Representation of Corporation After Filing Bankruptcy
Opinion rules that, after a corporation files a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition and at the request of the bankruptcy trustee, a lawyer who previously represented the corporation may continue to represent the corporation's bankruptcy estate and the bankruptcy trustee in a civil action provided the lawyer understands that the trustee is responsible for making decisions about the representation and the representation is not adverse to a former client of the lawyer.
Attorney A was employed by Corporation B to represent the corporation in a civil suit against Attorney X for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and double damages. Shareholder D is the sole shareholder and president of Corporation B. Attorney A received his directions regarding the representation of Corporation B from Shareholder D.
While the civil suit was pending, Corporation B filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The filing of a bankruptcy petition by Corporation B created a bankruptcy estate to be administered for the benefit of creditors. Under §541 of the United States Bankruptcy Code (11 USC. §541), the bankruptcy estate includes all legal and equitable interests of the debtor in property including the cause of action against Attorney C. Pursuant to §§541 and 704 of the Bankruptcy Code, the trustee is vested with all property of the bankruptcy estate and it is the trustee's duty to collect and reduce the property to money. The trustee has full control over the pending civil action since it is an asset of the estate to be administered.
Initially, Shareholder D advised Attorney A that he wanted the action against Attorney X to be pursued by the trustee in bankruptcy (the "Trustee") and that Shareholder D would disclose confidential information about the civil suit to the Trustee. Subsequently, Shareholder D informed Attorney A that he wanted the Trustee to dismiss the civil action.
The Trustee has asked Attorney A to pursue the civil action against Attorney X as an asset of Corporation B's bankruptcy estate. The Trustee must obtain an order from the bankruptcy court allowing Attorney A to proceed with the representation and authorizing the payment of Attorney A's legal fees. It will be necessary for Attorney A to explain to the bankruptcy court any possible conflict of interest he may have in representing the bankruptcy estate in the action. The Trustee believes that Attorney A will not have a conflict of interest because the interests of Attorney A's former client, the pre-petition corporation, are not in conflict with the interests of the bankruptcy estate. Moreover, shareholders of a bankrupt corporation have no authority over an asset of the corporation's bankruptcy estate.
Counsel for Attorney X has filed a notice to take the deposition of Shareholder D in the civil action. Attorney A wants to clarify his role in the deposition. Attorney A has been unable to contact Shareholder D to discuss the matter.
Upon the filing of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition and the appointment of a trustee by the bankruptcy court, is the client of Attorney A the pre-petition corporation or the trustee?
Technically, Attorney A has no client until he is appointed by the Bankruptcy Court to represent Corporation B's bankruptcy estate and the Trustee in the civil action against Attorney X. However, the Trustee, as the fiduciary of the assets of the post-petition corporation, has the authority to make decisions about the assets of the bankrupt corporation including the civil action against Attorney X. If Attorney A's representation in the civil action continues, Attorney A's clients will be the bankruptcy estate and the Trustee acting in his official capacity. All decisions about the representation will be made by the Trustee. Compare Rule 1.13(a) ("A lawyer employed or retained by an organization represents the organization acting through its duly authorized constituents.") and RPC 137 ("[i]n accepting employment in regard to a [decedent's] estate, an attorney undertakes to represent the personal representative in his or her official capacity and the estate as an entity").
During the period of time between the appointment of the Trustee and a court order appointing an attorney for the bankruptcy estate and the Trustee in the pending civil action against Attorney X, what information is the Trustee entitled to receive concerning the representation of Corporation B in the civil action?
Trustee is the fiduciary of the assets of the corporation, including its civil claims, and is entitled to receive all information concerning Corporation B's pending civil claim. Attorney A may disclose to the Trustee all confidential information relating to the representation of the corporation in the civil action. See Rule 1.5(d)(1) and (2); compare RPC 195 (holding that in the representation of a decedent's estate and the personal representative, the lawyer owes the duty of confidentiality to the personal representative acting in his official capacity and to the estate itself).
Shareholder D notified Attorney A that he does not want the Trustee to pursue the lawsuit against Attorney X. May Attorney A represent the bankruptcy estate and the Trustee in the civil action if Shareholder D objects to the pursuit of the lawsuit?
The decision to pursue the action against Attorney X is within the discretion of the Trustee in the discharge of his fiduciary duties under the Bankruptcy Code. Shareholder D has no authority over the Trustee. If Attorney A represented only Corporation B and never represented Shareholder D individually, Attorney A does not owe Shareholder D a duty of loyalty. He may, therefore, follow the directions of the Trustee and pursue the claim against Attorney X pursuant to the directions of the Trustee.
If, however, Attorney A represented Shareholder D individually with regard to Shareholder D's interests in the civil action against Attorney X or Attorney A made representations to Shareholder D that led Shareholder D reasonably to assume that Attorney A represented Shareholder D individually in the matter, Attorney A may have a conflict of interest in pursuing the civil action over the objection of Shareholder D. Rule 1.9(a) prohibits a lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter from thereafter representing another person in the same matter if the interests of the new client are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client consents. Although there is nothing in the facts that supports this conclusion, if Shareholder D was himself a client of Attorney A with regard to the action against Attorney X and the pursuit of the lawsuit against Attorney X is now materially adverse to the interests of Shareholder D, Attorney A may not represent the corporation's bankruptcy estate and the Trustee in the civil action unless Shareholder D consents.
If Shareholder D is deposed in the lawsuit, does Attorney A have any obligations to Shareholder D during the deposition?
Attorney A has an obligation to Shareholder D only if Attorney A represented Shareholder D in his individual capacity and his representation of Corporation B's bankruptcy estate will be adverse to Shareholder D's interests. If so, he may not represent the bankruptcy estate and the Trustee in the deposition or the lawsuit unless Shareholder D consents to the representation. See opinion #3 above. If, on the other hand, Attorney A never represented Shareholder D in his individual capacity, there is no conflict and Attorney A may appear on behalf of the bankruptcy estate and the Trustee at the deposition.
What obligation does Attorney A have to report his knowledge of misconduct by Attorney X which knowledge was gained during discovery in the civil suit?
Rule 8.3(a) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct provides:
[a] lawyer having knowledge that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects shall inform the North Carolina State Bar or the court having jurisdiction over the matter.
Subparagraph (c) of the rule states that the rule does not require disclosure of confidential client information.
If Attorney A has reportable knowledge of lawyer misconduct that is not confidential, or, if the knowledge is confidential, the Trustee does not object to its disclosure to the State Bar or the appropriate court, Attorney A should disclose the information to the appropriate body.