Articles Posted in Bankruptcy Procedures

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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 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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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

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Ron's Log [CC BY-ND 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/)], via ipernityThe city of San Bernardino, California is in the process of preparing a bankruptcy plan in its ongoing bankruptcy case. While a Chapter 9 case, applied specifically to municipalities, might have some superficial similarities to an individual’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, cities and towns typically have issues that differ from both personal and business bankruptcy cases. The city is currently considering removing its ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, which would provide new sources of tax revenue. This is legal for cities and counties under California law, but it still conflicts with federal drug laws. In personal bankruptcy, individual debtors may be able to find a higher-paying job, take additional jobs to supplement their income, or go back to school to improve their job prospects. A debtor risks criminal penalties by disclosing income derived from illegal activity in a bankruptcy case, but he or she also risks revocation of the bankruptcy discharge if he or she fails to disclose that income.

San Bernardino filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2012, and it is still working on its exit plan. The city attorney proposed medical marijuana dispensaries in July 2014 as a means of increasing revenue, and the matter went to the full City Council in mid-September. Voters in California passed Proposition 215 in 1996, which amended the state Health and Safety Code to exclude individuals from state drug laws if they possess small amounts of marijuana with a valid doctor’s prescription. Senate Bill 420, enacted in 2003, further defined the scope of the program and created a system of identification cards for medical marijuana patients.

A 2009 California Supreme Court ruling required all of the state’s counties to participate in the program. Cities, however, are not obligated to allow dispensaries to operate within their jurisdictions. Oakland became the first city to tax marijuana sales in 2009, and others have followed. San Bernardino’s city attorney cited Palm Springs, which has about one-fifth the population of San Bernardino but brings in about $500,000 per year from its ten-percent marijuana tax. Continue reading

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J.M. Gandy (Uploaded by User:Merchbow) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA bankruptcy court dismissed adversary proceedings brought in a Chapter 13 case, in which the debtors sought to strip off junior liens held by the U.S. government for loans issued through the Small Business Administration (SBA). In re Brisco, 486 B.R. 422 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2013). The SBA had junior liens on two properties owned by the debtors:  their residence and a rental property. The SBA did not file proofs of claim for either lien by the deadline established by the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (FRBP), and the court held that this prevented it from valuing the SBA’s liens as requested by the debtors. The debtors objected, arguing that the SBA’s failure to file proofs of claim apparently shielded their liens from avoidance, but the court noted that the Bankruptcy Code allows a debtor to file a proof of claim on a creditor’s behalf.

The debtors owned two properties: their residence, which was appraised at $135,000 and had a first-priority lien held by JPMorgan with a secured claim of $161,064.57, and a rental property appraised at $100,000, with a first-priority lien and secured claim by JPMorgan of $213,829. The SBA had junior liens on both properties and secured claims of $25,800 and $25,700, respectively. The court entered a judgment reducing the amount of JPMorgan’s secured claim on the rental property to its value of $100,000, with the remaining $113,829 becoming an unsecured claim under 11 U.S.C. § 506(a).

In two adversary proceedings brought against the United States, the debtors asked the court to rule that the SBA’s liens were wholly unsecured under § 506(a), and to strip the liens off the two properties under 11 U.S.C. §§ 506(d) and 1322(b)(2). The United States moved to dismiss for failing to state claims on which the court could grant relief, in large part because of the absence of proofs of claim. Secured creditors are not required to file a proof of claim, but if they choose to do so, the deadline for a governmental unit is set by FRBP 3002(c)(1). If the creditor does not file a proof of claim, the debtor may do so for them under 11 U.S.C. § 501(c). Continue reading

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By Makaristos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe U.S. Constitution gives the federal government authority over bankruptcy, and bankruptcy cases proceed in the federal court system based on federal statutes, regulations, and rules. Bankruptcy courts frequently have to deal with state-law issues, however. This is known as “permissive abstention.” Federal law allows bankruptcy courts to abstain from hearing state-law matters for various reasons. A creditor in a Los Angeles bankruptcy proceeding moved for the bankruptcy court to abstain from hearing issues involved in a lawsuit pending in state court. The bankruptcy court denied the motion, but the district court reversed this order after reviewing the factors courts should consider in a motion to abstain. In re Roger, No. 5:15-cv-00087, order (C.D. Cal., Nov. 24, 2015).

U.S. district courts have jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases, but they are permitted to refer these cases to bankruptcy judges. 28 U.S.C. § 157(a). Bankruptcy courts operate as specialized units of the district courts, and they are authorized to hear most matters arising under Title 11 of the U.S. Code. The permissive abstention statute allows district courts, and by extension bankruptcy courts, to abstain from hearing certain matters if it would be “in the interest of justice” or “in the interest of comity with State courts,” or if it would support “respect for State law.” 28 U.S.C. § 1334(c)(1). The Ninth Circuit has identified 12 factors courts should consider when ruling on permissive abstention, known as the Tucson Estates factors after In re Tucson Estates, 912 F.2d 1162, 1166 (9th Cir. 1990).

The motion to abstain in the Roger case involved a long-running lawsuit in a California state court. The debtor had taken out a loan in 2007 and had signed a guaranty agreement for another loan. The bank assigned both loans to the creditor, as the bank’s receiver, in mid-2009. The creditor filed suit against the debtor, in his capacity as the borrower on one loan and the guarantor on the other, in December 2009.

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By Frank T. Merrill (1848-1923), L.S. Ipsen, John Harley (Gutenberg.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsContrary to many popular misconceptions about bankruptcy, declaring bankruptcy does not necessarily mean that a person is “broke.” It means that, even if the person has cash or other assets on hand, they cannot continue to make payments on their debts and other obligations with their available income and assets. Sometimes, though, a person is in such financial distress that they must ask the bankruptcy court to waive the filing fee and other court costs. This is known as a request to proceed in forma pauperis. A California district court recently considered such a request from a Chapter 7 debtor. Following the magistrate’s finding that the debtor did not make the request in good faith, the judge denied it. In re Gjerde, No. 2:15-mc-0013, findings and recommendations (E.D. Cal., Oct. 26, 2015), order (Nov. 13, 2015).

As with any legal proceeding, bankruptcy courts require a payment of fees for new cases. In the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, the filing fee for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition is $335, and $310 for a Chapter 13 petition. Most other new bankruptcy filings have a much higher fee of $1,717. Reopening a case also requires the payment of a fee—$260 for a Chapter 7 case and $235 for Chapter 13. The court charges fees to amend bankruptcy schedules, to file certain motions, and to issue certain documents like abstracts of judgment. Converting a Chapter 7 case to Chapter 13 is free of charge, but a conversion in the opposite direction costs $25.

Numerous federal statutes and rules address in forma pauperis requests for a wide range of fees, including the cost of obtaining a transcript, 28 U.S.C. § 753(f), and most or all fees associated with an appeal. Fed. R. App. P. 24. U.S. district courts have discretion to permit a waiver of fees if the requesting party submits an affidavit stating that they are unable to pay, or provide security for, the required fees. The court may not grant the request if it “certifies in writing that [the request] is not taken in good faith.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3). While the same general standards as in other federal proceedings govern in forma pauperis requests in Chapter 13 cases, additional requirements apply to Chapter 7 cases. See Guide to Judiciary Policy, Vol. 4, § 820 et seq.

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By Jacob Davies [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsIn 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.

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