Most bankruptcy clients are aware of the attorney-client privilege, an evidentiary rule that protects confidential communications between an attorney and client. It encourages candid communication between clients and attorneys without fear that the discussion will be used against the client. This privilege belongs to the client and the client determines when to waive it. The privilege exists generally in every legal forum in the United States, however its application can vary.
In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, a trustee is appointed to administer the case and liquidate the debtor’s nonexempt assets. In performing these duties it may become important for the trustee to have certain information and the trustee may seek to have the debtor’s attorney disclose information obtained during a confidential attorney client discussion.
To compel the disclosure of this information, the trustee may invoke section 542(e) of the Bankruptcy Code which states that “[s]ubject to any applicable privilege, after notice and a hearing, the court may order an attorney, accountant, or other person that holds recorded information. . . relating to the debtor’s property or financial affairs, to turn over or disclose such recorded information to the trustee.” In opposing this disclosure, the debtor may assert the attorney-client privilege and argue that the trustee does not have the power to waive this privilege.
Bankruptcy Courts have taken three different approaches to resolving the issue of whether the trustee can waive the attorney-client privilege: (1) the trustee can waive attorney-client privilege; (2) the attorney-client privilege is absolute and cannot be waived by the trustee; and (3) whether the trustee is entitled to waive the attorney-client privilege depends upon the circumstances in the case. Bankruptcy courts using this last test generally balance the benefit to the bankruptcy estate against the potential harm to the debtor. See In re Courtney, 372 B.R. 519 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 2007).
The bottom line is “let the client beware!” Discussions with your bankruptcy attorney, personal injury attorney, or other attorney may be subject to disclosure during your bankruptcy case. While most financial records would not be subject to the attorney-client privilege, the discussion of these records with your client may be privileged. Be warned that protecting this privileged communication may be at the discretion of the bankruptcy court.
The bankruptcy laws are constantly changing. Make sure that your fresh start is not a false start and hire an experienced and knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney who can protect your rights.