A bankruptcy judge recently denied a debtor’s request to convert his case from Chapter 11 to Chapter 7, finding that he had not acted in accordance with his fiduciary duties throughout the case. Most individual debtors do not find Chapter 11 to be helpful. It is much more common for business bankruptcies and individuals with very large estates. In this case, the debtor is a professional hockey player. In re Johnson, No. 2:14-bk-57104, petition (S.D. Oh., Oct. 7, 2014). When he moved for conversion to Chapter 7, the court reviewed the course of the case and issued a 150-page order denying the motion and criticizing the debtor’s conduct. Johnson, op. and order (Feb. 26, 2016). The judge’s reasoning offers an idea of the concerns that courts address in Chapter 7 cases.
A key difference between the Johnson case and a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case is that the bankruptcy estate had no independent trustee. The debtor was acting as trustee when he moved for conversion to Chapter 7. In Chapter 11 cases, a trustee is only appointed if requested by a party in interest or the U.S. Trustee’s Office. 11 U.S.C. § 1104. If no trustee is appointed, the debtor serves in the capacity of trustee, with all the same fiduciary duties towards creditors and others. Under Chapters 7 and 13, the Bankruptcy Code states unconditionally that a trustee “shall” be appointed. 11 U.S.C. §§ 701, 1302.
Debtors are typically allowed to convert their case from one chapter to another if they meet various criteria established in the Bankruptcy Code. A Chapter 11 debtor can convert their case to Chapter 7, with several exceptions. A bankruptcy court may not convert a case to Chapter 7 if it finds that appointment of a Chapter 11 trustee would be in the estate’s and the creditors’ best interest, or if it “identifies unusual circumstances” indicating that conversion would not be in their best interest. 11 U.S.C. § 1112(b). A Chapter 7 debtor can convert their case to Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 with the court’s permission, after establishing cause. 11 U.S.C. § 707. A Chapter 13 debtor is far less constrained in converting a case to Chapter 7. 11 U.S.C. § 1307.