Articles Posted in Bankruptcy Caselaw

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.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over all Sacramento area residents who file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, ruled yesterday that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee may be able to sell a debtor’s house if its value increases during the bankruptcy, even though the debtor’s equity was fully exempt at the time of filing. The 9th Circuit consolidated two bankruptcy appeals within their jurisdiction in the case, In re Gebhart, No. 07-16769.

Debtors from Arizona and Washington each argued that the Chapter 7 trustee’s failure to object to a homestead exemption claim within the prescribed time frame permitted to contest the property’s value results in the property being withdrawn from the bankruptcy estate.

Gebhart focuses on a debtor who filed for Chapter 7 in Arizona in 2003 and claimed the full value of his home as exempt. The trustee assigned to the case did not object to the exemption when the debtor claimed it. However, the debtor’s case remained open and in 2006 the trustee attempted to sell the house as property values increased in order to reclaim the appreciated value for the debtor’s creditors. The debtor lost in the district court when he objected to the sale arguing the homestead exemption covered the full value of his home when he filed for Chapter 7. Oddly, a court in Washington with facts almost identical to the case filed in Arizona held that the original exemption did in fact cover the inceased value of the debtor’s home.

Sacramento area debtors who have filed Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy are frequently concerned with the implications of the FDCPA (affecting a creditor’s ability to collect on a debt) while his or her case is pending in the local bankruptcy court.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the Midwestern U.S., recently decided that some communications sent to borrowers by a loan servicer may fall under the provisions of the FDCPA. In Gburek v. Litton Loan Servicing LP, a borrower appealed after the trial court dismissed her case when she sued her mortgage servicer for violating her rights under the Act when the mortgage servicer hired a third party company to communicate with her about the debt. In her original complaint, Gburek claimed that Litton violated the FDCPA by contacting her despite knowledge that she had a lawyer, using deceptive means to obtain her personal information, and for disclosing her personal information to a third party.

According to the case, Litton contacted Gburek to discuss Gburek’s default on her mortgage. Litton sent Gburek a letter that asked her for a variety of financial information which also discussed Gburek’s possible alternatives to foreclosure on the property in an attempt to settle her mortgage-loan debt. The letter contained a disclosure that Litton was a debt collector and that the letter was sent as an attempt to collect a debt. Sometime thereafter Litton contracted with Titanium Solutions to contact Gburek. Gburek received a letter from Titanium that also asked for Gburek’s financial information but stated that it was not a debt collector and could not accept payments even though they had been hired by Litton to contact Gburek in order to facilitate a settlement between them.

For those of you living in the Sacramento area that have a second mortgage on your real property which is essentially “unsecured” due to the fact that the value of your house has fallen below the amount secured by your first mortgage may be able to stop the bank from foreclosing and save your home by filing Chapter 7. In the case In Re Lavelle, 2009 Bankr., a bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of New York allowed debtors to void the second mortgage lien held by the bank against their property by filing Chapter 7 when the value of their home fell below the amount secured by the first mortgage.

Since the case-law has not been settled in the Ninth Circuit, whose rules apply to those of us living in the Sacramento area, a debtor could conceivably prevent foreclosure and save their house so long as they can afford to continue making payments on the first mortgage after all other debts have been discharged in addition to the second mortgage. It makes sense that local judges could be inclined to interpret the bankruptcy code in a similar fashion as the court in the Eastern District of New York since a bank holding an unsecured second mortgage would not see a penny whether the house gets foreclosed on or the debt is stripped-off and voided under Chapter 7. Given the economic “fresh start” principles that Chapter 7 is designed to provide to a debtor, and the number of people that this interpretation of the law could help from losing their homes, I believe judges will become increasingly receptive to the argument. This view rests on a novel interpretation of the bankruptcy code, however, and would probably be an uphill legal battle. Nonetheless, In Re Lavelle shows at least one judge has become sensitive to the current economic situation and there is enough wiggle room in the law to provide a legal basis for making such a claim.

As a Sacramento bankruptcy attorney I have spoken with numerous clients with these types of questions. The only way to know for sure is by locating a debtor who finds himself in this situation to retain a lawyer who is willing to bring the case before a local court and present the argument. This would almost certainly become a drawn out legal process, but the courts would probably allow the debtor to at least remain in the property until all appeals have been exhausted and a final decision, perhaps by the United States Supreme Court, has been made. If you believe that you could benefit from this interpretation of the law it may be in your best interest to consult an attorney familiar on the subject.

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