Articles Posted in Bankruptcy

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Filing a bankruptcy proof of claim that is obviously time-barred is not a false, deceptive, misleading, unfair, or unconscionable practice under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Midland filed a proof of claim in Johnson’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, asserting a credit-card debt and noting that the last time any charge appeared on Johnson’s account was more than 10 years ago. The Alabama limitations period is six years. The Bankruptcy Court disallowed the claim. Johnson filed suit under the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. 1692. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit. The Bankruptcy Code defines “claim” as a “right to payment,” 11 U.S.C. 101(5)(A); state law usually determines whether a person has such a right. Alabama law provides that a creditor has the right to payment of a debt even after the limitations period has expired. The word “enforceable” does not appear in the Code’s definition. The law treats unenforceability of a claim due to the expiration of the limitations period as an affirmative defense. There is nothing misleading or deceptive in filing a proof of claim that follows the Code’s similar system. Concerns that a consumer might unwittingly repay a time-barred debt have diminished force in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, where: the consumer initiates the proceeding; a knowledgeable trustee is available; procedural rules guide evaluation of claims; and the claims resolution process is “less unnerving” than facing a collection lawsuit. View "Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Jevic filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after its purchase in a leveraged buyout. Former Jevic drivers were awarded a judgment for violations of state and federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Acts, part of which was a priority wage claim under 11 U.S.C. 507(a)(4), entitling them to payment ahead of general unsecured claims. In another suit, a court-authorized committee representing unsecured creditors sued Sun Capital and CIT for fraudulent conveyance in the buyout; the parties negotiated a structured dismissal of Jevic’s bankruptcy, under which the drivers would receive nothing on their WARN claims, but lower-priority general unsecured creditors would be paid. The Bankruptcy Court reasoned that the proposed payouts would occur under a structured dismissal rather than an approved plan, so failure to follow ordinary priority rules did not bar approval. The district court and Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The drivers have standing, having “suffered an injury in fact,” or “likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” A settlement that respects ordinary priorities remains a reasonable possibility and the fraudulent-conveyance claim could have litigation value. Bankruptcy courts may not approve structured dismissals that provide for distributions that do not follow ordinary priority rules without the consent of affected creditors. Section 349(b), which permits a bankruptcy judge, “for cause, [to] orde[r] otherwise,” gives courts flexibility to protect reliance interests, not to make general end-of-case distributions that would be impermissible in a Chapter 11 plan or Chapter 7 liquidation. Here, the priority-violating distribution is attached to a final disposition and does not preserve the debtor as a going concern, nor make the disfavored creditors better off, promote the possibility of a confirmable plan, help to restore the status quo ante, or protect reliance interests. There is no “rare case” exception, permitting courts to disregard priority in structured dismissals for “sufficient reasons.” View "Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp. " on Justia Law

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Parts of the Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act. mirrored Chapters 9 and 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code and enabled Puerto Rico’s public utility corporations to restructure their debt. The First Circuit affirmed an injunction, concluding that the Act is preempted by 11 U.S.C. 903(1). The Supreme Court affirmed, analyzing three federal municipal bankruptcy provisions. The “gateway” provision, section 109(c), requires a Chapter 9 debtor to be an insolvent municipality that is “specifically authorized” by a state “to be a debtor.” The pre-emption provision, 903(1), expressly bars states from enacting municipal bankruptcy laws. The definition of “State,” 101(52), “includes . . . Puerto Rico, except for the purpose of defining who may be a debtor under chapter 9.” The definition excludes Puerto Rico for the single purpose of defining who may be a Chapter 9 debtor, an unmistakable reference to the gateway provision. The definition of “State” does not exclude Puerto Rico from all of Chapter 9’s provisions. Puerto Rico is bound by the pre-emption provision, even though Congress removed its gateway provision authority to authorize its municipalities to seek Chapter 9 relief. An argument that the Recovery Act is not a “State law” that can be pre-empted is based on technical amendments to the terms “creditor” and “debtor” that are too “subtle” to support such a “[f]undamental chang[e] in the scope” of Chapter 9’s pre-emption provision. View "Puerto Rico v. Franklin Cal. Tax-Free Trust" on Justia Law

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Chrysalis incurred a debt of $164,000 to Husky. Ritz, Chrysalis’ director and then-part-owner, drained Chrysalis of assets available to pay the debt by transferring large sums to other entities Ritz controlled. Husky sued Ritz, who then filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Husky filed a complaint in Ritz’ bankruptcy case, asserting “actual fraud” under the Code’s discharge exceptions, 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(2)(A). The district court held that Ritz was personally liable under state law but that the debt was not “obtained by . . . actual fraud” and could be discharged. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The term “actual fraud” encompasses fraudulent conveyance schemes, even when those schemes do not involve a false representation. The term “fraud” has, since the beginnings of bankruptcy practice, been used to describe asset transfers that, like Ritz’ scheme, impair a creditor’s ability to collect a debt. This interpretation is not incompatible with Section 523(a)(2)(A)’s “obtained by” requirement. Even though the transferor of a fraudulent conveyance does not obtain assets or debts through the fraudulent conveyance, the transferee—who, with the requisite intent, also commits fraud—does. Reading the phrase “actual fraud” to restrict, rather than expand, the discharge exception’s reach would untenably require reading the disjunctive “or” in the phrase “false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud” to mean “by.” View "Husky Int’l Electronics, Inc. v. Ritz" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy

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ASARCO hired the law firms to assist it in carrying out its duties as a Chapter 11 debtor in possession, 11 U.S.C. 327(a). When ASARCO emerged from bankruptcy, the law firms filed fee applications requesting fees under section 330(a)(1), which permits bankruptcy courts to “award . . . reasonable compensation for actual, necessary services rendered by” professionals. The Bankruptcy Court rejected ASARCO’s objections and awarded fees for time spent defending the applications. The district court held that the firms could be awarded fees for defending their fee applications. The Fifth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. Section330(a)(1) does not permit bankruptcy courts to award fees to section 327(a) professionals for defending fee applications. The American Rule provides the basic point of reference for attorney’s fees: Each litigant pays his own attorney’s fees, win or lose, unless a statute or contract provides otherwise. Congress did not depart from the American Rule in section 330(a)(1) for fee-defense litigation. The phrase “reasonable compensation for services rendered” necessarily implies “loyal and disinterested service in the interest of” a client, Time spent litigating a fee application against the bankruptcy estate’s administrator cannot be fairly described as “labor performed for”—let alone “disinterested service to”—that administrator. Requiring bankruptcy attorneys to bear the costs of their fee-defense litigation under section 330(a)(1) creates no disincentive to bankruptcy practice. View "Baker Botts L.L.P. v. ASARCO LLC" on Justia Law

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Debtors filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; each owned a house encumbered by a senior mortgage lien and by a junior mortgage lien held by Bank of America. Because the amount owed on each senior mortgage is greater than each house’s current market value, the bank would receive nothing if the properties were sold today. The debtors sought to void their junior mortgage liens under 18 U.S.C. 506, which provides, “To the extent that a lien secures a claim against the debtor that is not an allowed secured claim, such lien is void.” In each case, the Bankruptcy Court granted the motion; the district court and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. A debtor in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy may not void a junior mortgage lien under section 506(d) when the debt owed on a senior mortgage lien exceeds the current value of the collateral if the creditor’s claim is both secured by a lien and allowed under Bankruptcy Code section 502. The bank’s claims are “allowed” under the Code. Acknowledging the statutory reference to “an unsecured claim to the extent that the value of such creditor’s interest . . . is less than the amount of such allowed claim,” the Court stated that a “secured claim” is supported by a security interest in property, regardless of whether the value of that property would be sufficient to cover the claim. The Court declined to distinguish between debts that are partially and those that are entirely “underwater.” View "Bank of America, N. A. v. Caulkett" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy

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Sharif tried to discharge a debt to Wellness in his Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Wellness argued that a trust Sharif claimed to administer was actually Sharif’s alter ego, and that its assets were part of his bankruptcy estate. The Bankruptcy Court entered default judgment against Sharif. While appeal was pending, but before briefing concluded, the Supreme Court held (Stern v. Marshall) that Article III forbids bankruptcy courts to enter final judgment on claims that seek only to “augment” the bankruptcy estate and would otherwise “exis[t] without regard to any bankruptcy proceeding.” The district court denied Sharif permission to file a supplemental brief and affirmed. The Seventh Circuit determined that Sharif’s “Stern” objection could not be waived and reversed, holding that the Bankruptcy Court lacked constitutional authority to enter judgment on the alter ego claim. The Supreme Court reversed. Article III permits bankruptcy judges to adjudicate Stern claims with the parties’ knowing and voluntary consent. The right to adjudication before an Article III court is “personal” and “subject to waiver,” unless Article III’s structural interests as “an inseparable element of the constitutional system of checks and balances” are implicated; parties “cannot by consent cure the constitutional difficulty.” Allowing bankruptcy courts to decide Stern claims by consent does not usurp the constitutional prerogatives of Article III courts. Bankruptcy judges are appointed and may be removed by Article III judges, hear matters solely on a district court’s reference, and possess no free-floating authority to decide claims traditionally heard by Article III courts. Consent to adjudication by a bankruptcy court need not be express, but must be knowing and voluntary. The Seventh Circuit should decide on remand whether Sharif’s actions evinced the requisite knowing and voluntary consent and whether Sharif forfeited his Stern argument. View "Wellness Int’l Network, Ltd. v. Sharif" on Justia Law

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Harris filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. His court-confirmed plan provided that he would make monthly mortgage payments to Chase, and that $530 per month would be withheld from his post-petition wages and remitted to the Chapter 13 trustee, Viegelah, to pay down the mortgage arrearage, with remaining funds to other creditors. Harris again fell behind on his mortgage payments. Chase foreclosed on his home. Viegelahn continued to receive $530 per month from Harris’ wages, but stopped making the Chase payments. A year after the foreclosure, Harris converted his case to Chapter 7. Viegelahn distributed $5,519.22 in accumulated withheld wages mainly to creditors. Harris obtained an order directing refund. The Fifth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed: A debtor who converts to Chapter 7 is entitled to return of post-petition wages not distributed by the Chapter 13 trustee. Absent a bad-faith conversion, 11 U.S.C. 348(f) limits a converted Chapter 7 estate to property belonging to the debtor “as of the date” of the original Chapter 13 filing. By excluding post-petition wages from the converted Chapter 7 estate, the statute removes those earnings from the pool of assets to be liquidated and distributed to creditors. Allowing a terminated Chapter 13 trustee to disburse those earnings to the same creditors would be incompatible with that statutory design. When a case is converted, the Chapter 13 trustee is stripped of authority to distribute “payment[s] in accordance with the plan.” Because Chapter 13 is a voluntary alternative to Chapter 7, a debtor’s post-conversion receipt of some wages he earned and would have kept, had he initially filed under Chapter 7, does not provide a “windfall.” Creditors may protect against excess accumulations in the hands of trustees by seeking to have a Chapter 13 plan include regular disbursement of collected funds. View "Harris v. Viegelahn" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy

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After filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, Bullard submitted a proposed repayment plan. Bullard’s mortgage lender objected to the plan’s treatment of its claim. The Bankruptcy Court sustained the Bank’s objection and declined to confirm the plan. Bullard appealed to the First Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which concluded that denial of confirmation was not a final, appealable order, 28 U.S.C.158(a)(1), but heard the appeal under a provision permitting interlocutory appeals “with leave of the court,” and agreed that Bullard’s proposed plan was not allowed. The First Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, finding that the order denying confirmation was not final so long as Bullard remained free to propose another plan. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The relevant proceeding is the entire process of attempting to arrive at an approved plan that would allow the bankruptcy case to move forward. Only plan confirmation, or case dismissal, alters the status quo and fixes the parties’ rights and obligations; denial of confirmation with leave to amend changes little. Additional considerations—that the statute defining core bankruptcy proceedings lists “confirmations of plans,” but omits any reference to denials; that immediate appeals from denials would result in delays and inefficiencies; and that inability to immediately appeal a denial encourages the debtor to work with creditors and the trustee to develop a confirmable plan—bolster this conclusion. View "Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank" on Justia Law

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When petitioners filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they sought to exclude $300,000 in an inherited individual retirement account (IRA) from the bankruptcy estate using the “retirement funds” exemption, 11 U.S.C. 522(b)(3)(C). The Bankruptcy Court concluded that an inherited IRA does not share the same characteristics as a traditional IRA and disallowed the exemption. The district court reversed. The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that funds in inherited IRAs are not “retirement funds” within the meaning of the code, based on three characteristics. The holder of an inherited IRA may never invest additional money in the account; is required to withdraw money from the account, no matter how far the holder is from retirement; and may withdraw the entire account at any time and use it for any purpose without penalty. Allowing debtors to protect funds in traditional and Roth IRAs ensures that debtors will be able to meet their basic needs during their retirement, but nothing about an inherited IRA’s legal characteristics prevent or discourage an individual from using the entire balance immediately after bankruptcy for purposes of current consumption. The “retirement funds” exemption should not be read to create a “free pass,” The possibility that an account holder can leave an inherited IRA intact until retirement and take only the required minimum distributions does not mean that an inherited IRA bears the legal characteristics of retirement funds. View "Clark v. Rameker" on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy