The Barton doctrine derives from the United State Supreme Court’s decision in Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126 (1881). It prohibits suits against “a bankruptcy trustee or other officer appointed by the bankruptcy court for acts done in the officer’s official capacity” without first obtaining leave of the bankruptcy court. In re Crown Vantage, Inc., 421 F.3d 963, 970 (9th Cir. 2005).
Although it originally applied to court-appointed trustees, the Barton doctrine has now been extended to both court-appointed and court-approved officers. In re Kashani, 190 B.R. 875, 883 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 1995) . “[A] party must first obtain leave of the bankruptcy court before it initiates an action in another forum against a bankruptcy trustee or other officer appointed by the bankruptcy court for acts done in the officer’s official capacity.” Crown, supra, 421 F.3d at p. 970. When leave is not obtained, the other forum lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the suit. Id. at p. 971; see also In re Harris (9th Cir. 2009) 590 F.3d 730, 741.)
Importantly, the Barton doctrine specifically applies to the debtor’s court-approved attorney in a Chapter 11 proceeding. In re Sedgwick, 560 B.R. 786, 793-794 (C.D. Cal. 2016) (holding that the Barton doctrine applied to the debtor’s malpractice action against his court-approved bankruptcy counsel).
In Akhlaghpour v. Orantes, 86 Cal.App.5th 232 (2022), for example, the court held that the Barton doctrine applied to claims against the debtor’s attorney approved by the bankruptcy court that arose out of the attorney’s official-capacity acts even after the bankruptcy case had closed. The court explained:
In a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, a debtor in possession generally has all the rights of a trustee. It follows that a court-approved attorney for a debtor in possession is akin to counsel for a trustee, and the Barton doctrine applies. Those obligations to the estate flow from the attorney’s “fiduciary obligations . . . to the debtor in possession and [the attorney’s] responsibilities as an officer of the court.” Thus, counsel for a debtor in possession “has an independent responsibility to determine whether a proposed course of action is likely to benefit the estate,” not just the debtor individually.
Id. at p. 243-244, citations omitted. The court further noted that the court-approved attorney for the debtor-in-possession owes duties not only to the debtor, but also has duties and obligations “as an officer of the court.” The Akhlaghpour court explained that the Barton doctrine applies when the following three conditions are met: “(1) the plaintiff is attempting to initiate an action in another forum; (2) the action is against a bankruptcy trustee or other officer appointed by the bankruptcy court; and (3) the action is for acts done in the officer’s official capacity.” Id. at p. 244. Finally, the court held that, “[t]he Barton doctrine also applies to [counsel’s] pre-petition conduct if that conduct ‘crossed the divide of the Petition Date’ as interconnected actions ‘taken by [counsel] in the bankruptcy case and/or in the course of administering the bankruptcy estate.’” Id. at pp. 245-246.