In a personal bankruptcy case filed under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the federal Bankruptcy Code, all of a debtor’s non-exempt property becomes the property of a new entity known as the bankruptcy estate. The court will appoint a person to serve as the trustee of the bankruptcy estate. The trustee’s duties depend on the type of case the debtor selects. In some situations, a trustee may find it necessary to keep a debtor “out of the loop” regarding all or part of a bankruptcy proceeding. This occurred in a Chapter 7 case that recently went before a California federal judge, In re Zinnel, No. 2:12-cv-00249, mem. order (E.D. Cal., Nov. 17, 2015). The court found that the trustee was entitled to a “protective order” preventing the debtor from formally requesting information about estate activities. However, this does not occur often. In most cases, the fact that a Debtor’s property is considered ‘property of the estate’, is actually a good thing since this fact will also allow the debtor to enjoy certain benefits and protection from creditors while the bankruptcy case is pending.
Protective orders—which protect information in the context of a bankruptcy case—are available in a variety of situations. The Bankruptcy Code authorizes courts to issue orders sealing case materials, which would ordinarily be public record, if they involve trade secrets, “scandalous or defamatory” information, or information that could be used in identity theft. 11 U.S.C. § 107. Procedural rules allow protective orders for information that might not become part of the public court file, if a court finds that the request for information will cause “annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.” Fed. R. Bankr. P. 7026, Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c). This type of order states that a party is not obligated to respond to discovery requests, or is only obligated to respond to a limited extent.
The debtor in Zinnel originally filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in July 2005. The case was closed at some point prior to June 2011, which was when the Office of the U.S. Trustee applied to the court to reopen the case on the grounds that the debtor might not have included certain assets in his schedules. Prosecutors had recently indicted the debtor for several bankruptcy-related offenses.