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Monday, December 15, 2014

Hot Button Issues Before the U.S. Supreme Court: Bankruptcy Now Rules Docket

  Interesting statistic:  a litigant has a 1% or less chance of convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to review his, her or its burning legal issue that all other appellate courts have rejected, dismissed or pooh-poohed.  Don’t believe me? Look here:  http://dailywrit.com/2013/01/likelihood-of-a-petition-being-granted/

    As of today (December 15, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted five—count ‘em, five—different bankruptcy issues to hear in its 2014-2015 term.  Depending upon your perspective, this is either like hitting a big-bucks lottery, or suffering the consequences of the old Chinese curse “May everything you wish for come true”.  In addition, the justices have decided, on January 9, 2015, to confer on whether to accept another bankruptcy issue on their docket of cases to hear and decide.

   Here are the five issues that the SCOTUS has agreed to decide, and the one it will consider in mid-January, in no particular order of importance:

1                 11 U.S.C. §506(d) Strip-Offs of Totally Unsecured Second Mortgages in Chapter 7:  At the circuit level, the 11th Circuit stands alone in permitting Chapter 7 debtors to use §§506(a) and 506(d) to “strip-off” second mortgages when a first mortgage eats up all the value in a residence or other real property.  

    The SCOTUS has accepted certiorari on two 11th Circuit decisions allowing second mortgage strip-offs: Bank of America, N.A. v. Caulkett, No. 13-1421 (lower court opinion here: https://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca11/14-10803/14-10803-2014-05-21.pdf); and Bank of America, N.A. v. Toledo-Cardona, No. 14-163 (lower court opinion here: http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/11thcir-toledo-cardona.pdf).

    For a more detailed examination of this issue, see my previous blog posts (on two other 11th Circuit cases denied certiorari) here:  http://impudentbankruptcylawyer.blogspot.com/2014/04/now-in-play-506d-strip-offs-in-chapter-7.html ;  and here: http://impudentbankruptcylawyer.blogspot.com/2014/06/11th-circuit-506d-strip-offs-part-deux.html.

2        Whether an Order Denying Confirmation of a Chapter 13 Plan is an Appealable “Final Order”:  This case originates from the First Circuit. This past spring, the First Circuit dodged the issue of whether a Chapter 13 debtor could propose and confirm a “hybrid” Chapter 13 plan (splitting a secured mortgage claim on underwater property into  “secured” and “unsecured” claims, and continuing paying the stripped-down secured claim after five years), and held instead that the debtor’s appeal  should be dismissed because the bankruptcy court’s order denying confirmation of the debtor’s Chapter 13 plan was not a “final” order for purposes of accepting appellate jurisdiction.

           The SCOTUS accepted certiorari on the First Circuit case, on December 12, 2014: Bullard v. Hyde Park Savings Bank, No. 14-116 (lower court opinion here: http://media.ca1.uscourts.gov/pdf.opinions/13-9009P-01A.pdf).  I examined the First Circuit opinion in my blog post here:  http://impudentbankruptcylawyer.blogspot.com/2014/05/sound-fury-no-hybrid-chapter-13-plan.html.

3        Bankruptcy Court Jurisdiction under Article III of the U. S. Constitution – Third Bite at the Apple:  First, we had Stern v. Marshall, in which the SCOTUS told us that bankruptcy jurisdiction—whether labeled ‘core” or “non-core”—did not extend to a bankruptcy court making final findings of fact or rulings of law on a state law issue that a debtor presents as a permissive (rather than mandatory) counterclaim to a creditor’s filed proof of claim.  The SCOTUS, in the majority opinion, assured us that its ruling was no sea-change to bankruptcy practice and limited in scope.  My previous blog post on Stern v. Marshall is here:  http://impudentbankruptcylawyer.blogspot.com/2012/12/stern-v-marshall-seminar-materials.html.

   Next, we had Executive Benefits Agency  v. Arkinson, in which a unanimous SCOTUS assured us that if a bankruptcy court is confronted with a state law issue masquerading as a “core” issue—such as, in this case, a fraudulent transfer lawsuit—that invokes the specter of Stern v. Marshall,  the bankruptcy court and/or the U.S. District Court may treat the bankruptcy court’s findings and rulings as "proposed”, as they would in a true non-core matter, and no harm would be done. My previous blog post on Executive Benefits Agency  v. Arkinson is here: http://impudentbankruptcylawyer.blogspot.com/2014/06/executive-benefits-insurance-agency-v.html.

   In Executive Benefits Agency  v. Arkinson, Justice Thomas’s opinion conveniently ducked the issue of whether parties who had an Article III objection to bankruptcy court jurisdiction could expressly or impliedly “waive” that objection and allow a bankruptcy court to issue final findings and rulings on the matter.  That issue, like many buried issues, rears its ugly head again in Wellness International Network, Limited v. Sharif, No. 13-935, scheduled for argument in mid-January (lower court opinion here:  http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/rssExec.pl?Submit=Display&Path=Y2013/D08-21/C:12-1349:J:Tinder:aut:T:fnOp:N:1190505:S:0). In the Wellness International Network case, the SCOTUS has agreed to decide two issues: (a) whether  a subsidiary state property law issue that needs to be decided in order to determine whether property in the debtor’s possession is property of the bankruptcy estate stems from the bankruptcy itself or is an issue that a bankruptcy court lacks the constitutional authority to decide with a final order; and (b) whether litigant consent—express or implied—is enough  to permit a bankruptcy court’s exercise of the Article III judicial power, and if so, whether implied consent based on a litigant’s conduct is sufficient to satisfy Article III requirements for the exercise of that consent.

   The SCOTUS has scheduled January 14, 2015 for argument on this case; you can read all the briefs here:  http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/wellness-international-network-limited-v-sharif/.

4    Monies Paid into a Chapter 13 per a Confirmed Chapter 13 Plan: Who Gets the Funds if the Debtor’s Case is Converted to a Chapter 7 Case?:  There is a circuit conflict on this issue. 11 U.S.C. §348(f) says that, in a Chapter 13 case converted to Chapter 7 in good faith, the “property of the estate” is the property that the debtor came into bankruptcy with and “remains in the possession of or is under the control of the debtor on the date of conversion.” Such property apparently excludes undistributed monies—specifically, post-petition wages—that a debtor paid to the Chapter 13 trustee for distribution per a confirmed Chapter 13 plan.  The Third Circuit said that the statute (and 11 U.S.C. §1327(a)) required paid-in monies to be returned to the debtor and not distributed by creditors. In re Michael, 699 F.3d 305 (3rd Cir. 2012). The Fifth Circuit said that the statutes fail to adequately address the situation, the Chapter 13 plan needs to be respected, and the paid-in monies need to be distributed to creditors per the plan. Vieglelahn v. Harris, located here: http://www.jthomasblack.com/library/20140707-Vieglelahn-v.-Harris--13-50374--5th-Cir.-2014-.pdf. The SCOTUS accepted the debtor’s writ of certiorari regarding the Fifth Circuit decision; the case and docket number are Harris v. Viegelahn, No. 14-400.

5     The Extent of Bankruptcy Court Authority to Award Fees under 11 U.S.C. §330: Another Fifth Circuit decision is up for review.  Baker Botts, L.L.P. v. ASARCO, L.L.C., No. 14-103 (lower court opinion: http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/5ht-cir-12-40997-.pdf) involves a Chapter 11 case, but raises issues near and dear to all bankruptcy attorneys’ hearts:  (a) under 11 U.S.C. §330, can the bankruptcy court award “fee enhancements” (as opposed to fees based solely on hourly rates and time, i.e., the “lodestar” method) for exceptional results in a bankruptcy case; and (b) under the same statute, can the bankruptcy court approve fees for litigation associated with defending a fee application? The Fifth Circuit said “yes” to the fee enhancement, but “no” to the fee application litigation fees.  On the latter subject, the circuit court noted that §330(a)(6) allows for fees to be awarded only for preparation of a fee application.  I suspect, however, that the fee enhancement issue will draw much more attention in the briefs and argument of this case.

6     Whether a Bankruptcy Court can Limit or Eliminate “Plan Injunctions”  and Releases in Favor of Non-Creditors in a Chapter 11 Plan (Pending Petition for Certiorari): This writ of certiorari tests a bankruptcy court’s power to deny enforcement or approval of injunctions and releases in favor of non-creditors, which injunctions and releases are included in a proposed Chapter 11 plan. You can read the writ for certiorari here: http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/30262-pdf-Goroff.pdf and the lower case opinion (from the 4th Circuit) here: http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/131608.P.pdf The case and docket number are National Heritage Foundation v. The Highbourne Foundation, No. 14-481.

©Kevin C. McGee 2014

1 comment:

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