Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court Finds that Debtor Can Claim an Exemption in Her Home Even if She Does Not Live There

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

In a recent decision, the bankruptcy court for the District of Massachusetts found that a debtor who had not lived at a property for over 30 years could still claim an exemption in that property, even though her principal residence was elsewhere.

The debtor owned a one-half remainder interest in property occupied by her elderly parents. On her Schedule C, she claimed an exemption in the property in the whole value of her interest, $14,945.29 under § 522(I) of the Bankruptcy Code. The Chapter 7 Trustee objected to the debtor’s claim of exemption and argued that because neither the debtor nor her dependents resided at the property, she could not properly claim an exemption.

At hearing, the Debtor testified that she had not lived in the property for over 30 years and that her parents lived there. The debtor further testified that she lived in another town because of a medical condition and that it was her intention to move to and live at the property permanently when her medical condition permitted.

Noting that there are several cases holding that a debtor can have more than one “residence” for federal exemption purposes, the bankruptcy court found that the debtor’s intent to eventually live at the property, along with her testimony that she was often there to care for her parents and regularly stayed overnight at the property, was there to care for her parents and kept items at the property, was sufficient for the debtor to claim an exemption in the property.

This case is similar to In re Denker-Youngs, which was discussed on this blog last summer. In that case, the bankruptcy court for the Eastern District of New York found that a debtor who was ordered to vacate his home could still claim an exemption in the property. Like that case, the bankruptcy court for the District of Massachusetts gave weight to the debtor’s intent and her testimony that she intended to return to the property as soon as she was able.

Bodie B. Colwell practices as an associate with Preti Flaherty's Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights and Business Restructuring group from the Portland office. She focuses on supporting bankruptcy, insolvency, and creditors’ rights clients.

Exploring the Rule 3002.1 Minefield

Monday, February 6, 2017

In September 2016, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Vermont ordered a mortgage servicer to pay a $375,000 sanction to a nonprofit legal aid organization for failing to comply with Rule 3002.1 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. This appears to be the first time that a bankruptcy court has awarded sanctions after a violation of Rule 3002.1. If this decision—In re Gravel, 556 B.R. 561 (Bankr. D. Vt. 2016)—serves as a guidepost to other courts that encounter similar violations of this rule in the future, then secured creditors should pay attention. The price to pay for noncompliance may be considerable.

Until this decision, no court had considered what relief is “appropriate” for failure to comply with Rule 3002.1. In an article published recently in ABI Journal (subscription required) that I co-wrote with my colleague, Matt Libby, we explore the implications how this rule presents a number of potential pitfalls for the unwary creditor (despite its well-intentioned rationale), and we describe the creditor’s conduct in In re Gravel as well as the lessons to be learned from this case.

In sum, counsel representing mortgage servicers in chapter 13 cases must diligently advise clients on the importance of complying with Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1. Failure to do so will risk being subject to significant sanctions.

Anthony Manhart is a Partner at Preti Flaherty and serves as Co-Chair of the Bankruptcy, Creditors' Rights and Restructuring Group. His practice focuses on bankruptcy and creditors' and debtors' rights, representation of Chapter 7 trustees and various parties in formal insolvency and collection proceedings and out-of-court workouts. He also serves on the Panel of Chapter 7 Trustees for the District of Maine.

Supreme Court Hears Argument on Stale Claims and FDCPA

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

As reported on our blog (here and here), the Eleventh Circuit ruled that filing a time barred proof of claim does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, an issue which has divided courts and Courts of Appeals. The Supreme Court heard argument on this issue on January 17, 2017. The transcript can be found here.

The advocates faced some tough question about the issues presented as well as the spirit and purpose of the Bankruptcy Code itself. This is bound to be an interesting opinion. We will keep you posted.

For any assistance with filing claims in bankruptcy cases, contact Preti Flaherty’s Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights, and Restructuring Practice Group.

Anthony Manhart is a Partner at Preti Flaherty and serves as Co-Chair of the Bankruptcy, Creditors' Rights and Restructuring Group. His practice focuses on bankruptcy and creditors' and debtors' rights, representation of Chapter 7 trustees and various parties in formal insolvency and collection proceedings and out-of-court workouts. He also serves on the Panel of Chapter 7 Trustees for the District of Maine.

Trustee Lacks Standing to Assert Legal Malpractice Claims on Behalf of Debtors

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court (Panos, J.) dismissed an adversarial proceeding complaint brought against debtor’s counsel which alleged legal malpractice. The trustee alleged that debtor’s counsel committed malpractice and asserted that the legal malpractice claims are assets of the bankruptcy estate. Debtor’s counsel moved to dismiss. After a hearing, the Court granted the motion to dismiss, ruling that the alleged malpractice claims were not property of the bankruptcy estate and that the trustee therefore lacked standing to assert them.

In the adversarial complaint, the trustee alleged that because debtor’s counsel failed to instruct his client to record a declaration of homestead, the debtor was only able to claim a Massachusetts homestead exemption in the amount of $125,000. Had a declaration of homestead been recorded prepetition, the debtor would have been able to claim a $500,000 exemption, which would have immunized him from a judgment obtained by the bankruptcy trustee. The trustee further claimed that by converting the case from a chapter 13 to a chapter 7 bankruptcy rather than having the matter dismissed and re-filed, the debtor missed an opportunity to have additional debt discharged.

In addressing the issue of the homestead claim, the Court ruled that the trustee lacked standing to bring his claim where the claims are not property of the estate but rather post-petition property. The Court noted that Section 541(a)(1) provides that commencing a bankruptcy case “creates an estate [that includes] all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case." Therefore, until the debtor filed his chapter 13 petition, no purported malpractice had yet accrued where no harm had yet been suffered by the failure to record the declaration of homestead. Accordingly, the claim did not exist until after the estate was created and therefore was post-petition property belonging to the debtor.

Moving on to the claim arising from the conversion of the case from a chapter 13 to a chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the Court similarly held that the claim was also not the property of the estate. Here, the Court found that the negligence which occurred during the pendency of the bankruptcy case logically could not have existed before the bankruptcy case commenced. Therefore, the earliest this claim could have accrued was upon conversion. Consequently, the Court held that “this was not a claim rooted in any way in the pre-bankruptcy past” and that the harmed caused by the malpractice “is entangled with [the debtor’s] ability to make a fresh start.” The Court therefore concluded that the trustee lacked standing to pursue the legal malpractice claim.

This case should remind practitioners to carefully consider the issue of standing whenever analyzing an adversarial proceeding claim. It also serves as a good reminder to all counsel that homeowners should record a declaration of homestead to be eligible take advantage of the heightened exemption amount available under Massachusetts law if things go south.

Matthew Libby is an associate in Preti Flaherty's Litigation Group, practicing from the firm's Boston office. He represents clients in commercial litigation and bankruptcy matters.

Changes to Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1 Affect Mortgage Lenders

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Almost every year, changes are implemented to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. On December 1, 2016, this year’s changes to the Bankruptcy Rules went into effect. The changes include revisions to Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1.

Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1 requires secured creditors with an interest in the debtor’s principal residence, such as mortgage lenders, to periodically file notices of payment change in Chapter 13 cases. The changes to Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1 clarify when a secured creditor must file a payment change notice. The amended rule requires that a secured creditor file a payment change notice on all claims secured by the debtor’s primary residence for which a debtor or Chapter 13 Trustee is making post-petition payments during the bankruptcy, regardless of whether the debtor is curing a pre-petition mortgage.

Additionally, the amendments to Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1 clarify that the obligation to file a payment change notice ceases once the creditor obtains relief from the automatic stay.

Preti Flaherty frequently represents creditors in bankruptcy cases in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. For assistance with claims in bankruptcy cases, contact Preti Flaherty’s Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights & Business Restructuring Practice Group.

Bodie B. Colwell practices as an associate with Preti's Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights and Business Restructuring group from the Portland office. She focuses on supporting bankruptcy, insolvency, and creditors’ rights clients.

Eleventh Circuit Decides Surrender Means Just That

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In the recent opinion of In re Failla, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that when a debtor indicates in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy schedules case that she or he intends to “surrender” property subject to a secured claim, the debtor can’t renege on that commitment. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the bankruptcy court’s order requiring the debtors to cease opposition to a secured creditor’s subsequent foreclosure of the surrendered property.

The Faillas indicated in their Chapter 7 Statement of Intention that they intended to surrender their residence, which was worth less than the mortgage loan it secured. The Chapter 7 trustee then abandoned the property, and the mortgage lender commenced foreclosure proceedings. The Faillas, who were still living in the house, filed state court pleadings contesting the foreclosure. Rather than simply seeking bankruptcy stay relief and proceeding in state court, the mortgage lender sought relief in the bankruptcy court, asserting that the debtors had surrendered their rights to the property, and had no right to contest the foreclosure. The bankruptcy court agreed and entered an order directing the Faillas to cease opposition to the foreclosure, failing which the court would revoke their Chapter 7 discharge.

The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s ruling, as did the Court of Appeals. Taking a dim view of the Debtors’ behavior, the Court reasoned that a § 521 “surrender” was a relinquishment of the debtor’s rights in the property to the bankruptcy trustee and the creditor, and that if the trustee then abandons the property, the surrendering debtor must “get out of the creditor’s way.” Noting that a debtor should not be able to “undo his surrender” by opposing the foreclosure in state court after having obtained a discharge in bankruptcy, the Court stated that “[i]n bankruptcy, as in life, a person does not get to have his cake and eat it too.”

For any assistance with secured claims in bankruptcy cases, contact Preti Flaherty’s Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights, and Restructuring Practice Group.

Supreme Court to Rule on Stale Claims and FDCPA

Thursday, November 3, 2016

As reported on our blog, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that filing a time barred proof of claim does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, an issue which has divided courts and Courts of Appeals. The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in the case of Midland Funding LLC v. Johnson. (See here.)  Presumably, this will resolve the circuit split on the issue and provide guidance for creditors and debtors on this tough issue.

Stay tuned. We will report back after the Supreme Court rules.

For any assistance with filing claims in bankruptcy cases, contact Preti Flaherty’s Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights, and Restructuring Practice Group.