Thursday, April 12, 2012

I’m suing someone and they filed for bankruptcy. What happens next?

As we have discussed in previous posts, immediately upon filing a voluntary Petition for Bankruptcy, the protections of the Automatic Stay go into effect to protect the debtor in an active bankruptcy. 11 U.S.C. §362(a) provides that the commencement or continuation of any acts or proceedings against the debtor in an effort to collect or recover any debt is automatically stayed, and any further efforts at collection are prohibited and punishable by law. Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §362(k), an individual injured by any willful violation of a stay provided by this section shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.

Therefore, if you are the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against a debtor in bankruptcy, it is imperative that you immediately cease collection efforts against the debtor, including ensuring the court takes no further action with respect to the case. Debtor’s counsel should file a “Suggestion of Bankruptcy” with the court, which is a notice to the Court that a party to the case is in bankruptcy, and the case may not proceed with respect to them or any claims against them. If the Debtor’s counsel does not file a suggestion of bankruptcy, in order to avoid the penalties of 11 U.S.C. §362(k), you or your attorney should ensure the court is aware that a party to the case has filed for bankruptcy. The Court Clerk or your civil attorney will advise you on the proper way to file such a notice.

Once the case has been stayed (i.e., paused), you must decide if you have grounds to pursue your claims in bankruptcy court, or have a reason why the particular debt is nondischargable by law in bankruptcy. For example, debts which were obtained by false pretenses, or false representations, or actual fraud are not dischargeable, nor are debts owed for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, or embezzlement or larceny, among other things. Each of these categories have particular legal requirements in order to prove nondischargability, and in order to prevent the discharge of that debt, you will need to prepare and file an Adversary Proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court.

Procedurally, an Adversary Proceeding is conducted much like a lawsuit in District Court or Superior Court, although the Bankruptcy Court maintains jurisdiction over the resolution of the claims. Removing a case to bankruptcy court can have far-reaching consequences on other aspects of the litigation, and we strongly recommend you consult with an attorney before doing so.

In some situations where your debt is secured or enjoys a legal priority over other debts, and there are assets available in the bankruptcy to pay creditors, it may not be necessary to file an adversarial proceeding, but rather a Proof of Claim. A Proof of Claim is your notice to the court establishing the existence of a debt and the nature of the debt, and will be reviewed by the Trustee and the debtor’s counsel. If funds are available to satisfy your class of debt, you may receive payment (partial or full, depending on the assets obtained from the debtor) from the bankruptcy trustee on behalf of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.

Regardless, if you are involved in litigation and the opposing party files for bankruptcy, contact Attorney Matthew P. Trask to discuss how the bankruptcy will affect your case and claims moving forward. To fail to assert your rights in the bankruptcy case so could be an extremely costly mistake.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I’m being sued. Can a bankruptcy help?

If you are being sued on a debt collection matter, or other civil matter for which a money judgment can be imposed, filing bankruptcy may give you relief from your creditors. The Automatic Stay halts all existing court proceedings that the debtor is involved in, as well as any collection efforts for the individual's debts, until the bankruptcy proceedings are resolved.

In certain situations, the Automatic Stay might not prevent other court proceedings from continuing, at least in part. For example, in any family law case involving child support and custody, issues involving visitation or current child support are not subject to the Automatic Stay, but issues involving past due child support will be continued until the Automatic Stay is lifted at the end of bankruptcy proceedings.

The Automatic Stay is designed to provide some breathing room for the debtor in bankruptcy and provide the time and logistical ability to reorganize debts (as in a Chapter 11 or Chapter 13), or obtain a discharge (as in a Chapter 7 case). While the long-term resolution of a lawsuit will depend on the type of case, the Automatic Stay will provide some immediate protection for the debtor.

Ultimately, the debtor’s primary concern will be whether the debt or obligation on which the lawsuit is based will be discharged in bankruptcy. Absent fraud or certain other factors, most lawsuits arising out of consumer debts (e.g., lawsuits on unpaid credit cards or mortgage deficiencies following a foreclosure) are dischargeable under Chapter 7, and can be discharged following the successful completion of a Chapter 13 plan. However, the following debts arising under some suits cannot be discharged:

  1. Lawsuits for unpaid taxes, custom duties, or debts to pay taxes or custom duties.
  2. Lawsuits collecting student loan debt.
  3. Lawsuits to collect unpaid spousal or child support.
  4. Lawsuits filed by a spouse, former spouse, or child to enforce a Court Order obtained in a domestic relations proceeding.
  5. Lawsuits where the debt was included in a previous bankruptcy wherein discharge of that particular debt was waived, such as reaffirmed debts.
  6. Lawsuits for debts owed for money, property, services, or refinancing of credit, if obtained by false pretenses, or false representations, or actual fraud.
  7. Lawsuits involving consumer debts for luxury goods obtained within ninety (90) days of the date of filing of the bankruptcy petition.
  8. Lawsuits involving cash advances obtained within seventy (70) days of the date of the filing of the bankruptcy petition.
  9. Lawsuits involving debts owed for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, or embezzlement or larceny.
  10. Debts owed for fines, penalties, or forfeitures payable to and for the benefit of governmental entity.
  11. Lawsuits and debts owed for death or personal injury arising from the operation of a motor vehicle, boat, or aircraft while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.

It is important to understand that the filing of a case will temporarily stop the lawsuit for many of the above claims, even though the actual debt is nondischargable. However, once the protections of the Automatic Stay expire, or the opposing party obtains permission from the Bankruptcy Court to move ahead, the case may proceed, and you may be required to pay any debt arising out of the above types of lawsuits, even after bankruptcy.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What does it mean if someone listed me in their bankruptcy as a Co-Debtor?

When a joint obligor on a promissory note or other debt files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy code requires that notice of the bankruptcy case is provided to the creditor and all co-debtors who are also obligated to pay the debt. If you receive notice that a co-borrower or co-debtor on a particular debt has filed for bankruptcy, it means that the debtor is complying with this particular requirement of the statute. In order for any actual or contingent obligation to be dischargable in bankruptcy, the creditor (the individual or business which is owed money by the debtor) must receive notice of the bankruptcy case, and have the right to object to the discharge of the debt, if appropriate legal grounds exist to object.

The reason that the code requires that all co-borrowers receive notice is because whenever there is a joint debt, the individual co-borrowers have “contingent, unliquidated claims” against all the other borrowers. Put another way, if Danny and Alice borrow $5,000.00 jointly, and Danny doesn’t pay , the lender can sue Alice and force her to repay all of the $5,000.00. Alice can then sue Danny and force him to contribute to the payment of the judgment obtained against Alice. However, in the event Danny files for bankruptcy, neither the original lender, nor Alice can sue Danny in an attempt to collect the balance even if the lender seeks to collect against Alice.

In this case, Alice would be best served to speak to a bankruptcy attorney, because she has a very limited time to do what she can to protect her claim, if anything. Alice’s right to collect any money from Danny is very fact specific, and the whole story will determine whether Danny’s “contingent” debt to Alice can similarly be discharged. If you find yourself owing a joint debt with someone who has recently filed for bankruptcy , contact Attorney Matthew P. Trask to discuss your rights and obligations.

To read more about co-debtors and bankruptcy, see our post What happens to my Cosigner if I file for Bankruptcy.

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