court for a speedy return of its documents.

The magistrate judge is instructed by the 4th Circuit to review the seized materials and identify those electronic files not related to Ravenell and evaluate the remaining materials for attorney-client privilege. The government was enjoined from continuing its review on July 17 when it appealed the trial court’s decision in the prosecutors’ favor.

Judges Roger L. Gregory, Robert B. King and Allison J. Rushing issued the order.

The case is U.S. v. Under Seal, 19-1730.

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