Justia Bankruptcy Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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The debtors each filed a bankruptcy petition and requested that the city return his vehicle, which had been impounded for failure to pay fines. The filing of a bankruptcy petition automatically “creates an estate,” 11 U.S.C. 541(a), that is intended to include any property made available by other provisions of the Bankruptcy Code. Section 542 provides that an entity in possession of bankruptcy estate property “shall deliver to the trustee, and account for” that property. The filing of a petition also automatically “operates as a stay, applicable to all entities,” of efforts to collect prepetition debts outside the bankruptcy forum, section 362(a), including “any act to obtain possession of property of the estate or of property from the estate or to exercise control over property of the estate.”Vacating a Seventh Circuit holding, the Supreme Court held that the mere retention of estate property after the filing of a bankruptcy petition does not violate section 362(a). That section prohibits affirmative acts that would disturb the status quo of estate property as of the time when the bankruptcy petition was filed. Reading section 362(a)(3) to cover mere retention of property would contradict section 542, which carves out exceptions to the turnover command. Under the debtors’ reading, an entity would be required to turn over property under section 362(a)(3) even if that property were exempt from turnover under section 542. View "Chicago v. Fulton" on Justia Law

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The IRS allows affiliated corporations to file a consolidated federal return, 26 U.S.C. 1501, and issues any refund as a single payment to the group’s designated agent. If a dispute arises, federal courts normally turn to state law to resolve the question of distribution of the refund. Some courts follow the “Bob Richards Rule,” which initially provided that, absent an agreement, a refund belongs to the group member responsible for the losses that led to it. The Rule has evolved, in some jurisdictions, into a general rule that is always followed unless an agreement unambiguously specifies a different result. Soon after the bank suffered huge losses, its parent, Bancorp, was forced into bankruptcy. When the IRS issued a $4 million tax refund, the bank’s receiver, the FDIC, and Bancorp’s bankruptcy trustee each claimed it. The Tenth Circuit examined the parties’ allocation agreement, applied the more expansive version of Bob Richards, and ruled for the FDIC.The Supreme Court vacated. The Rule is not a legitimate exercise of federal common lawmaking. Federal judges may appropriately craft the rule of decision in only limited areas; claiming a new area is subject to strict conditions. Federal common lawmaking must be necessary to protect uniquely federal interests. The federal courts applying and extending Bob Richards have not pointed to any significant federal interest sufficient to support the rule, nor have these parties. State law is well-equipped to handle disputes involving corporate property rights, even in cases involving bankruptcy and a tax dispute. Whether this case might yield a different result without Bob Richards is a matter for the court of appeals on remand. View "Rodriguez v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp." on Justia Law

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Ritzen sued Jackson in Tennessee state court for breach of contract. Jackson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Under 11 U.S.C. 362(a), filing a bankruptcy petition automatically “operates as a stay” of creditors’ debt-collection efforts outside the bankruptcy case. The Bankruptcy Court denied Ritzen’s motion for relief from the automatic stay. Ritzen did not appeal but filed a proof of claim, which was disallowed. Ritzen then challenged the denial of relief from the automatic stay. The district court rejected Ritzen’s appeal as untimely under 28 U.S.C. 158(c)(2) and Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 8002(a), which require appeals from a bankruptcy court order to be filed “within 14 days after entry of [that] order.”The Sixth Circuit and a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. A bankruptcy court’s order unreservedly denying relief from the automatic stay constitutes a final, immediately appealable order under section 158(a). Adjudication of a creditor’s motion for relief from the stay is a discrete “proceeding” that disposes of a procedural unit anterior to, and separate from, claim-resolution proceedings. The order can have large practical consequences, including whether a creditor can isolate its claim from those of other creditors and proceed outside bankruptcy. Rather than disrupting the efficiency of the bankruptcy process, an immediate appeal may permit creditors to establish their rights expeditiously outside the bankruptcy process, affecting the relief awarded later in the bankruptcy case. View "Ritzen Group, Inc. v. Jackson Masonry, LLC" on Justia Law

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Taggart owned an interest in an Oregon company. That company and its other owners (respondents) sued, claiming that Taggart had breached the company’s operating agreement. Before trial, Taggart filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Court issued a discharge order that released Taggart from liability for most pre-bankruptcy debts. The Oregon state court subsequently entered judgment against Taggart in the pre-bankruptcy suit and awarded attorney’s fees to respondents. The Bankruptcy Court found respondents in civil contempt for collecting attorney’s fees in violation of the discharge order. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel and the Ninth Circuit applied a subjective standard to hold that a “creditor’s good faith belief” that the discharge order does not apply to the claim precludes a finding of contempt, even if that belief was unreasonable. The Supreme Court vacated. Neither a standard akin to strict liability nor a purely subjective standard is appropriate. A court may hold a creditor in civil contempt for violating a discharge order if there is no fair ground of doubt as to whether the order barred the creditor’s conduct. Civil contempt principles apply to the bankruptcy statutes, which specify that a discharge order “operates as an injunction,” 11 U.S.C. 524(a)(2), and that a court may issue any “order” or “judgment” that is “necessary or appropriate” to “carry out” other bankruptcy provisions. A party’s subjective belief that she was complying with an order ordinarily will not insulate her from civil contempt if that belief was objectively unreasonable. The Court remanded, noting that subjective intent is not always irrelevant. Civil contempt sanctions may be warranted when a party acts in bad faith, and a party’s good faith may help to determine an appropriate sanction. View "Taggart v. Lorenzen" on Justia Law

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Tempnology licensed Mission to use Tempnology’s trademarks in connection with the distribution of clothing. Tempnology filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sought to reject its agreement with Mission as an “executory contract” under 11 U.S.C. 365, which provides that rejection “constitutes a breach of such contract.” The Bankruptcy Court approved Tempnology’s rejection, holding that the rejection terminated Mission’s rights to use Tempnology’s trademarks. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel reversed, holding that rejection does not terminate rights that would survive a breach of contract outside bankruptcy. The First Circuit reinstated the Bankruptcy Court’s decision.The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that the case is not moot. Mission presented a plausible claim for damages, sufficient to preserve a live controversy. A debtor’s rejection of an executory contract under Bankruptcy Code Section 365 has the same effect as a breach of that contract outside bankruptcy and cannot rescind rights that the contract previously granted. A licensor’s breach cannot revoke continuing rights given under a contract (assuming no special contract term or state law) outside of bankruptcy; the same result follows from rejection in bankruptcy. Section 365 reflects the general bankruptcy rule that the estate cannot possess anything more than the debtor did outside bankruptcy. The distinctive features of trademarks do not mandate a different result. In delineating the burdens a debtor may and may not escape, Section 365’s edict that rejection is breach expresses a more complex set of aims than facilitating reorganization. View "Mission Product Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC" on Justia Law

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Appling owed about $60,000 to his law firm (Lamar), which threatened to withdraw representation and place a lien on its work product. Appling told Lamar that he could cover owed and future legal expenses with an expected tax refund, so Lamar continued representation. Appling used the refund, which was much less than he had stated, for business expenses, but told Lamar he was still waiting for the refund. Lamar completed pending litigation. Appling never paid. Lamar obtained a judgment. Appling filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Lamar initiated an adversary proceeding, arguing that Appling’s debt was nondischargeable under 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(2). Section 523(a)(2)(A) bars discharge of debts arising from “false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud, other than a statement respecting the debtor’s . . . financial condition.” Subparagraph (B) bars discharge of debts arising from a materially false “statement . . . respecting the debtor’s . . . financial condition” if that statement is “in writing.” The Eleventh Circuit found that Appling made a statement “respecting” his “financial condition,” which was not in writing. The Supreme Court affirmed. A statement about a single asset can be a “statement respecting the debtor’s financial condition” under section 523(a)(2). A statement is “respecting” a debtor’s financial condition if it has a direct relation to or impact on the debtor’s overall financial status. A single asset has a direct relation to and impact on aggregate financial condition, so a statement about that asset bears on a debtor’s overall financial condition and can help indicate whether a debtor is solvent or insolvent. View "Lamar, Archer & Cofrin, LLP v. Appling" on Justia Law

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Lakeridge. a corporation with a single owner (MBP), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, owing U.S. Bank $10 million and MBP $2.76 million. Lakeridge submitted a reorganization plan, proposing to impair the interests of both. U.S. Bank refused, blocking Lakeridge’s reorganization through a consensual plan, 11 U.S.C. 1129(a)(8). Lakeridge then turned to a “cramdown” plan, which would require consent by an impaired class of creditors that is not an “insider” of the debtor. An insider “includes” any director, officer, or “person in control” of the entity. MBP, unable to provide the needed consent, sought to transfer its claim to a non-insider. Bartlett, an MBP board member and Lakeridge officer, offered MBP’s claim to Rabkin for $5,000. Rabkin purchased the claim and consented to Lakeridge’s proposed reorganization. U.S. Bank objected, arguing that Rabkin was a nonstatutory insider because he had a “romantic” relationship with Bartlett. The Bankruptcy Court, Ninth Circuit, and Supreme Court rejected that argument. The Ninth Circuit correctly reviewed the Bankruptcy Court’s determination for clear error (rather than de novo), as “mixed question” of law and fact: whether the findings of fact satisfy the legal test for conferring non-statutory insider status. The standard of review for a mixed question depends on whether answering it entails primarily legal or factual work. Using the Ninth Circuit’s legal test for identifying such insiders (whether the transaction was conducted at arm’s length, i.e., as though the parties were strangers) the mixed question became: Given all the basic facts, was Rabkin’s purchase of MBP’s claim conducted as if the two were strangers? Such an inquiry primarily belongs in the court that has presided over the presentation of evidence, i.e., the bankruptcy court. View "U. S. Bank N. A. v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC" on Justia Law

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Valley agreed to purchase Bedford Downs’ stock for $55 million if it got the last harness-racing license in Pennsylvania, Valley got the license and arranged for Credit Suisse to wire $55 million to third-party escrow agent Citizens Bank. Bedford Downs shareholders, including Merit, deposited their stock certificates into escrow. Citizens disbursed the $55 million according to the agreement. Merit received $16.5 million. Valley was unable to achieve its goal of opening a racetrack casino and, with its parent company, Centaur, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. FTI, the trustee, sought to avoid the transfer to Merit for the sale of Bedford stock, arguing that it was constructively fraudulent under 11 U.S.C. 548(a)(1)(B). Merit contended that the section 546(e) safe harbor barred FTI from avoiding the transfer because it was a “settlement payment . . . made by or to (or for the benefit of)” two “financial institutions,” Credit Suisse and Citizens Bank. The Seventh Circuit held that section 546(e) did not protect transfers in which financial institutions served as mere conduits. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The only relevant transfer for purposes of the 546(e) safe harbor is the transfer that the trustee seeks to avoid and not its component parts. FTI sought to avoid the Valley-to-Merit transfer; neither Valley or Merit is a covered entity, so the transfer falls outside of the 546(e) safe harbor. View "Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc." on Justia Law