BY JUSTIN LEIGHTY
GOSHEN -- If you ever need an attorney, you might want to double-check what happens to your confidential information after your case is closed.
When Jason Oswald went to put trash in the container Saturday behind his business, Constant Spring, he found something he didn't expect -- confidential client files from attorney Joe Lehman's office.
"He had basically filled it up with old law books and manilla folders, and when I began poking through I found these were people's files," Oswald said. "Any kind of thing you go to a lawyer for was in there," he said.
"I pulled a file out, it had Social Security numbers, pictures of these people, court documents, the kind of stuff you probably don't want people to see," Oswald said. "I was dumbfounded."
Lehman had started to move his office from South Main Street to a new location on Clinton Street.
Lehman, when contacted about it Tuesday, sounded surprised anyone had concerns about the files.
"They were the oldest files -- I think they were quite a few years old. I didn't know there was some personal data that was in there," he said before ending the conversation, citing the ongoing move.
However, a Truth staffer found paternity files, divorce files and financial records in the container before it was emptied Tuesday morning -- three days after Oswald first noticed the files.
The incident exposes a potential gap in attorney-client confidentiality protection.
Donald Lundberg, executive secretary for the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, said he couldn't comment about a specific case, but that the state's rule on client confidentiality holds "that any information relating to the representation of a client is confidential and it cannot be revealed by a lawyer without permission."
While there are exceptions to that rule, Lundberg said, "the disposition of client files is not really contemplated as one of the exceptions to the general rule to protect client confidences and there's certainly a reasonable expectation on the part of clients that their files will be handled in a discreet manner once the representation is concluded."
He also said files can have especially important information and should be guarded.
"Certainly there's confidential information and then there's really confidential information, like highly sensitive information. In this day and age, Social Security numbers would be that type of thing -- any number of other things," Lundberg said.
The American Bar Association takes it as a given that when attorneys dispose of old files, they'll use their own shredder or a shredding service.
"In disposing of a file, a lawyer should protect the confidentiality of the contents," according to an ABA advisory to attorneys on disposing of closed files.
Several states have specific ethical rulings over the last several years, according to the ABA, including one that specifically said placing files in the trash doesn't do enough to protect disclosure of confidential information.
The Indiana Bar Association's ethics committee has held confidentiality as extremely important.
"The confidential relationship between attorney and client is fundamental in our common law system. A study of history discloses that this principle was won after a hard-fought struggle by those who cherished justice for all men," the committee ruled as far back as 1963.