Articles Posted in Bankruptcy Caselaw

The Federal Appellate Panel for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal recently held if a Debtor makes payments toward home improvements in an attempt to defraud a creditor, that those payments may not be exempt.  The issue for decision in this case was whether a debtor can claim home improvement payments as being exempt from the bankruptcy estate in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case?

The facts in this case were actually quite typical and could apply to a number of people. The Debtors (Wife and Husband) made improvements to their principal residence over a period of time before filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. During that time their daughter opened a bank account whereby Debtors began to make large deposits amounting to approximately $60,000.00 into their daughter’s bank account who then made payments toward the home improvements as well – in addition to other family members.

Debtor’s eventually filed for protection under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code after having engaged in this course of conduct for some time. In their Petition they attempted to take advantage of the homestead exemption by claiming that they had roughly $60,000.00 of equity in their home. The “homestead exemption” prevents the court from seizing and distributing that property to any creditors or the Court which may exist as equity in a personal residence. Using Title 11 of United States Code section 522(o) the Bankruptcy Trustee objected to the debtors’ exemption claiming that the improvements did not qualify under the homestead exemption since the money had come through their daughter’s account and was being claimed by the debtors as exempt to delay, hinder, and/or defraud their creditors.

Many people going through bankruptcy or divorce in the Sacramento area find that these two distinct legal fields can actually run hand in hand. Often times, financial problems can lead to the breakdown of a marriage, or conversely, the breakdown of a marriage and division of assets can lead to a need for filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

Ideally, if Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 rests in a couple’s best financial interests it makes sense for the couple to file a joint bankruptcy petition. This, however, requires: (1) that the parties are able to continue to work together and cooperate in the bankruptcy; and (2) they have not received a judgment of dissolution restoring them to their status as single persons.

Since many couples going through divorce proceedings cannot work together the bankruptcy process can become very complicated. A recent case filed out of New Jersey typifies the problems created when a divorcing couple decides to file bankruptcy separately but before they have actually received their judgment of dissolution of marriage.

As a Sacramento bankruptcy attorney I have previously written about student loans and filing a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The general rule regarding student loans is that they are not dischargeable unless the individual can prove that paying the loans would create “undue hardship.” Undue hardship is a difficult standard to prove as it is indeed a vague concept. I would typically tell my clients that undue hardship exists when a person has zero ability to earn any income. As a result, there is a low chance at discharging student loans for most bankruptcy filers. This situation creates a vicious cycle for many recent graduates who have entered the uncertain job market of the last few years.

A recent case from the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, Hedlund v. The Educational Resources Institute, reminds us that there are still some situations where a person can get the debts discharged through bankruptcy.

The debtor in this case, Michael Hedlund, obtained student loans on his undergraduate and law school degrees. Mr. Hedlund received a business degree from the University of Oregon and a law degree from Willamette Law School. He failed the bar exam and took a job earning approximately $10.00 an hour. After requesting hardship forbearances and loan consolidations Mr. Hedlund wound up defaulting on the loans. He was not able to implement any successful attempt at a modified repayment plan although he made several payments from various bank accounts when he could. The student loan creditors eventually began to garnish his wages.

As a Sacramento Bankruptcy Attorney I pay close attention to cases that affect residents living within the Sacramento metropolitan area. In a recent case heard by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Bankruptcy Appellate Panel – In re Cha and Park – failing to pay ones rent, if determined to be an act of fraud, can be non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. This means a person attempting to eliminate this type of debt would be forced to repay the debt despite having filed the bankruptcy.

One of the exceptions to receiving a discharge in bankruptcy is when an individual incurs a debt while having no intention to repay that debt. The law sees this type of transaction as fraud. Incurring debt through fraud is a bar to having that debt wiped clean through bankruptcy. The best example of this situation is where a person who knows he will be filing for bankruptcy decides to go on a shopping spree and make thousands of dollars in purchases on his credit card knowing that the debts will be wiped clean in the bankruptcy. Sometimes these types of purchases are unintentional and the creditor has the burden to prove that the individual had no intention of repaying that debt.

In the case of Cha and Park, the debtors entered into a lease in 2008. During these negotiations, the debtors made assertions to the landlord that they made $14,000 a month and had $50,000 in the bank. The landlord presumably relied on these statements when making the decision to offer a lease to the debtors. Upon signing the lease the debtors only paid one month’s rent. By the time the landlord evicted the debtors they owed him over $46,000 in back rent. The landlord obtained a judgment against the debtors for the back rent in state court. The debtor’s promptly filed for bankruptcy and attempted to discharge the $46,000 judgment for back rent. The landlord then sued the debtors in the bankruptcy court saying that the debtors had engaged in fraud in that they never had any intention to pay the rent from the first place. Specifically, the landlord argued that the debtors lied with regard to the income and savings they disclosed and he relied on those false statements when making his decision to enter into the lease with them.

As a Sacramento Bankruptcy Attorney I must often explain to my clients that domestic support obligations, such as spousal support and child support, are not dischargeable in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This concept frustrates many individuals trying to clean up his or her economic profile. I must also remind these individuals to keep in mind that child and spousal support are not the only domestic support obligations to come out of a family court that could survive the bankruptcy. A recent case stemming from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, In re Mason, demonstrates a perfect example of a non-dischargeable domestic support obligation.

Mrs. Mason filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after having received a divorce from the state of New Hampshire in 2007. The parties’ divorce decree held that both parties would be liable to pay one half of their 2006 tax burden. However, Mrs. Mason listed Mr. Mason as a co-debtor on their tax lien and a creditor in her Chapter 7 petition and attempted to discharge her half of the parties’ 2006 income tax bill. Ms. Mason received her automatic discharge in the Chapter 7. Each party later attempted to assert relief from the 2006 taxes under the “innocent spouse” doctrine. The IRS granted Mrs. Mason’s request and denied the request of Mr. Mason. Mr. Mason moved to hold Ms. Mason in contempt of the family court for not paying her share of the tax bill and for an order directing her to pay one half of the tax bill. The circuit court denied Mr. Mason’s request. They found that since the IRS had granted her petition for relief under the “innocent spouse” doctrine, that it changed the nature of the taxes from a debt to the IRS to a personal debt to Mr. Martin and since Mr. Mason failed to fight the discharge in bankruptcy court that he would lose. They also denied his request for attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed the lower court and held that the modifications of the bankruptcy code in 2005 mean that the domestic support obligations are not discharged automatically. The question turned on whether the taxes were automatically non-dischargeable because they were a part of the divorce decree, such as child support, or whether Mr. Martin would have to fight the discharge in the bankruptcy court. In their decision, the New Hampshire Supreme Court compared the modified bankruptcy code with the older version. They found that the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA “) removed the previous ability to pay tests that the law previously required regarding the dischargeability of a debt. This courts interpretation of the law found the BAPCPA directs that any debts falling within particular categories are automatically non-dischargeable. Specifically, they held that a debt created by a divorce decree is one of the automatically non-dischargeable debts. Since the 2007 divorce decree required Mrs. Mason to pay one half of the 2006 tax bill the court found that her debt was automatically non-dischargeable and she lost.

As a Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorney in Sacramento I frequently receive calls from people who consider bankruptcy because they have oppressive student loan debt. Student loans are a major issue for many bankruptcy filers. I predict these issues will continue to increase and the laws will ultimately need revision as the problems surmount; students, have been denied the opportunity to discharge their debt even when the amounts are astronomical and the student has little means to make payments.

In what can be considered a victory for individuals with student loans, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in In re Gourlay that Sallie Mae, the student loan organization, could not set a default judgment aside that had been obtained by debtor Kristin Gourlay. Sallie Mae failed to respond to adversary proceeding filed by Gourlay which attempted to find the debt dischargeable. The Sixth Circuit found that the bankruptcy court was within its rights to find that the failure was not excusable neglect, the court said; service was proper and the appropriate person simply failed to respond.

Kristin Gourlay filed for Chapter 7. During the case she filed an adversary proceeding seeking to determine the dischargeability of her student loans owed to Sallie Mae. She owed Sallie Mae approximately $25,500. Her bankruptcy attorney sent Sallie Mae a timely summons by certified mail, and the return card was signed by someone believed to be a part time employee at the company’s Virginia headquarters. The deadline for a response came and went without a response from Sallie Mae. Gourlay filed for a default judgment about a week later. The Bankruptcy Court intitially rejected her motion due to improper service. However, Gourlay served the summons again. When there was still no response, the bankruptcy court granted her second motion for default judgment. Eighteen days after the default judgment became final, Sallie Mae moved to set it aside for excusable neglect. The Bankruptcy Court ultimately rejected this, finding that internal breakdowns are not excusable neglect, and Sallie Mae appealed.

As a Sacramento bankruptcy attorney, I typically take a client’s case before the he or she files the bankruptcy petition. I do this in order to help him or her prepare the petition before the actual filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. Preparation for bankruptcy can mean a lot of things, including making strategic decisions regarding which assets are important to an individual. Understanding the bankruptcy process and knowing the complex rules become an important aspect of any Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 filing in order to eliminate or minimize a person’s exposure to his or her creditors.

Unfortunately, unrepresented litigants often fail to understand the complexities involved in a case and that seems to be what happened with a debtor in In re Ruiz, a case from the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In this case, Jose and Carrie Ruiz wrote checks for business purchases, a charitable donation and their monthly mortgage payment just before petitioning for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The checks had not yet cleared on the day of the petition, so their trustee argued that they technically still had the money and should be required to turn it over to the estate. A bankruptcy court in Utah disagreed, but the BAP reversed it, requiring them to turn over about $3,700.

The Ruiz’s checks were written between March 29 and April 23 of 2010; they filed their bankruptcy petition electronically on April 24. On their schedules, the Ruiz’s listed a checking account with $10.02. This was the number that would be true once the checks cleared; however, the account actually contained $3,764.99. The last of the four cleared on April 28, 2010. During the section 341 hearing, the Ruiz’s trustee discovered the discrepancy and moved to require them to turn over the rest of the money. The bankruptcy court denied the Trustee’s motion and found that the disputed money was not debtor property. Rather, it found that the checking account was a debt owed by the bank to the Ruiz’s, and that debt was the estate’s property; the bank had actual control and possession of the money. The court further held that the trustee, not the Ruiz’s, had the obligation to collect that debt on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. The trustee appealed.

As an attorney who protects my clients against foreclosure, I am very familiar with the concept of filing a Chapter 13 or Chapter 7 bankruptcy stop the foreclosure sale. Since the filing of a bankruptcy petition includes an automatic stay – a court order prohibiting all creditors from collecting against debts held by the debtor – the filing often results in providing the bankruptcy client with some temporary or even permanent relief.

The Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy can even help a debtor in the long run if the bankruptcy allows the debtor to catch up on any arrearages and reorganize their unsecured debts. This may also work in the event that a mortgage lender has a flawed claim on the property held by the debtor or has broken some sort of predatory lending law. However, as the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel ruled in Edwards v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., filing bankruptcy is not the right avenue to pursue for a debtor whose property has already been foreclosed against. In Edwards, the appellate Panel upheld the bankruptcy court’s decision to grant relief from stay to the bank.

Lupi Paulo Edwards, from Southern California, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in August of 2010. Her home lender, Wells Fargo, moved the court for relief from stay shortly thereafter. Wells Fargo included a copy of the Trustee’s Deed whereby they purchased the property at a sale on May 17, 2010. Wells Fargo then began proceedings to eject Edwards from the property. Edwards attempted to oppose the bank and argued that Wells Fargo had no standing to request that the court allow it to begin the foreclosure proceedings.

Sacramento area residents considering a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy should be interested to learn about the recent United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case: In re Brenda Marie Jones, which affects how a second bankruptcy filing affects a persons tax debts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals governs all appeals made from Sacramento area federal courts, including bankruptcy matters.

Federal and State income taxes can typically be discharged if they were due more than three years ago. However, the three-year standard can be extended if the debt could not have been collected. This means that when an automatic stay is issued in a previous bankruptcy, the debt cannot be collected, which therefore extends the time period to which a debtor must wait before he or she can discharge that tax debt.

In the Brenda Marie Jones case, a California woman filing for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy owed a debt, more than three years old, to the California Franchise Tax Board (CFTB). Ms. Jones attempted to discharge that debt in her new bankruptcy but the CFTB argued that because Jones had previously filed for bankruptcy, they were prevented from collecting the tax debt and it was therefore improper for her to discharge the debt in the recently filed case.

California residents who reside in the Sacramento metropolitan area may be interested to know an update in case-law that could potentially impact any home loan modification. The ongoing trend regarding litigation surrounding the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) has been re-affirmed by a Washington D.C. Judge in Doreen Edwards et al v. Aurora Loan Servicers LLC. In Edwards, the Plaintiff argued that an individual borrower should have the right to sue because they were impacted by the HAMP agreement between Aurora , a private loan servicer and Fannie Mae.

All Plaintiffs in the case were eligible under HAMP for a home loan modification but were nonetheless denied by Aurora even though they were qualified under the program. The plaintiff’s cited “endless bureaucratic incompetence coupled with a lack of effective recourse for wrongful denials” as a basis for their against Aurora after having been denied a modified loan. The lawsuit alleged a violation by Aurora of its independent agreement with Fannie Mae: (1) that Aurora failed to act in good faith and fair dealing and (2) Aurora violated their right to Due Process. Aurora responded that the plaintiffs were not eligible to sue since they were not parties to the agreement with Fannie Mae and Aurora.

Judge Rothstein agreed with Aurora and held that the individual borrowers had no right to sue because they had no vested interest under the HAMP agreement. Judge Rothstein joined numerous other court decisions making similar findings. Judges in all District Courts of California have held this same decision including the Eastern District of California, which hears all cases brought in the Sacramento area. These courts have held in order for a person to have standing, the homeowner plaintiffs had to show that Fannie Mae and Aurora intended to include the borrowers, individually, to their HAMP agreement.