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Fotocitizen [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a series of rulings addressing the rights of Chapter 7 debtors to the funds in their bank accounts. In re Mwangi (“Mwangi I”), 764 F.3d 1168 (9th Cir. 2014); In re Mwangi (“Mwangi II”), No. 14-15265, slip op. (9th Cir., Oct. 21, 2014). The debtors, a married couple, claimed exemptions on several bank accounts and sought sanctions against the bank when it refused to lift an administrative freeze. The appellate court held that the accounts remained part of the bankruptcy estate until the deadline for creditors to object to the debtors’ claimed exemptions had passed, and then the accounts re-vested in the debtors. Since the alleged automatic stay violation occurred before re-vesting, the court held that the debtors lacked standing. Only the trustee has standing to bring claims to protect assets in the bankruptcy estate.

The debtors filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2009. They held four accounts at Wells Fargo Bank at the time with a total balance of about $17,000, which they did not claim as exempt in their original Schedule C. Wells Fargo runs an automated computer program that compares the names of new Chapter 7 cases to those of account holders. It put an administrative freeze on all four accounts shortly after the debtors filed their petition and notified them by mail. It also notified the trustee, who instructed it to hold the funds until further instructions, or until 31 days after the creditors’ meeting.

About a week after the filing date, the debtors filed an amended Schedule C that claimed exemptions in 75 percent of the value of the four accounts, citing a state law that exempts that amount of disposable earnings. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 21.090(1)(g). They asked Wells Fargo to lift the freeze on the accounts, which it refused to do without the trustee’s agreement. Continue reading

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By Palagret [1] (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in a bankruptcy case that almost literally involves international intrigue. The bankruptcy court ordered the debtor’s wife to turn over a substantial amount of assets, based on the Chapter 7 trustee’s adversary proceeding alleging fraudulent transfers of bankruptcy estate property. This led to a criminal indictment and an attempt to extradite the wife from France, where she had allegedly fled with her husband. The district court dismissed the wife’s appeal of the bankruptcy court’s order under the “fugitive disentitlement doctrine.” The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings on the first appeal. Mastro v. Rigby, No. 13-35209, slip op. (9th Cir., Aug. 22, 2014).

The Chapter 7 trustee brought an adversary proceeding against the debtor’s wife, alleging that she had transferred assets of the bankruptcy estate with the intent to defraud creditors. 11 U.S.C. §§ 544, 548. The bankruptcy court conducted a trial and found that the debtor and his wife had fraudulently shielded assets with “an increasingly elaborate series of transactions.” Mastro, slip op. at 4; In re Mastro, 465 B.R. 576 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. 2011). It ordered the wife to turn over specific pieces of personal property, including jewelry, gold bars, and cash totaling nearly $1.4 million.

The wife filed an appeal with the district court, but she “went missing” around the same time. Mastro, slip op. at 4. Authorities located her and the debtor in France, where they said they intended to stay. The wife was indicted on criminal bankruptcy charges in connection with the bankruptcy court’s order, but French courts have denied extradition requests by U.S. prosecutors. Continue reading

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Vladimir Makovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Bankruptcy Code provides individuals and families with several options when they need to file a bankruptcy petition, and it allows them to convert a case from one chapter to another in certain circumstances. A federal appellate panel in California recently considered an interesting question:  if a debtor converts a case from Chapter 11 or 13 to Chapter 7, what happens to income earned after the petition but before conversion? It would belong to the bankruptcy estate under Chapters 11 or 13, but to the debtor under Chapter 7. The court ruled that it reverts to the debtor once the case is converted from Chapter 11 back to Chapter 7. In re Markosian, 506 B.R. 273 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2014) (PDF file).

By filing a bankruptcy petition, a debtor creates a legally distinct “bankruptcy estate.” A court-appointed trustee has the right to make certain decisions about estate property and the duty to manage the estate responsibly. In general, any property that a debtor owns when he or she files a bankruptcy petition becomes part of the estate. 11 U.S.C. § 541. In Chapter 11 or 13 cases, property acquired and earnings received for services rendered by the debtor, including salary or wages, also become part of the bankruptcy estate until the case is dismissed, converted, or closed. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1115, 1306.

The debtors in Markosian, a married couple, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in February 2009. The trustee moved to dismiss the case for abuse under 11 U.S.C. § 707(b), claiming that the debtors had enough income to pay their debts. In response, the debtors converted the case to Chapter 11. While Chapter 13 is much more common among individuals and families, the Bankruptcy Code sets upper limits on the amount of debt a Chapter 13 debtor can have. Currently, Chapter 13 is not available to debtors whose secured and unsecured debts exceed $1,149,525 and $383,175, respectively. 11 U.S.C. § 109(e), “Revision of Certain Dollar Amounts in the Bankruptcy Code Prescribed Under Section 104(a) of the Code”, 78 F.R. 12089 (Feb. 20, 2013). Continue reading

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By VISALIA2010 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA California bankruptcy judge recently ruled on a series of motions in a Chapter 7 case, including an effort by the debtors to have their residence declared exempt under California law and a motion by the court-appointed trustee to compel them to turn the property over to him. The trustee alleged that the debtors undervalued the residence in their original schedules, that they did not heed his warnings about the type of exemption they were claiming, and that the amended schedules they filed were not filed in good faith. He sought turnover of the property because he had already entered into a contract to sell it. The court ruled in the trustee’s favor. In re Gutierrez, No. 12-60444, mem. decision (E.D. Cal., Jan. 29, 2014).

The debtors filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in December 2012. Their Schedule A listed a residence in Visalia, California valued at $127,748, with two mortgages totaling $115,050. They claimed the equity of $12,698 as exempt, using California’s “wild card” exemption defined in Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 703.140(b)(5). They claimed five other assets as exempt, with a total claimed value of $17,927. At the creditors’ meeting in January 2013, the trustee told the debtors that the residence had more equity than they claimed and was therefore more than they could claim under the “wild card” exemption. He “implicitly suggested” that they look at other exemptions allowed by California law. Gutierrez, mem. dec. at 3.

About a week later, the court issued a notice to creditors to file proofs of claim, meaning it anticipated the sale of assets by the trustee. The court entered a discharge without objection that April. The trustee moved for leave to hire a real estate broker in July. The debtors’ only response was to file a motion to convert the case to Chapter 13. The court granted the motion for sale. It authorized the trustee to sell the residence for $165,000, significantly more than the value claimed by the debtors. It denied the debtors’ motion.

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By Although (English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA debtor’s withdrawal of money from a bank account less than a year before filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy resulted in the denial of a discharge of debt, based on a bankruptcy court’s finding of fraudulent intent. The debtor claimed that he withdrew the money because of concerns about a creditor’s methods of collection. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling. In re Haag (“Haag I”), Nos. AZ-11-1661, AZ-11-1662, AZ-11-1663, memorandum (BAP 9th Cir., Sep. 27, 2012) (PDF file). The Ninth Circuit also affirmed, rejecting the debtor’s arguments that the court should consider his good intentions regarding the creditor’s allegedly questionable collection practices. In re Haag (“Haag II”), No. 12-60074, memorandum (9th Cir., Aug. 20, 2014).

The debtor was the sole owner of an engineering company called HTI, Inc. that had a line of credit with Northwestern Bank (NWB). In mid-2007, the housing market collapsed, and the company was not able to generate enough revenue to pay the debt. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell the business, the debtor surrendered all of HTI’s assets to NWB in late 2008. He informed the bank that he intended to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and that his only sources of income were IRAs, social security, and unemployment.

In early 2009, the debtor received federal and state tax refunds totaling almost $250,000. He deposited “some or all” of the funds, Haag I at 5, into a personal checking account at the Bank of Tucson. He withdrew $120,000 in cash from that account in July 2009 and placed it in a safety deposit box that he had jointly rented with his wife at another bank. About three weeks later, NWB obtained a judgment against the debtor in a Michigan court, based on his personal guaranty of business debts, for approximately $1.7 million. The bank obtained a domesticated judgment in Arizona, where the debtor resided, in February 2010. The debtor filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy the following month. Continue reading

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Microsome at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsAn extravagant lifestyle was not enough to overcome the presumption that debts incurred prior to filing for bankruptcy, including tax debts, are dischargeable, according to the Ninth Circuit. Hawkins v. Franchise Tax Bd. of California, No. 11-16276, slip op. (9th Cir., Sept. 15, 2014). The court considered whether the debtor’s tax debt was not subject to discharge under the exception for “willful[] attempt[s]…to evade such tax.” 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(1)(C). After noting that the question of the mental state required to prove a “willful attempt to evade tax” was a matter of first impression, it held that the statute requires proof that a debtor specifically intended to evade tax liability. The debtor’s spending prior to filing bankruptcy, while “lavish,” was not out of the ordinary for him, and the tax debt was therefore dischargeable in bankruptcy.

The debtor made a substantial amount of money in the technology industry. He was an early employee of Apple, which he left to found the software and video game company Electronic Arts (EA). In 1990, he left EA to run a newly-created EA subsidiary called 3DO, which was entering into the video game and console market. By 1996, his net worth was around $100 million. He sold much of his EA stock and invested in 3DO. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion describes a series of accounting techniques using offshore corporations in order to claim losses on the sales of EA stock.

3DO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003 and later converted the case to a Chapter 7 liquidation. The debtor never received any substantial payouts from the liquidation of the business. The IRS began challenging his tax shelters in the late 1990s, and in 2005 it and the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) assessed a total balance of over $36 million in unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest. The debtor sold some real property and applied all of the proceeds to the IRS balance in 2006, and the FTB also seized some financial accounts. In September 2006, the debtor and his wife filed for bankruptcy. The IRS and FTB filed proofs of claim for $19 million and $10.4 million, respectively. Continue reading

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By Shahroozporia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA bankruptcy judge in Los Angeles granted the trustee’s motion to dismiss a Chapter 7 case, ruling that the debtors filed their bankruptcy petition in bad faith. In re Olen, No. 2:13-bk-38721, mem. decision (Bankr. C.D. Cal., Aug. 22, 2014) (PDF file). The trustee moved to dismiss the case on multiple grounds, including the claim that granting relief to the debtors would be an abuse of Chapter 7’s provisions. The court held that the debtors had not provided enough financial information to allow it to rule on the question of abuse. It then held that this same lack of information, combined with evidence of substantial consumer expenditures shortly before and after filing the Chapter 7 petition, supported a finding of bad faith.

The debtors, a married couple, filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in December 2013. An amended schedule of unsecured debts identified five debts totaling $1,575,000, including at least one substantial judgment against them in Los Angeles Superior Court. They identified total after-tax income of about $4,500 per month, based on employment with a corporation that they wholly own and control. Their claimed monthly living expenses resulted in a negative monthly net income of approximately $10,000.

In the months prior to filing for bankruptcy, according to the court, the debtors spent significant sums on airfare, including round trips to Florida and Nigeria to visit each debtor’s parents, trips to New York and Massachusetts for other family events, and a trip to Dubai that was allegedly a layover during the Nigeria trip. They also paid about $1,200 for a “boarding and training” program for their two dogs during the Nigeria trip, and they claim to have paid off the loan on their Land Rover in the same month they filed for Chapter 7. Continue reading

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OpenClips [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayA federal district court in California considered a request to discharge federally guaranteed parent loans, which the debtors took out to pay for one of their children’s education. In re Mees, No. 2:13-cv-01892, order (E.D. Cal., Jul. 22, 2014). Student loan debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy except in rare case of “undue hardship.” 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8). The bankruptcy court ruled that the parent loans were not dischargeable, applying the same legal standard used for student loans. The debtors appealed, arguing in part that the bankruptcy court erred in applying this standard. The district court considered this question but ultimately remanded the case to the bankruptcy court, finding that it applied the test incorrectly.

The debtors, a married couple, took out federally guaranteed parent loans for their son, the older of two, to pay for his college education. Parent loans, known as PLUS Loans, typically have a much higher borrowing limit and might be used to cover any gaps in financial aid available directly to the student. Unlike a student loan co-signed by parents, the student is not liable on a PLUS loan. No payments are due until the student completes or leaves school.

The debtors’ son never completed his degree. The balance of the parent loans is about $35,000. By the time of the court’s ruling, both of the debtors had been unemployed for substantial periods of time:  three years for the husband and 30 years for the wife. Their younger son is still a minor. The debtors filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September 2011. They filed an adversary proceeding several months later, seeking discharge of the parent loans. The bankruptcy court ruled against them, citing the three-prong test for determining “undue hardship,” known as the Brunner test after Brunner v. New York State Higher Educ. Svcs., 831 F.2d 395 (2d Cir. 1987). Continue reading

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By Viriditas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsA creditor filed an adversary proceeding in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, seeking an exception from discharge based on alleged fraud and willful and malicious injury. The creditor had been involved in a business venture with the debtor and made numerous allegations of accounting irregularities and financial misrepresentations. After a bench trial, at which the plaintiff-creditor presented expert testimony from a forensic accountant and a certified public accountant, the bankruptcy court held that the plaintiff did not meet his burden of proof under either claimed exception to discharge and ruled in favor of the defendant/debtor. In re Olsen, No. 2:13-bk-60733, memorandum (D. Mont., Aug. 28, 2014).

The facts of the case might be best summarized as a business venture where the parties had different understandings of the business relationship. The defendant was the majority shareholder of Human Interactive Products, Inc. (HIPinc), a “business incubator” engaged in a wide range of activities, known as as “profit centers,” under different trade names. HIPinc had a system, including accounting methods, for evaluating the performance of its profit centers.

The plaintiff, a native plant restoration specialist, approached the defendant about starting his own business in 2006. He accepted an offer of employment with HIPinc as “Operations Manager/Senior Restoration Ecologist” with a venture called Great Bear Restoration (GBR). The defendant would be his supervisor. The plaintiff did not contribute any capital towards GBR but received a salary from HIPinc. Continue reading

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By Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, sfo (LOL Just divorced. And no, that's not my car.) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA debtor moved to dismiss her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case after the trustee sought to use half of a $5,000 monthly payment she received from her ex-spouse to pay creditors. The trustee claimed that half of the monthly payment, which was the debtor’s only reported source of income, was actually an asset under the terms of the divorce decree and was therefore part of the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court granted the motion and dismissed the case. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) reversed, finding that dismissal of the case would prejudice the creditors. In re Grossman, No. NV-13-1325, memorandum (BAP 9th Cir., Feb. 4, 2014) (PDF file).

The central issue for the debtor was whether $2,500 of the $5,000 payment she received every month from her former spouse was spousal maintenance, which is an exempt form of income under bankruptcy law, or part of her share of the marital estate, which is a non-exempt asset. The settlement agreement between the debtor and her former spouse stated that she was entitled to $390,000 from the former spouse. He paid her $30,000 upon signing the agreement and began making monthly payments of $2,500 on February 1, 2005. This is known as an “equalization payment.” The full amount should be paid by 2017. He sends her an additional $2,500 per month, which all parties in the bankruptcy agree is spousal maintenance.

The debtor filed a Chapter 7 petition in April 2013. She did not include the equalization payment in the Schedule B list of personal property, nor did she include a copy of her divorce decree. She reported $5,000 per month in spousal maintenance income in the Statement of Financial Affairs. After receiving a copy of the divorce decree, the trustee claimed that the equalization payment was an asset of the bankruptcy estate that could be sold to pay creditors. Continue reading