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By Nyttend (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe federal Bankruptcy Code gives wide discretion to individual bankruptcy judges to issue orders, including the authority to impose sanctions on a debtor or other party for acts that it finds to be unlawful or otherwise counter to the purpose of a bankruptcy case. A “sanction” is a punishment for conduct that takes place during the litigation process. A federal district court recently affirmed a bankruptcy court’s sanctions order in a Chapter 7 case, which found bad faith on the part of the debtors and assessed monetary damages. In re Kellogg-Taxe (“K-T I”), No. 2:15-cv-00084, order (C.D. Cal., Dec. 7, 2015).

Multiple federal statutes and rules permit courts to impose sanctions. The Bankruptcy Code gives courts broad power to “issue any order, process, or judgment that is necessary or appropriate to carry out the provisions of this title.” 11 U.S.C. § 105(a). See also, e.g. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11; Fed. R. Bankr. P. 9011; Chambers v. Nasco, Inc., 501 U.S. 32 (1991). In the order under appeal in the Kellogg-Taxe case, the bankruptcy court reviewed the caselaw interpreting § 105(a), which recognized “the inherent power to sanction vexatious conduct presented before the court.” In re Kellogg-Taxe (“K-T II”), No. 2:13-ap-01781, mem. of dec. at 13 (Bankr. C.D. Cal., Dec. 16, 2014), quoting In re Rainbow Magazine, Inc., 77 F.3d 278, 284 (9th Cir. 1996).

To sanction a party or its counsel, a court must find that the conduct in question “constituted or was tantamount to bad faith.” K-T II at 13, quoting Leon v. IDX Sys. Corp., 464 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2006). A bankruptcy court’s “inherent sanction authority,” however, differs from federal district courts’ “civil contempt power.” K-T I at 6, citing In re Dyer, 322 F.3d 1178, 1196 (9th Cir. 2003). While civil contempt authority allows a court to impose sanctions for violations of specific orders, inherent sanction authority goes further, “allow[ing] a bankruptcy court to deter and provide compensation for a broad range of improper litigation tactics.” Dyer, 322 F.3d at 1196.

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kropekk_pl [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayA Texas bankruptcy case, in which the former owner of a debtor business spent about seven weeks in jail for refusing to turn over passwords to several social media accounts, may have a substantial impact on the legal status of social media accounts as assets of a bankruptcy estate. The court ruled that several social media accounts belonged to the business, not the individual, and were therefore the property of the bankruptcy estate. In re CTLI, LLC, No. 14-33564, mem. opinion (Bankr. S.D. Tex., Apr. 3, 2015). The ruling could affect individual and family bankruptcies around the country, including in California, in which individuals use social media for any sort of business purpose. This seems especially true when one considers that social media is a very new phenomenon, and the law is always slow to catch up to new technologies.

The business owner (the “Owner”) operated a gun store and shooting range in the Houston, Texas area. He and his wife initially owned the entire business. He recruited an investor (the “Investor”) in 2011 to help purchase a larger facility in exchange for a 30 percent ownership stake. Problems developed among the three owners, according to the bankruptcy court. The Owner and his wife began proceedings for divorce in late 2012, and the Investor filed a state court action in November 2013 requesting a receivership.

The Owner filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition for the business in June 2014, one day after a state judge ordered a receivership. The bankruptcy court allowed the Investor to propose a plan, and it approved his proposed plan in December 2014. The plan made the Investor the sole owner of the reorganized business and required the Owner to turn over passwords to accounts used for the business on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

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401(K) 2012 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)], via FlickrA California bankruptcy court ruled that a debtor couple’s federal tax liabilities were subject to discharge under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. In re Martin, 508 B.R. 717 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. 2014) (PDF file). The debtors did not file Form 1040 tax returns for those tax years before the IRS assessed the amount of tax liability and began efforts to collect the debt. The court had to determine when tax liability becomes a “debt” for purposes of bankruptcy law:  when the IRS assessed the debt or when the debtors filed their returns. It ruled that the filing of the returns was the critical factor, and therefore it ruled for the debtors.

According to the court’s ruling, the debtors, a married couple, did not file federal income tax returns for the tax years 2004, 2005, and 2006. The IRS conducted an audit of the debtors in June 2008. The following August, it sent them a “notice of deficiency” for each of the three years. An accountant completed the three tax returns for the debtors in December 2008, but the debtors did not sign the returns or send them to the IRS until June 2009.

Meanwhile, in March 2009, the IRS assessed the debtors’ total tax liability and sent them several notices and demands for payment. It issued a due process notice, which initiated the collection process, in late May 2009. The debtors signed the returns and mailed them to the IRS about a week later.

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By Kurtis Garbutt (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kjgarbutt/15420116119) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsStudent loan debt is among the largest financial burdens Americans face, with many estimates placing the total amount of debt at more than $1 trillion. Bankruptcy law, unfortunately, only offers limited relief. Since 2005, nearly all student loans are excepted from discharge in bankruptcy cases, except in very limited circumstances. Many debtors must consider other options in addition to bankruptcy if their student debt becomes overwhelming. A series of debt relief measures recently announced by the federal Department of Education (DOE) may offer relief to some debtors. One can hope that the DOE’s actions also offer hope for additional reforms in the future.

The Bankruptcy Code identifies certain debts that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. 11 U.S.C. § 523. These exceptions could be broadly categorized as (1) debts owed to the government or subject to a court order, such as certain tax debts or child support obligations; and (2) debts incurred through some fault of the debtor, such as those arising from civil judgments for fraud or other injury.

Student loans do not quite fit into either category. Prior to 2005, the only student loans excepted from discharge were those “made, insured or guaranteed by a governmental unit,” or made by an organization that receives government funding. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8) (2004). The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Pub. L. 109-8, amended that section to include private student loans as well.

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Nicholas Eckhart [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via FlickrChapter 7 bankruptcy enables qualifying debtors to pay down their debts by liquidating their non-exempt assets, followed by a discharge of many remaining debts. In order to qualify for a Chapter 7 discharge, debtors must demonstrate that they meet the criteria set out in the “means test,” 11 U.S.C. § 707(b). A trustee or creditor may ask the court to convert a Chapter 7 “liquidation” case to a Chapter 11 “reorganization” case for good cause, such as if they believe that the debtor does not qualify under the means test. Individual debtors rarely use Chapter 11, but a court cannot convert a Chapter 7 case to Chapter 13 without the debtor’s agreement. 11 U.S.C. § 706(c). A bankruptcy court recently ruled that a married couple could not file under Chapter 7 and essentially encouraged them to use Chapter 13 instead. In re Decker, No. A14-00065, memorandum (D. Alaska, Mar. 31, 2015).

The debtors in Decker have a complicated history of financial problems, as described by the bankruptcy court. Their adult daughter has required their ongoing support for medical problems and addiction recovery since 2009. The debtors began having serious issues with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2007, when it assessed deficiencies for the previous two tax years. Those debts have reportedly continued to accrue.

When the debtors filed their Chapter 7 petition in March 2014, they identified almost $426,000 in debts. Debts owed to the IRS included over $102,000 in priority debt and $81,000 in non-priority debt. The IRS filed a proof of claim for more than $204,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties. They also identified tax debts owed to the states of California and Alaska. The $35,000 in personal property identified in their schedules is all exempt or subject to liens.

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By BenFrantzDale (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA bankruptcy court recently ruled on a seeming conflict between two sections of the Bankruptcy Code dealing with proofs of claim (POCs) for tax debts. In re DeVries, No. 13-bk-41591, mem. dec. (Bankr. D. Id., Apr. 28, 2015). The Chapter 13 trustee objected to a POC filed by the debtors on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for their 2013 federal income tax. The court ruled that only a creditor may file a POC for tax debts incurred after the date the debtors file their petition, drawing on multiple precedent cases to determine precisely when tax debt is “incurred.”

The debtors filed a Chapter 13 petition in December 2013, and the court set a deadline in June 2014 for creditors, including the IRS, to file POCs. The IRS timely filed POCs for tax debts from 2011 and 2012. The debtors filed their 2013 federal income tax return in April 2014, which showed that they owed $1,021 to the IRS. The bankruptcy court confirmed the debtors’ Chapter 13 plan that May. The plan included full payment of all allowed tax claims.

The IRS did not file a POC for the 2013 tax debt by the June 2014 deadline. The debtors therefore filed a POC on behalf of the IRS the following month. The Bankruptcy Code generally allows a debtor to file a POC for a creditor if the creditor misses the filing deadline. 11 U.S.C. § 501(c), Fed. R. Bankr. P. 3004. The trustee objected to the debtors’ POC, however, arguing that only creditors may file “for taxes that become payable to a governmental unit while the case is pending.” 11 U.S.C. § 1305(a)(1).

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PublicDomainPictures [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayThe loss of a job is one of the biggest factors that lead people to file for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. State and federal programs exist to assist people who have lost their job and are looking for a new one. When losing a job puts a person in such financial distress that they must consider bankruptcy, the question emerges as to whether or not unemployment benefits constitute “income” for the purposes of a bankruptcy case. The short answer to that question is yes, it is considered income. The answer can be more complicated, however, when applied to specific parts of the bankruptcy process, like the Chapter 7 means test.

California, like most states and the federal government, maintains a system of unemployment insurance (UI). Employers pay into the insurance fund, which is available to pay temporary benefits to qualifying former employees. In order to qualify for benefits, individuals must have lost their job through no fault of their own, such as through a layoff; must have received a minimum amount of wages during an earlier 12-month period; and must be physically capable of working, willing to work, and actively seeking work. The amount provided through these programs is usually not much, but it at least keeps people from losing any and all income.

The general rule in bankruptcy is that unemployment compensation received through state or federal UI programs is included in a debtor’s income calculations. Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases rely on a “means test” based on a debtor’s “current monthly income.” A debtor whose “current monthly income” is greater than a certain amount, determined by a rather complicated formula, is not eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. 11 U.S.C. § 707(b)(2). Some courts disagree on whether this income calculation includes unemployment compensation.

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American Advisors Group [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)], via FlickrBusiness owners, entrepreneurs, and investors often create business entities as a means of protecting themselves from liability, as well as protecting their business or investment from their own liability. If an individual debtor has some form of individual liability for unlawful business activity, however, those activities may be considered a factor in the bankruptcy proceeding. This was the case in a claim brought by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) against a business owner accused of withholding employee retirement contributions in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.

The debtor was the sole member and manager of a limited liability company (LLC) organized in Massachusetts. The LLC operated a weight loss business through a Jenny Craig franchise at eight locations around New York state. It established a retirement plan and trust for its employees in 2012, with the debtor named as the plan’s fiduciary and trustee. Employees funded the plan through contributions withheld from their paychecks. The debtor was responsible for transferring the withheld amounts to the employees’ retirement plan accounts.

The DOL claimed that the debtor failed to transfer a total of $8,646.00 to the plan during pay periods in 2012 and 2013. Under ERISA, funds withheld from an employee’s paycheck for the purpose of contributing to a retirement plan automatically become an asset of that plan, and the plan’s trustee has a fiduciary duty to remit those funds to the plan promptly. The debtor, according to the DOL, violated ERISA by failing to transfer those funds to the retirement plan. Continue reading

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See page for author [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia CommonsA drafting error in a security instrument rendered the security interest invalid, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In re Duckworth, Nos. 14-1561, 14-1650, slip op. (7th Cir., Nov. 21, 2014). Specifically, the date of the security instrument did not match the date of the promissory note. The bank argued, in part, that it should be allowed to reform the security agreement using parol evidence, which is evidence of the parties’ intent that is not found in the language of the document itself. The court held that the bank could not correct the error in this manner. The ruling ought to be good news for debtors, since it places the burden firmly on banks and other lenders to draft loan documents correctly and removes nearly all room for error on their part.

The debtor borrowed $1.1 million from the bank on December 15, 2008. On that date, he signed a promissory note for that amount and delivered it to the bank. Two days earlier, he had signed a security instrument that granted the bank a security interest in most of the debtor’s personal property, which included crops and farm equipment. The security instrument stated that it was securing a note “in the principal amount of $_______ dated December 13, 2008.” Duckworth, slip op. at 3 [emphasis in original].

Two years later, the debtor filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The trustee’s position was that the bank’s claimed security interest was defective and therefore voidable under 11 U.S.C. § 544(a)(1). The bank filed two adversary complaints seeking to correct the drafting error and preserve its security interests. One proceeding claimed a security interest in the debtor’s crops, and the other in his farm equipment. The bankruptcy court ruled for the bank in both proceedings, holding that the mistaken date did not invalidate the security instrument. Different district judges heard the trustee’s appeals of the two rulings, and both affirmed the bankruptcy court. Continue reading

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By Chuck Kennedy [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsCongress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” in 2010, but some of its more controversial provisions did not take full effect until last year. The requirement that individuals and families either have qualifying health insurance coverage or pay a penalty, formally known as the “Individual Shared Responsibility Payment” (ISRP), became effective on January 1, 2014. The penalty does not become fully effective, however, until 2016. This provision has proven controversial for a variety of reasons. Our goal here is not to delve into the politics, but rather to explore what is required of people who are in serious financial distress. Federal regulations allow multiple exemptions from the insurance requirement and the ISRP, including a hardship that prevents a person from obtaining qualifying insurance. The government has interpreted this to include filing for bankruptcy in the previous six months.

The ACA made a number of changes to the U.S. health care system. The most significant changes affect the health insurance business, which along with Medicare and Medicaid provides most of the financing of health care in this country. People without insurance coverage or access to government assistance often find themselves unable to afford medical care, and medical bills are often a factor in bankruptcy cases. Whether the ACA addresses this issue adequately or appropriately has been a subject of much contention, but it seems clear at this point that it has made a difference for many people.

The “individual mandate,” which requires people to obtain health insurance or pay the ISRP, has been one of the most controversial features of the ACA. The idea behind the individual mandate is that everyone who can afford health insurance should buy a minimal amount of coverage to ensure that enough money is available in the system to cover everyone’s health care costs. If healthy people waited until they were sick or injured to pay for insurance, the theory goes, costs would go up for everyone. This has reportedly happened in states that required insurers to cover pre-existing conditions but did not require people to have insurance.
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