Supreme Court Rules Creditors May Pursue Claims for Stale Debt in Bankruptcy

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

With its recent opinion in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, the Supreme Court has put to rest the question of whether or not filing stale claims violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), determining that proofs of claim filed for stale debt do not violate the FDCPA. This is the latest development in an issue the New England Bankruptcy Law Blog has followed as it has migrated its way through the courts since last June.

According to Midland, shortly after Aleida Johnson filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy relief, Midland Funding filed a proof of claim for outstanding credit card debt of approximately $1,800. On its face, the proof of claim stated that the last charge on the debtor’s account was made more than ten years prior to the bankruptcy filing—clearly outside of the relevant statute of limitations for enforcement under state law. (Although the relevant state law nevertheless permitted a creditor to receive payment on account of its stale claim.) After the debtor objected, the bankruptcy court disallowed Midland’s claim. The debtor then filed a lawsuit in the district court, seeking damages for violations of the FDCPA. The district court found that the FDCPA did not apply to filing proofs of claim; however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the decision. Midland appealed the 11th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court. At issue was whether filing a proof of claim on account of a stale debt was “false,” “deceptive,” “misleading,” “unconscionable,” or “unfair” as those terms are used in the FDCPA.

Siding with the majority of courts that have ruled on this issue, the Supreme Court determined that filing a proof of claim on account of stale debt is neither “false,” “deceptive,” “misleading,” “unconscionable,” nor “unfair.” The Court rejected the debtor’s contention that “claim” under the Bankruptcy Code means “enforceable claim.” The Court further found it was “more difficult to square [the debtor’s] interpretation with other provisions of the Bankruptcy Code.” For example, in the definitions section in the Bankruptcy Code, the term “claim” includes claims that are disputed (by such affirmative defenses as statutes of limitations). 

The majority was also not persuaded by the debtor’s arguments that finding in favor of Midland would encourage debt collectors to buy up stale debts at steep discounts and then file proofs of claim in bankruptcy proceedings, hoping to fool careless trustees. In particular, the Court pointed to the relative sophistication of parties in bankruptcy—particularly the trustees—who are well equipped to challenge creditor claims when necessary.

The Court determined that it should leave the current system intact, in which creditors’ proofs of claim are prima facie evidence of the creditors’ claim but subject to challenge on account of affirmative defenses and otherwise. This would allow the bankruptcy system to weed out defective claims. And to rule otherwise would require a far greater examination of the claims process than the Midland case contemplated. For example, would a creditor need to assess the merit of all affirmative defenses to its claim prior to filing a proof of claim? 

The debtor and the United States, which had filed an amicus brief, had more traction with the dissent. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ginsberg and Kagan, wrote with concern that the majority’s ruling does nothing to stem the practices of debt buyers who are now seeking to take advantage of bankruptcy courts to be paid on stale debts because they are not able to do so in state courts. Because creditors’ rights to collect on time-barred claims vary from state to state, creditors should consult with counsel when preparing proofs of claim.

The majority appears to come to the right answer; but this may not be the end of the story.  The Court leaves the door wide open for debtors and trustees to seek sanctions under Rule 9011 against creditors trying to game the system. And the dissent suggests, rather strongly, that Congress should amend the FDCPA to specifically address attempts by creditors to collect on time-barred debt in bankruptcy. 

There’s more to come on the intersection of the Bankruptcy Code and the FDCPA, we are sure.  

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.

Third Circuit Widens the Circuit Split on Late-Filed Tax Returns

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has joined the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits in employing a four-part test to determine whether debt associated with a late-filed tax return is dischargeable under section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code. This differs from the First, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits, which have held that a tax return that is filed late is not a “return” under section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code. As such, in those circuits, the debt associated with late-filed returns is not dischargeable in bankruptcy—even if they are only one day late.   

In Giacchi, the debtor filed his tax returns (Form 1040) late for years 2000–2002. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, rather than using the one-day rule, applied a four-part analysis called the “Beard Test” in order to determine whether the returns qualified as “returns” under section 523(a). In order to qualify as a return under the Beard Test: (1) it must purport to be a return, (2) it must be executed under penalty of perjury, (3) it must contain sufficient data to allow calculation of tax, and (4) it must represent an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of the tax law. Only the fourth factor was at issue: whether the filing represents an honest and reasonable attempt to satisfy the requirements of tax law. The Circuit Court found that the tax debts were not dischargeable as the debtor, by filing the returns late with no real justification, did not make an honest and reasonable effort to comply with the tax law. 

This circuit split will not be resolved in the near future. In February of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in a case on appeal from the Ninth Circuit on the tax return issue.   

For a more detailed discussion on this issue, please see the article authored by Anthony J. Manhart and Bodie B. Colwell: The Bankruptcy Code’s Return Policy: Another Hanging Paragraph Hangs Consumers Out to Dry. The article discusses recent cases, including: In re Fahey, 779 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2015), In re Nilsen, 542 B.R. 640 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2015) and Berry v. Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Case No. 15-41218-CJP (Bankr. D. Mass. June 30, 2016).

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.

Anticipated Amendments to Bankruptcy Rules Require Changes to Claims Filing Procedures

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The US Supreme Court recently authorized a number of significant changes to the procedural rules applicable to bankruptcy proceedings. Absent Congressional intervention, which appears unlikely, the new rules will take effect on December 1, 2017. The amendments will most impact creditors dealing with consumer debtors in Chapter 13 cases, creating new deadlines for filing proofs of claim and allowing debtors to prosecute challenges to secured creditor claims through the plan submission and confirmation process. Some of the more significant changes are:

  • Adoption of an “official” Chapter 13 Plan. The new rules provide for an “official,” standardized Chapter 13 Plan. Under amended Rule 3015(c), debtors will need to use the “official” form unless their jurisdiction has adopted its own local form, which must itself include the information outlined in Rule 3015.1. Among other things, Rule 3015.1 will require local form Chapter 13 Plans to include a paragraph requiring the debtor to highlighting any nonstandard plan provisions, provisions that limit any secured creditor’s claim to the value of its collateral, or provisions that seek to avoid a lien on the debtor’s real or personal property.
  • Required Notice for Chapter 13 Confirmation Hearings and Objections to Confirmation. Rule 2002 has been amended to establish definitive notice provisions in Chapter 13 cases. A new subsection (2002(a)(9)) will require the debtor to provide creditors with at least 21 days’ notice of the deadline for objecting to Chapter 13 Plans. Another new subsection (2002)(b))(3)) calls for 28 days’ notice of the confirmation hearing in Chapter 13 cases.
  • Proofs of Claim. The amendments will also alter the procedures for filing proofs of claim. Specifically:
      • Rule 3002 is amended to clarify that secured creditors must file proofs of claim to have their claims allowed. (However, the Rule makes clear that a secured creditor’s claim will not be rendered void if it chooses not to file a proof of claim.)
      • Rule 3002(c) makes changes to the periods for calculating the claims bar deadline in Chapter 7 (liquidation), 12 (family farmer), and 13 (individual debt readjustment) cases. For those types of cases, the deadline for filing a proof of claim will be reduced. Whereas the current Rule requires proofs of claim to be filed within 90 days after the initial §341 meeting of creditors, the revised Rule will require creditors to file their proofs of claim within seventy (70) days after the bankruptcy petition filing date.
      • When a case is converted to a case under Chapter 12 or 13, the new, 70-day period for filing proofs of claim will run from the date of the court’s order converting the case. If a case is converted to a case under Chapter 7, a new time period for filing claims will begin running.
      • Amended Rule 3002(c)(6) will allow the Bankruptcy Court to extend any proof of claim deadline if the debtor has failed to file a complete list of his/her creditors.
      • New Rule 3002(c))(7) establishes a 2-stage deadline for filing mortgage proofs of claim where the claim is secured by an interest in the debtor’s principal residence.
  • Claims Objections. Rule 3012, as amended, provides that any party-in-interest may seek a determination of the amount and priority of any claim. Moreover, in a departure from current practice, the amended Rule will permit plan proponents in Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 cases to include objections to the amount and/or priority of claims in the body of the Plan. Rule 3007, as amended, will require that a party objecting to a proof of claim must serve the affected creditor by first-class mail directed to the name and address indicated on the filed proof of claim form. Under amended Rule 3007, the Bankruptcy Court will no longer be required to schedule or hold a hearing on every claim objection.
  • Objections to Liens or Transfers of Exempt Property.  Consistent with revised Rule 3012, amended Rule 4003(d) will allow a request to avoid a lien or other transfer of the debtor’s exempt property to be made either by motion or in the debtor’s Chapter 13 Plan.
Again, these changes to the Bankruptcy Rules are scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2017. Creditors should become familiar with the new requirements and begin developing internal procedures as necessary to ensure compliance. 

Landlords Who Violate Bankruptcy Stay May be Ordered to Pay Emotional Distress Damages and Punitive Damages

Monday, May 1, 2017

Landlords should use caution in attempts to take possession of leased space once a tenant files bankruptcy.  Recently, in Lansaw v. Zokaites, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an order of the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania awarding of emotional distress damages and punitive damages against a landlord who violated the automatic stay. 

Under section 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, the filing of a bankruptcy petition operates as a stay against debt collection activities by creditors.  For violations of the stay, individual debtors can recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages.  

In Lansaw v. Zokaites, the debtors operated a daycare in leased space.  The court found that the landlord violated the automatic stay on three separate occasions.

The first violation consisted of the landlord and his attorney visiting the daycare during business hours to take photographs of the debtors’ personal property.  During that visit, the landlord intimidated one of the debtors and backed her against a wall.

For the second violation, the landlord visited the daycare after business hours using his own key to enter and padlocked and chained the doors.  The landlord left an “interim standstill agreement” on the door, which provided that the landlord would remove the chains if the debtors agreed to certain conditions, including reaffirming the lease with the landlord.

For the third violation, the debtors had found a new property to lease but still had property in the old leasehold.  The landlord directed his attorney to send a letter to the debtors’ new landlord, demanding that the new landlord terminate a lease with the debtors, and stated that, if the new lease was not terminated, the landlord would file a complaint against the new landlord.  The landlord’s attorney also called the new landlord multiple times in an attempt to have the new lease terminated. 

For these violations of the automatic stay, the debtors were awarded $7,500 for emotional distress, $2,600 in legal fees, and $40,000 in punitive damages from the landlord. 

In the opinion, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the bankruptcy code authorizes the award of emotional distress damages as a form of “actual damages,” and that the debtors presented sufficient evidence to support such a claim.  Additionally, the Court found that the debtors were properly awarded punitive damages. 

When a tenant files bankruptcy, a landlord should be extremely cautious in attempts to collect back rent, take possession of the property, or evict a tenant.  Lansaw v. Zokaites was an extreme case; however, violations of the automatic stay may arise from typical landlord activities, such as sending certain notices and applying a setoff against a security deposit.

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.