|Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Weintraub|
|471 U.S. 343 (1985)|
Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question here is whether the trustee of a corporation in bankruptcy has the power to waive the debtor corporation's attorney-client privilege with respect to communications that took place before the filing of the petition in bankruptcy....
[John K. Notz was appointed receiver and later trustee for the bankrupt corporation Chicago Discount Commodity Brokers (CDCB). When the Commodity Futures Trading Commission investigated CDCB for suspected misappropriation of funds and other fraudulent practices, Notz waived CDCB's attorney-client privilege over the objections of Gary Weintraub, CDCB's former attorney.]
It is by now well established, and undisputed by the parties to this case, that the attorney-client privilege attaches to corporations as well as to individuals. Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981). Both for corporations and individuals, the attorney-client privilege serves the function of promoting full and frank communications between attorneys and their clients. It thereby encourages observance of the law and aids in the administration of justice.
The administration of the attorney-client privilege in the case of corporations, however, presents special problems. As an inanimate entity, a corporation must act through agents. A corporation cannot speak directly to its lawyers. Similarly, it cannot directly waive the privilege when disclosure is in its best interest. Each of these actions must necessarily be undertaken by individuals empowered to act on behalf of the corporation. In Upjohn Co., we considered whether the privilege covers only communications between counsel and top management, and decided that, under certain circumstances, communications between counsel and lower-level employees are also covered. Here, we face the related question of which corporate actors are empowered to waive the corporation's privilege.
The parties in this case agree that, for solvent corporations, the power to waive the corporate attorney-client privilege rests with the corporation's management and is normally exercised by its officers and directors. The managers, of course, must exercise the privilege in a manner consistent with their fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the corporation and not of themselves as individuals.
The parties also agree that when control of a corporation passes to new management, the authority to assert and waive the corporation's attorney-client privilege passes as well. New managers installed as a result of a takeover, merger, loss of confidence by shareholders, or simply normal succession, may waive the attorney-client privilege with respect to communications made by former officers and directors. Displaced managers may not assert the privilege over the wishes of current managers, even as to statements that the former might have made to counsel concerning matters within the scope of their corporate duties.
The dispute in this case centers on the control of the attorney-client privilege of a corporation in bankruptcy. The Government maintains that the power to exercise that privilege with respect to prebankruptcy communications passes to the bankruptcy trustee. In contrast, respondents maintain that this power remains with the debtor's directors.
As might be expected given the conflict among the courts of appeals, the Bankruptcy Code does not explicitly address the question before us....
In light of the lack of direct guidance from the Code, we turn to consider the roles played by the various actors of a corporation in bankruptcy to determine which is most analogous to the role played by the management of a solvent corporation. Because the attorney-client privilege is controlled, outside of bankruptcy, by a corporation's management, the actor whose duties most closely resemble those of management should control the privilege in bankruptcy, unless such a result interferes with policies underlying the bankruptcy laws.
The powers and duties of a bankruptcy trustee are extensive. Upon the commencement of a case in bankruptcy, all corporate property passes to an estate represented by the trustee. The trustee is "accountable for all property received," and has the duty to maximize the value of the estate. He is directed to investigate the debtor's financial affairs, and is empowered to sue officers, directors, and other insiders to recover, on behalf of the estate, fraudulent or preferential transfers of the debtor's property. Subject to court approval, he may use, sell, or lease property of the estate.
Moreover, in reorganization, the trustee has the power to "operate the debtor's business" unless the court orders otherwise. Even in liquidation, the court "may authorize the trustee to operate the business" for a limited period of time. In the course of operating the debtor's business, the trustee "may enter into transactions, including the sale or lease of property of the estate" without court approval.
As even this brief and incomplete list should indicate, the Bankruptcy Code gives the trustee wide-ranging management authority over the debtor. In contrast, the powers of the debtor's directors are severely limited. Their role is to turn over the corporation's property to the trustee and to provide certain information to the trustee and to the creditors. Congress contemplated that when a trustee is appointed, he assumes control of the business, and the debtor's directors are "completely ousted."
In light of the Code's allocation of responsibilities, it is clear that the trustee plays the role most closely analogous to that of a solvent corporation's management. Given that the debtor's directors retain virtually no management powers, they should not exercise the traditional management function of controlling the corporation's attorney-client privilege, unless a contrary arrangement would be inconsistent with policies of the bankruptcy laws.
We find no federal interest that would be impaired by the trustee's control of the corporation's attorney-client privilege with respect to prebankruptcy communications. On the other hand, the rule suggested by respondents--that the debtor's directors have this power--would frustrate an important goal of the bankruptcy laws. In seeking to maximize the value of the estate, the trustee must investigate the conduct of prior management to uncover and assert causes of action against the debtor's officers and directors. It would often be extremely difficult to conduct this inquiry if the former management were allowed to control the corporation's attorney-client privilege and therefore to control access to the corporation's legal files. To the extent that management had wrongfully diverted or appropriated corporate assets, it could use the privilege as a shield against the trustee's efforts to identify those assets. The Code's goal of uncovering insider fraud would be substantially defeated if the debtor's directors were to retain the one management power that might effectively thwart an investigation into their own conduct.
Respondents contend that the trustee can adequately investigate fraud without controlling the corporation's attorney-client privilege. They point out that the privilege does not shield the disclosure of communications relating to the planning or commission of ongoing fraud, crimes, and ordinary torts. The problem, however, is making the threshold showing of fraud necessary to defeat the privilege. Without control over the privilege, the trustee might not be able to discover hidden assets or looting schemes, and therefore might not be able to make the necessary showing.
In summary, we conclude that vesting in the trustee control of the corporation's attorney-client privilege most closely comports with the allocation of the waiver power to management outside of bankruptcy without in any way obstructing the careful design of the Bankruptcy Code.
Respondents do not seriously contest that the bankruptcy trustee exercises functions analogous to those exercised by management outside of bankruptcy, whereas the debtor's directors exercise virtually no management functions at all. Neither do respondents seriously dispute that vesting control over the attorney-client privilege in the trustee will facilitate the recovery of misappropriated corporate assets.
Respondents argue, however, that the trustee should not obtain control over the privilege because, unlike the management of a solvent corporation, the trustee's primary loyalty goes not to shareholders but to creditors, who elect him and who often will be the only beneficiaries of his efforts. Thus, they contend, as a practical matter bankruptcy trustees represent only the creditors.
We are unpersuaded by this argument. First, the fiduciary duty of the trustee runs to shareholders as well as to creditors. Second, respondents do not explain why, out of all management powers, control over the attorney-client privilege should remain with those elected by the corporation's shareholders. Perhaps most importantly, respondents' position ignores the fact that bankruptcy causes fundamental changes in the nature of corporate relationships. One of the painful facts of bankruptcy is that the interests of shareholders become subordinated to the interests of creditors. In cases in which it is clear that the estate is not large enough to cover any shareholder claims, the trustee's exercise of the corporation's attorney-client privilege will benefit only creditors, but there is nothing anomalous in this result; rather, it is in keeping with the hierarchy of interests created by the bankruptcy laws.
Respondents also ignore that if a debtor remains in possession--that is, if a trustee is not appointed--the debtor's directors bear essentially the same fiduciary obligation to creditors and shareholders as would the trustee for a debtor out of possession. Indeed, the willingness of courts to leave debtors in possession "is premised upon an assurance that the officers and managing employees can be depended upon to carry out the fiduciary responsibilities of a trustee." Surely, then, the management of a debtor-in-possession would have to exercise control of the corporation's attorney-client privilege consistently with this obligation to treat all parties, not merely the shareholders, fairly. By the same token, when a trustee is appointed, the privilege must be exercised in accordance with the trustee's fiduciary duty to all interested parties.
To accept respondents' position would lead to one of two outcomes: (1) a rule under which the management of a debtor-in-possession exercises control of the attorney-client privilege for the benefit only of shareholders but exercises all of its other functions for the benefit of both shareholders and creditors, or (2) a rule under which the attorney-client privilege is exercised for the benefit of both creditors and shareholders when the debtor remains in possession, but is exercised for the benefit only of shareholders when a trustee is appointed. We find nothing in the bankruptcy laws that would suggest, much less compel, either of these implausible results....
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the trustee of a corporation in bankruptcy has the power to waive the corporation's attorney-client privilege with respect to prebankruptcy communications. We therefore conclude that Notz, in his capacity as trustee, properly waived CDCB's privilege in this case. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is accordingly reversed.
It is so ordered.
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