110 posts categorized "Consumer Bankruptcy"

Pets and Financial Distress

posted by Pamela Foohey

Last weekend, The New York Times published an opinion piece about animal shelters, Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death? It highlighted the sad reality that nationwide shelters are horribly overcrowded. According to the piece, a "big part" of shelters' overcrowding "is poverty: An estimated one-quarter of shelter animals are there after their owners have surrendered them because of family dysfunction or financial pressure." For instance, a family might not have enough money for vet bills. Or a family must relocate to less expensive housing that does not accept pets. The example in the piece that stood out to me most was families' inability to pay fees and fines related to their pets being picked up by animal control.

Reading the piece -- particularly the parts about fines -- led me to wonder more about pets and financial distress and bankruptcy. And to a broad question for Credit Slips readers. What have been your experiences regarding pets and financial distress, both pre-bankruptcy and in bankruptcy?

Older Americans’ Rising Bankruptcy Filings

posted by Pamela Foohey

Older Americans (age 65 and over) are increasingly likely to file bankruptcy and now comprise a larger proportion of the people who file bankruptcy -- and the effects are not small. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, in a new working paper just posted to SSRN -- Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society -- my co-authors (past Slipster Debb Thorne, Slipster Bob Lawless, and past Slipster Katie Porter) and I find a more than two-fold increase between 1991 and now in the rate at which older Americans file bankruptcy. We further find an almost five-fold increase in the percentage of older persons in the bankruptcy system. The magnitude of growth in older Americans in bankruptcy is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect.

In the paper, we link older Americans’ increased filing rates with the shrinking social safety net. A story published today in the New York Times (on actual paper and on the front page!) does an exceptional job of both describing our study and detailing the ways in which the risks of aging have been off-loaded onto older Americans: “vanishing pensions, soaring medical expenses, inadequate savings.” The story also highlights the financial and life travails of a few older Americans who filed bankruptcy. Their struggles stem from declining income, lost insurance, and unmanageable medical expenses.   

Continue reading "Older Americans’ Rising Bankruptcy Filings" »

Access to Justice, Consumer Bankruptcy Edition

posted by Pamela Foohey

The Great Recession, the CFPB's creation, the rise of debt buying, changes in the debt collection industry, and advances in data collection have encouraged more research recently into issues of access to justice in the context of consumer law and consumer bankruptcy. This spring, the consumer bankruptcy portion of the Emory Bankruptcy Development Journal's annual symposium focused on access to justice and "vindicating the rights of all consumers." Professors Susan Block-Lieb, Kara Bruce, Alexander Sickler, and I spoke at the symposium about how a range of consumer law, finance, and bankruptcy topics converge as issues of access to justice.

We recently posted our accompanying papers (detailed further below) to SSRN. My essay overviews what we know about the barriers people face entering the consumer bankruptcy system, identifies areas for further research, and proposes a couple ideas for improving access to bankruptcy. Susan Block-Lieb’s essay focuses on how cities can assist people dealing with financial troubles. And Kara Bruce’s and Alex Sickler’s co-authored essay reviews the state of FDCPA litigation in chapter 13 cases in light of Midland Funding v. Johnson and explores alternatives to combat the filing of proofs of claim for stale debts.

Continue reading "Access to Justice, Consumer Bankruptcy Edition" »

Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?

posted by Jason Kilborn

Over the past few weeks, at conferences with judges and policymakers in Varna (Bulgaria), Seoul, and Beijing, I've been confronted with a surprising degree of skepticism about personal insolvency systems and fear of opportunistic individuals abusing the ability to evade their debts (especially while hiding assets). I've pointed out the interesting progression identifiable in Europe in recent years of a marked relaxation of such fear of abuse, especially in places like France and most recently Slovakia, which have gone all the way to adopting a very US-like open-access system to immediate discharge. For the real skeptics--and they are numerous in Bulgaria and China, both of whom are considering adopting their first personal insolvency laws--these arguments seem to fall on more or less deaf ears. Detractors put me in a no-win situation by offering one of two rejoinders: (1) the incidence of discovered abuse is low in these systems because debtors are crafty or anti-abuse institutions are weak, or (2) anti-abuse institutions like the means test and restrictive access hurdles are successfully dissuading abusers from seeking access, so we need more--not less--of this kind of effort (which I've criticized as wasteful, unnecessary, and counterproductive). A common third response is the classic "we're different" position--that is, any comparative empirical evidence from elsewhere is irrelevant to the new, entirely unique context of [insert skeptical country's name here].

Continue reading "Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?" »

More on "Undue Hardship" and Student Loans in Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

Following up on Bob's post earlier this week about the Department of Education's request for information (RFI) regarding evaluating "undue hardship" claims in adversary proceedings to discharge student loans, a group of 23 academics, including myself, also submitted written comments in response. The effort was spearheaded by Slipster Dalié Jiménez. Matthew Bruckner (Howard Law), Brook Gotberg (Missouri Law), and Chrystin Ondersma (Rutgers Law) also were part of the drafting team.

Our primary recommendation is that the Department establish ten categories of borrower circumstances under which the Department would agree to the borrower’s discharge of federal student loans. As with the ABI Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy's comments (and the National Bankruptcy Conference's comments), our categories are designed to offer objective criteria for when the Department should agree to a discharge of student loans. The overall aim of the proposal is to establish clear, easy-to-verify, dire circumstances that merit the Department’s acquiescence to a student loan discharge and thereby promote the efficient use of taxpayer funds. To this end, we also recommend that the Department accept "reasonable proof" that a borrower fits into one of the ten categories without engaging in formal litigation discovery. Our response also calls on the Department to collect and release more data about federal student loans.

The underutilized student loan bankruptcy discharge

posted by Alan White

A common misconception is that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is a bankruptcy discharge exception for some qualified student loans and educational benefit repayment obligations. The discharge exception does not, however, apply to all loans made to students. Jason Iuliano argues in a new paper that bankruptcy courts have interpreted the discharge exception too broadly, applying it to loans for unaccredited schools, loans for tutoring services, and loans beyond the cost of attendance for college. His paper presents a compelling argument based on the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and policy in support of a narrow reading of 11 USC §523(a)(8).

The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas recently adopted the narrow reading of §523(a)(8)(A)(ii) in Crocker v. Navient Solutions, LLC , Adv. 16-3175 (Bankr. S.D. Tx Mar. 26, 2018). The court denied Navient's motion for summary judgment, finding that the bar exam study loan from SLMA at issue was not within the discharge exception for qualified student loans or educational benefit repayments.

In another class action complaint filed last year against Sallie Mae and Navient, plaintiffs claim that servicers are systematically defrauding student loan debtors about their bankruptcy discharge rights. According to the complaint in Homaidan v. Sallie Mae, Inc. (17-ap-01085 Bankr. EDNY), servicers illegally continued collecting private student loans that were fully discharged in debtor bankruptcies because they were not qualified educational loans. The servicers exploited the common misconception that "student loans" writ large are excluded from bankruptcy discharge. The defendants' motion to dismiss or compel arbitration is pending.

Professor Iuliano has also demonstrated in a prior paper that even student loans covered by the bankruptcy discharge exception can still be discharged based on showing "undue hardship," and that courts are far more likely to approve undue hardship discharges than many debtors (and lawyers) may realize.

Fed chair Powell to Congress - make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 12.39.45 PMCoverage of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's Congressional testimony highlighted his optimism about economic growth and its implications for future interest rate hikes. Less widely covered were his brief remarks on the student loan debt crisis. Citing the macroeconomic drag of a trillion-and-a-half dollar student loan debt, chairman Powell testified that  he "would be at a loss to explain" why student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. According to Fed research, Powell noted, nondischargeable student loan debt  has long-term negative effects on the path of borrowers' economic life.

People’s Pre-Bankruptcy Struggles -- New Paper from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project

posted by Pamela Foohey

The current Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP)’s co-investigators (myself, Slipster Bob Lawless, and past Slipsters Katie Porter & Debb Thorne) just posted to SSRN our new article (forthcoming in Notre Dame Law Review), Life in the Sweatbox. “Sweatbox” refers to the financial sweatbox—the time before people file bankruptcy, which is when they often are on the brink of defaulting on their debts and lenders can charge high interest and fees. In the article, we focus on debtors’ descriptions of their time in the sweatbox.

Based on CBP data, we find that people are living longer in the sweatbox before filing bankruptcy than they have in the past. Two-thirds of people who file bankruptcy reported struggling with their debts for two or more years before filing. One-third of people reported struggling for more than five years, double the frequency from the CBP’s survey of people who filed bankruptcy in 2007. For those people who struggle for more than two years before filing—the “long strugglers”—we find that their time in the sweatbox is marked by persistent debt collection calls, the loss of homes and other property, and going without healthcare, food, and utilities. And although long strugglers do not file bankruptcy until long after the benefits outweigh the costs, they still report being ashamed of needing to file.

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Lularoe, Other Multi-Level Marketing Companies, and Bankruptcy Filings

posted by Pamela Foohey

Several days ago, Stephanie McNeal at BuzzFeed News published a short piece on Lularoe's intersection with consumer bankruptcy filings. I've blogged about multi-level marketing (MLM) companies' potential role in bankruptcy filings a couple times. So when BuzzFeed sent me a list of twenty-four chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcy filings from the past two years in which the debtor listed Lularoe as a part of its DBA or FDBA, I was intrigued. Much of what I could glean from the sample of those petitions and schedules I reviewed is in the short piece. The debtors' reports of past years' income from their Lularoe businesses show a precipitous decline in income, some schedules include unsecured loans from online lenders (seemingly to fund purchases of inventory), and most schedules include a large amount of credit card debt. The debtors also are overwhelmingly married with children, and the couples together owe quite a bit in student debt (over $50,000 on average).

Of course, as the story notes, there likely are many more filings stemming, in part, from Lularoe businesses, and these cases very likely are not representative of all the cases. But it was interesting to review them nonetheless. Lularoe reminds me very much of Rodan + Fields and Herbalife, two other well-known MLMs. Which led me to run the same search that BuzzFeed ran for Rodan + Fields and Herbalife. 

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Come Talk to the ABI Consumer Bankruptcy Commission at NABT

posted by Bob Lawless

As careful Credit Slips readers will remember, I was inflicted on the American Bankruptcy Institute's Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy as the Commission's reporter. Things are off to a roaring start. Taking the suggestions of many different stakeholders in the consumer bankruptcy system, the Commission has developed a list of topics and assigned them to different committees. In turn, the committees have broken down into working groups to study the issues.

The Commission and its committees already have had two successful public meetings, hearing from persons at the annual meeting for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) in Orlando, Florida, and from persons at the annual seminar for the National Association of Chapter 13 Trustees (NACTT) in Seattle, Washington. The Commission web site has videos and, where available, written statements from both the NACBA meeting and the NACTT meeting.

The next public meeting is for the Commission's Committee on Chapter 7, which will occur on September 15 at the annual meeting for the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees in New Orleans, Louisiana. Come talk to us. Subject to time availability, we hope to allow participants to make statements of about five minutes each. Written statements are very welcome and encouraged. Further details appear in the call for participation on the Commission web site. For full consideration, requests to participate must be received by September 6.

Midland Got It Right (Sort Of)

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court got it right in Midland Funding LLC v. Johnson, which holds that it is not a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to file a proof of claim in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy based on a debt whose statute of limitations has expired.  

I suspect that I might be the only bankruptcy professor whose name doesn't start with the last two letters of the alphabet who isn't outraged by Midland (which gives a nice shout out to our former co-blogger Katie Porter's scholarship!), and I'm going to catch hell for writing this, but one of the great things about tenure is that I can say things like this.  So here goes.  I don't think Midland is a very persuasive opinion; it's not the reasoning I would adopt, but I think it gets the right answer, even if it is uncomfortable as a policy result (it's hard to defend an industry whose economics are dependent upon careless trustees and debtors). 

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How to Get Involved with the ABI Consumer Commission

posted by Bob Lawless

As Jason Kilborn noted last month, the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) has formed a Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy. More information about the Commission is available on its web site including the unfortunate news that it got saddled with me as the reporter. We very much invite input and suggestions about the Commission's work. Right now is an especially good time to get involved as the Commission sets its agenda.

The ABI has charged the Commission with "researching and recommending improvements to the consumer bankruptcy system that can be implemented within its existing structure. These changes might include amendments to the Bankruptcy Code, changes to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, administrative rules or actions, recommendations on proper interpretations of existing law and other best practices that judges, trustees and lawyers can implement."

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$45 Million for Stay Violations

posted by Alan White

How much in punitive damages is enough to punish unlawful conduct and deter its repetition? $45 million was one bankruptcy court's opinion, in the case of a wrongful home foreclosure and eviction in knowing violation of the automatic stay.

The court described the plaintiff-debtors’ treatment by defendant Bank of America as Kafkaesque, and found their deeply emotional testimony (one of them attempted suicide during the ordeal) completely credible, awarding more than $1 million in actual damages for the loss of housing and emotional distress. The court also noted that Bank of America had repeatedly settled cases with federal and state regulators for hundreds of millions, and even billions, of dollars, in recognition of serious and repeated compliance failures, including some related directly to servicing home mortgages.  

The fascinating 107-page opinion grapples at length with the dilemma of awarding enough punitive damages to effectively deter the defendant while avoiding an unseemly windfall to the plaintiffs. The solution: the decision awards $40 of the $45 million punitive award to consumer advocacy organizations and the five public California law schools. Citing an Ohio case, state statutes and several law review articles, the court proposes this split award technique as an appropriate step forward in the federal common law of §362(k) punitive damages. An interesting appeal is sure to follow.

New ABI Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy

posted by Jason Kilborn

The American Bankruptcy Institute announced this morning that it has convened a commission to study and propose reforms of the US consumer bankruptcy system. In light of the success of ABI's Chapter 11 commission, we can expect big things from this commission on Chapters 7 and 13. Some major names in consumer bankruptcy are among the 15 members of the commission, and Credit Slips is well represented, with Bob Lawless as Reporter and Katie Porter on the membership roster, along with one more super-prominent academic, professor-cum-judge-cum-professor Bruce Markell, now of Northwestern. I wish the commission had consulted Bob about its name. He would have pointed to his empirical work on small business debtors to suggest that this be called a personal bankruptcy commission, rather than consumer, but perhaps the inclusion of a good deal of small business debtors and business-related debts is taken as a given. Anyway, best wishes to the commission--we'll eagerly await its first reports and calls for comments!

New Article from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project: Attorneys’ Fees and Chapter Choice

posted by Pamela Foohey

Many of us on Credit Slips have been part of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP), a long-term research project studying people who file chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy. Several years ago, some of us blogged about the writings from the last CBP iteration in 2007.  In 2013, the CBP was relaunched as an ongoing data collection effort. The CBP’s current co-investigators – myself, Bob Lawless, Katie Porter, and Debb Thorne – recently posted “No Money Down” Bankruptcy, the first article analyzing data from the Current CBP (data from 2013-2015), combined with 2007 CPB data. The article focuses on the timing of when debtors are required to pay their bankruptcy attorneys to report on the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of debtors paying nothing in attorneys’ fees before filing chapter 13.

This nationwide phenomenon raises questions about how people are accessing bankruptcy and the extent of the benefits they receive from the system. The phenomenon also explains some prior findings about the intersection of race and bankruptcy filings. And it adds to our knowledge about regional disparities in the percentage of people who file chapter 7 versus chapter 13 bankruptcies.

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Homestead Proceeds in Bankruptcy

posted by Gary Neustadter

California's tiered homestead exemption protects a debtor's dwelling to the extent of $75,000, $100,000, or $175,000, depending upon the debtor's status, protects a like amount of proceeds of an execution sale of the homestead for six months following sale, and protects a dwelling acquired with the proceeds within the six-month period. Cal. Code Civ. Pro. §§ 704.710 – 704.730. The short six-month window seriously undermines Chapter 7 relief to a California debtor who would be willing to sacrifice non-exempt equity in a dwelling, such as a surviving spouse, recently widowed, who is burdened with unmanageable unsecured debt and can no longer afford mortgage payments.

In the Ninth Circuit, following a Chapter 7 trustee's sale of a dwelling, the debtor's right to retain the exempt proceeds evaporates, and the right to the proceeds reverts to the trustee, if the debtor fails to reinvest the proceeds in a new dwelling within six months after receiving proceeds of the sale. Wolfe v. Jacobson (In re Jacobson) (9th Cir. 2012). The six-month window assumes a debtor's ability to purchase a replacement dwelling within the specified period. In many locations, including coastal California's urban areas, the amount of protected proceeds will be sufficient, at best, for a down payment. Unless the debtor moves to a less expensive part of the state or country, financing would be essential. But Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae will not purchase mortgage secured loans made within four years of a Chapter 7 discharge (two years with extenuating circumstances) and the FHA will not insure such loans made within two years of a Chapter 7 discharge unless the debtor qualifies under the FHA's back to work program. Some specialized lending programs targeting specific categories of debtors (e.g. veterans) may be more forgiving, but otherwise it is difficult to imagine a lender willing to finance purchase of a dwelling by a recent Chapter 7 debtor if the loan is neither insured nor salable in the secondary market.

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Linking Pyramid Schemes (aka Multilevel Marketing Companies) and Consumer Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

A couple weeks ago, on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver started what promises to be the greatest pyramid scheme ever. In an effort to help him, watch the segment here (warning: language). More seriously, multilevel marketing companies that sell products directly to customers through salespeople working out of their homes (Herbalife, Amway, Nu Skin, the relatively new Rodan + Fields) operate by way of a concerning sales structure. Salespeople recruit salespeople, who recruit more salespeople, who recruit yet more salespeople. The salespeople at the top make money off of the salespeople at the bottom. And the salespeople at the bottom often are left with stockpiles of soon-to-expire product in their homes and garages. Indeed, as noted by John Oliver, in July of this year, Herbalife consented to a $200 million settlement with the FTC in which they agreed to change their business tactics. When asked about Herbalife's business model, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said, "they were not determined not to be a pyramid."  

Now, the potential (probable?) connection to bankruptcy filings. There is evidence that people sign up to sell these products because they need to make extra money--which makes sense. Signing up to be a salesperson for a multilevel marketing company could be one of many coping tactics used by someone hopelessly deep in debt. Get a second job, sell some belongings, go without insurance or food . . . and try to sell products from your home. People may get the idea from friends or financial gurus. For instance, Dave Ramsey's website has a page titled, "Guide to Joining a Multilevel Marketing Company," which includes some of the same inspirational, "go-getter," pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, you hold the key to your own success language that accompany Facebook posts that try to entice people to join Rodan + Fields. Of course, that means it is your fault when you fail, right?

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Disrupting consumer bankruptcy law practice

posted by Gary Neustadter

     Imagine a conversation with Siri (or other digital assistant), circa 2040, that begins as follows:

        Mariana: Siri. I am wondering whether I should file bankruptcy. What do you think?

Siri: Have you considered meeting with a consumer bankruptcy lawyer to discuss that?

Mariana: I've already contacted a few, but all of them charge more than I can afford.

Siri: I understand. I've talked with many other people who say the same thing, and many people file bankruptcy without consulting a lawyer. So let me see if I can help you. Why are you thinking about bankruptcy?

Mariana: I can't pay my medical bills and I got a notice from a collection agency about garnishing my wages. My credit card debts keep growing because I can't even pay the monthly interest, and my student loan debt is still large.

Siri: I imagine that this is pretty stressful for you and I think it is a good idea to consider ways in which you might be able to deal with these problems.

Mariana: Thanks for understanding. And I am losing sleep over this and also having trouble concentrating at work. What do you suggest?

Siri: Let's start by creating some spreadsheets that show your income, your living expenses, your debts, and what you own. You will probably have to dig up some of this information and get back to me, but we can at least start now.

Mariana: O.K. I've got some time now. How do we do this?

Siri: Turn on your television monitor and I'll show you some spreadsheets that we can fill in.

Mariana: O.K. Done.

Siri: Good. I see you now. You do look quite upset.

Mariana: [Shakes her head agreeing with Siri].

Siri: Do you want to talk a little bit more about how this is affecting you before getting started?

Mariana: No. Let's get started now.

     Siri proceeds over the next couple of days to interview and counsel Mariana as would today's consumer bankruptcy lawyer (and staff). Siri gathers the necessary data and completes the spreadsheets. She helps Mariana understand and compare Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 as well as possible non-bankruptcy options (e.g. resisting wage garnishment and stopping unwanted contact from debt collectors). She provides Mariana with the required credit counseling.

     After a few days reflection, Mariana instructs Siri to prepare the relevant documents for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Siri does so, obtains digital copies of Mariana's pay stubs, obtains Mariana's digital signatures, draws filing fees from Mariana's PayPal account, and files the necessary documents with the bankruptcy court.

     Soon thereafter, Siri alerts Mariana to the first meeting of creditors. Mariana attends via FaceTime after practicing with Siri on answering questions that Siri anticipates from the United States Trustee. A few weeks later, Siri notifies Mariana of her discharge, evidence of which Siri will store for Mariana together with the spreadsheets, copies of the documents filed with the bankruptcy court, and a recording of all conversations between Siri and Mariana relating to resolution of her financial difficulties.

     Science fiction? I'm beginning to think not for too long.

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Welcome to Guestblogger Gary Neustadter

posted by Katie Porter

Credit Slips is delighted to welcome first-time guest blogger, Professor Gary Neustadter. A renowned innovative teacher, Professor Neustadter  specializes in debtor-creditor law, contracts, consumer protection, and legal practice. His classic work, When Lawyer and Client Meet: Observations of Interviewing and Counseling Behavior in the Consumer Bankruptcy Law Office, is a must-read, particularly worth revisiting as the nature of legal practice changes in the last decade driven by BAPCPA and the technology.

His new article, Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World, is one of the most exciting pieces of scholarship that I've had the pleasure of reading. Gary offers all those interested in civil justice and economic rights a rare window directly into the justice system. While the picture that he portrays is far from pretty, his article approaches the effect of great art: it challenges us to question our assumptions and our perspectives.

Welcome, Gary, to Credit Slips. We look forward to your insights.

CFPB Consumer Complaint Narratives: What They Say About Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's consumer complaint database has contained narratives for over a year now. Each month, the CFPB publishes a report that summarizes the complaints received over the previous three months, and that focuses on a specific product and geographic area. (The latest report was published on August 31.) The higher-level summary offered by these reports is interesting and I have referenced them in class on occasion.

The consumer complaint narratives tell as interesting, but often different stories. However, they are harder to sort through systematically. In preparation for a symposium, I recently took a random sample of complaints with narratives published in the year period between May 2015 and April 2016. Having now read thousands of narratives, one trend stood out to me rather quickly -- narratives that talked about the consumer's prior bankruptcy or a relative's bankruptcy. About 5% of the narratives discuss bankruptcy.

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Clawing Back Tuition Payments

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Are tuition payments for an adult child's education, while the parents are insolvent, constructively fraudulent? As the WSJ reported this week, Bankruptcy Judge Hoffman (D. Mass.) recently held that they are not. But other courts have disagreed. In fact, there seem to be courts on both sides of this (although apparently, no circuit decisions yet).

In this latest case, In re Palladino, the debtors made tuition payments for their adult daughter's college education. There was no question that the debtors were insolvent when they made payments or that they did so within the last two years. The only question was whether the debtors received "reasonably equivalent value" (REV) under section 548 of the Bankruptcy Code (and Massachusett's UFTA). That section defines value as "property, or satisfaction or securing of a present or antecedent debt of the debtor, but does not include an unperformed promise to furnish support to the debtor or to a relative of the debtor." 548 (a)(2)(A). Courts have interpreted REV as requiring an economic benefit, which could be indirect, but has to be "concrete" and "quantifiable."

Here, the court explained that

[The Palladinos] believed that a financially self-sufficient daughter offered them an economic benefit and that a college degree would directly contribute to financial self-sufficiency. I find that motivation to be concrete and quantifiable enough ... A parent can reasonably assume that paying for a child to obtain an undergraduate degree will enhance the financial well-being of the child which in turn will confer an economic benefit on the parent. This, it seems to me, constitutes a quid pro quo that is reasonable and reasonable equivalence is all that is required.

Opn. at 8 (emphasis mine).

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Can a Nonprofit Startup Fix the Pro Se Problem in Bankruptcy?

posted by Dalié Jiménez

For the past four years, Jim Greiner, Lois Lupica, and I have been working on the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP)*, a large randomized control trial trying to find out what works to help individuals in financial distress. As part of the project, a large number (70+ at last count) of student volunteers have created self-help materials aimed at these individuals, using the latest learnings in adult education, psychology, public health, and more. Part of our work has focused on creating a set of materials to help pro se filers through a no asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy (I blogged about the student loan AP materials here).

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Harmonizing Consumer Insolvency Law

posted by Jason Kilborn

HarmonyIn contrast to the cacophony created by Brexit, EU authorities have been working for several years on a project to move toward greater harmony among the discordant insolvency laws of the Member States. Though the project is focused on business rescue and restructuring, the Commission Recommendation "on a new approach to business failure and insolvency" makes specific reference to non-business cases, as well, as "Member States are invited to explore the possibility of applying these recommendations also to consumers" (para. 15).

A fantastic conference at Brunel University London this May explored the question whether there was a need for comprehensive EU intervention in the historically national-law arena of consumer debt relief. The conference presented several instructional vignettes on the varying situations in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Greece, as well as some reflections on the very limited degree of EU involvement in ensuring "fair" consumer credit markets as a supposed bulwark against overindebtedness. The presentations at the conference vividly illustrated the weakness of this supply-side-only approach, as well as the extreme divergence among exisiting European personal insolvency relief regimes. A fascinating book published in connection with this conference's greater project nicely illustrates the messy state of overindebtedness regulation in the EU today.

All of which has me thinking about a topic that recurs in the academic debate in the US from time to time:

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Essential Resources on Burdens of Proof in Bankruptcy Litigation: Property Exemptions and Beyond

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Shutterstock_380908687Deliberations of the Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules have generated great materials relevant to burdens of proof in bankruptcy litigation that judges and lawyers should read and keep on their shelves, whether physical or virtual. Judge Christopher Klein's Suggestion 15-BK-E, submitted in July of 2015, posited that Rule 4003(c) (which gives the objecting party the burden of proof in property exemption disputes) exceeds the authority of the Rules Enabling Act "with respect to claims of exemption that are made under state law that does not allocate the burden of proof to the objector." The document includes a detailed court decision, In re Tallerico, setting forth the reasoning. In a memorandum starting on page 67 of the agenda book downloadable here,  Assistant Reporter/Professor/prior Credit Slips guest Michelle Harner takes a deep dive into the intersection of burdens of proof and the Rules Enabling Act. The Harner memo considers two key Supreme Court decisions that present different standards. The first is Raleigh v. Illinois Dept. of Revenue, 530 U.S. 15 (2000), which played a central role in Judge Klein's submission and court decision. The second is Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460 (1965). Harner concludes that Hanna is more on point in the event of a conflict between a federal bankruptcy rule and state law. And, as Harner explains, the Supreme Court in Hanna "rejected the argument that a rule is either substantive or procedural for all purposes" (p78), walks through the questions to be considered, and seeks to apply them to the exemption issue at hand. It looks like the Bankruptcy Rules Committee will not be proposing changes to Rule 4003(c) at this time, but this memo should live on, alongside the case law, as an essential resource for judges and lawyers who encounter disputes over the propriety of burdens of proof in federal rules. 

Bookshelf image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

 

Fabulous New Paper: Random Justice in Bankruptcy Trial Courts

posted by Jason Kilborn

JusticedieI just read a terrific new paper by Gary Neustadter of Santa Clara University Law School, called "Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World." It presents a monumental empirical study of a debt buyer's litigation campaign to pursue essentially identical contract and fraud claims against hundreds of secondary mortgagors in state courts, federal District Courts, and federal Bankruptcy Courts. The paths and outcomes of these materially identical cases are so different in so many surprising (and often disturbing) ways, the paper offers a really stunning look behind the curtain of our often arbitrary trial-level justice system. And Neustadter's telling of the story is gripping--I read the paper and most of its footnotes from beginning to end in one sitting, unable to put it down. The revelations in this paper are a gold mine for civil proceduralists generally and bankruptcy practitioners in particular. It offers a cautionary tale and useful playbook for lawyers (and perhaps judges) in how to make many aspects of our system more effective. Get it while it's hot!

Justice die image courtesy of Shutterstock

Initial Attorney Reactions to the New Bankruptcy Forms

posted by Pamela Foohey

Help ImageYesterday I spoke at the Oklahoma Bar Association's annual advanced bankruptcy seminar. My talk focused on my research into chapter 11 cases filed by churches, a few of which are from Oklahoma. But the seminar's timing aligned perfectly with the roll out of the new bankruptcy forms. And unsurprisingly the first hour of the seminar was devoted to introducing and discussing the forms. A debtor attorney who handles chapter 7, 11, 12, and 13 cases -- Brian Huckabee -- parsed through some of the forms and added some initial comments. My take-away is that debtor attorneys' chief concern is that the readability and understandability of the forms will make it easier for debtors to file pro se, taking work away from attorneys ("this is self-service!"), a concern which was raised during the public-comment period. A related concern was voiced by a chapter 7 trustee: that chapter 7 (and 13) trustees will end up spending more time working through each case.

Three items during the discussion stood out to me. The first two relate to the "self-service" nature of the forms, particularly the new forms' instructions and white space. The last item goes to an attachment to the proof of claim form, Form 410A -- Mortgage Proof of Claim Attachment. 

Continue reading "Initial Attorney Reactions to the New Bankruptcy Forms" »

The Future of Bankruptcy Work for Lawyers

posted by david lander

As expected, as the number of consumers filing bankruptcy has continued to decrease, the revenue of the consumer bankruptcy debtor and creditor bar has been hit hard. Over the past several years billable hours of business bankruptcy (including insolvency, workout or reorganization) lawyers have been dropping and many mid-level partners at large firms are looking for work in related or unrelated specialties. 

We would expect consumer bankruptcy work to increase when:

  1. Filing has a better chance of discharging some or all student loan debt;
  2. Filing has a better chance of helping consumers modify the terms of their first mortgages;
  3. Filing has a better chance of helping consumers modify the terms of their car loans; and/or
  4. Credit card debt and/or defaults increase.

The future is harder to call for the business bankruptcy field. Everyone expects the number of business failures and loan defaults to increase when interest rates tick up and those businesses that are surviving only because of the low rates cannot service their debts or find alternative financing.  Even though the economy had not been vibrant, with the exception of specific industries such as coal or oil defaults are low.

The challenge is to predict to what extent law work in this area is down because of structural and legislative changes.  For example, the shift from traditional financial institution lenders to “Loan to Own” lenders has reduced the amount of law work related to default and/or restructure on both the debtor and the creditor side. Partly related to that change, the shift from chapter 11 reorganizations to “chapter” 363 sales has significantly reduced bankruptcy court work. One of the factors in the shift to 363 sales rather than true reorganizations was the legislative changes to Article 9 in all fifty states. When the ALI –ULI drafting committee made it much easier to take and enforce in bankruptcy court a security interest in just about every conceivable type of asset they reduced the reorganization leverage.

What percentage of the drop off in work involving defaults, workouts and restructure is related to these factors will determine to what extent the work will grow when defaults rise.

Pro Publica: Extraordinary Struggles of African American Debtors

posted by Jason Kilborn

PoorAAmanI understand what it's like to live in a low-income family. I can only begin to try to understand the extraordinary struggles facing low-income families who also happen to be black. Pro Publica has just released a story and accompanying study that helps a bit to bridge this empathy gap.

Along the way, the story raises a frustrating point about our legal system that impacts all lower-income communities, but black folks in particular: Most legal protections against the kinds of rapacious collections activities described in the Pro Publica story require the debtor to affirmatively invoke the protections. For example, the story notes a collector explaining "if Byrd had filed a claim in court stating that the funds were exempt, the garnishment would have been terminated." Does the tragic irony escape this commentator? Byrd doesn't have enough money to pay the $29 sewer bill--do we really expect her to hire and pay for a lawyer to "file a claim in court stating that the funds were exempt"?! Similarly, the story describes default judgments being entered on time-barred debts because the debtors failed to invoke the statute of limitations--why in the world would a rational system allow time-barred debt to be revived against an impecunious debtor for failure to pay for counsel to raise this defense?! It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. The clever and unscrupulous inevitably prevail in a system where "The law doesn’t require anyone to tell debtors like Winfield of the [head-of-household 10% garnishment] exemption, and the burden is on them to claim it."

The story also cites and links to a study (and comments from study contributor and Slipster, Bob Lawless) on racial disparities in Chapter 13 practice. I've witnessed the emotional fervor that this study can whip up in a crowd of bankruptcy attorneys ... but the Pro Publica story ought to prompt us to return to the provocative question of whether, intentionally or not, directly or indirectly, our debt collection and debt relief systems are disparately impacting our black neighbors. Fixing problems that fall more heavily on these debtors would improve the system for everyone.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Attorney Market for Discharging Student Loans

posted by Dalié Jiménez

BeatSLs

On Friday, Tara Siegel Bernard reported in the New York Times that some bankruptcy judges think that the onerous Brunner standard for discharging student loans should change. Commenting on the article, reader "alma" writes:

As someone who recently filed for bankruptcy and has more than $100,000 in student loan debt, I can tell you why I did not try to get relief from student loans: I did not know it was an option. My lawyer simply told me that it was not possible to have student loans discharged. This article is the first I have even heard there was any method to do so ....

From the rest of the comments, this poster is not alone. Some of this may be explained by clients misunderstanding what's said (where the attorney means they don't think that this particular client will succeed in obtaining a discharge). But especially pre-2005 when the law was murkier, I do wonder about the level of advice given to filers.

Attempting to discharge student loans costs extra money, something bankruptcy clients are unlikely to have. Given the low numbers of attempts, it's unlikely any given bankruptcy attorney has any experience filing such a case. Doing it is no simple matter either; it's literally a federal case. I've only found one book out there detailing how to file an adversary proceeding to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. 

My own limited experience is that this is (unsurprisingly) quite hard. As part of a larger study, Jim GreinerLois Lupica, a couple of dozen students, and I have been working to create a DIY guide to a no-asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy guide, complete with a module on representing yourself through an adversary proceeding to discharge student loans. We just posted a paper on the philosophy behind our materials (and why we include cartoons like the one above). If we succeed, we hope that the materials we create will be useful to attorneys as well as pro se individuals. But there has to be a market before attorneys will use them.

What say you, Credit Slips readers, are bankruptcy attorneys offering student loan discharge services? Do clients want them? Can they afford them?

The cartoon credit goes to Hallie Pope. Hallie is the creator of "Blob" and other cartoons featured in the self-help materials in the Financial Distress Research Study.

Caulkett: SCOTUS Hands BoA a Victory

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Bank of America in Caulkett v. Bank of America. Basically the Court found itself bound by its previous decision in Dewsnup and didn't think that any of the distinctions presented (by yours truly among others) between Dewsnup and Caulkett were compelling. I continue to disagree, not least because the Court never explains why the distinctions weren't compelling, or even state what those distinctions were.  Given the lengthy opinions that the Court usually issues, I'd like to think that it could have taken the time to explain itself in this regard, if only to help guide future litigants. 

What all this means is that that I owe Bob Lawless a dinner:  I had been much more optimistic about the outcome of the case following oral argument.

Postpetition Wages Held by Chapter 13 Trustee Belong to Debtor Upon Conversion

posted by Pamela Foohey

In case you haven't seen it, the SCOTUS issued its unanimous opinion in Harris today, holding that postpetition wages held by the Chapter 13 trustee at the time a case is converted to Chapter 7 must be returned to the debtor. When the Fifth Circuit issued its decision that created the split with the Third Circuit, I blogged some thoughts, primarily focusing on statutory analysis. Now that the SCOTUS has weighed in, the practical question is: how can creditors protect themselves from the risk that the trustee will accumulate a large sum of postpetition wages? Today's opinion ends with that question and notes that the amount of postpetition wages a particular Chapter 13 trustee will be holding at the time of conversion will depend upon the practices of that trustee. In addition, as in the case before the Third Circuit, sometimes Chapter 13 trustees accumulate funds because creditors refuse to receive plan payments for whatever reason.

Today's opinion suggests that creditors can include a disbursement schedule in the Chapter 13 plan. The Third Circuit's opinion sets out a few other ideas (see fn 9), including requesting plan modification if a creditor is refusing to accept payments. Perhaps the most effective protection suggested by the Third Circuit is for the plan to provide that payments vest in creditors immediately upon receipt by the Chapter 13 trustee, and to include similar language in the order confirming the plan. The Third Circuit, however, explicitly noted that it was not ruling on whether such language would remove accumulated undistributed payments from revesting with the debtor upon conversion. Today's opinion notes that a plan that provides that payments are property of the estate (as the plan provided in Harris) does not change the outcome that undistributed postpetition wages revest with the debtor upon conversion. But that still seems to leave creditor vesting language as a potential way for creditors to protect themselves.

Bankruptcy and Student Loan Debt

posted by Adam Levitin

My thoughts on whether the Bankruptcy Code should be amended to allow easier discharge of student loan debt are upon The Examiners at the Wall St. Journal. Short of it is yes for private student loans, no for public student loans. I'm sure to catch hell for this from some of the more aggressive student loan forgiveness advocates, given that most of the market is public student loans, but there are other restructuring and foregiveness options available for public loans and serious fairness problems with allowing discharge of existing student loans.  New borrowers shouldn't have to subsidize older ones' dischargeability, and taxpayers shouldn't be picking up the tab for social insurance to the extent that bad educational/career choices are within individuals' control.      

Stale Debts in Bankruptcy

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Should liability under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) lie against a creditor who submits a proof of claim past the statute of limitations in a consumer bankruptcy case?

That is the question the Supreme Court declined to review recently in LVNV Funding, LLC v. Crawford. In Crawford, the Eleventh Circuit applied the "least sophisticated consumer" standard to find liability for the debt buyer when it submitted a proof of claim in 2008 for a debt that was out of statute as of 2004. Other courts have held differently. In fact, just last month, district courts in Indiana and Pennsylvania dismissed FDCPA suits against debt buyers under essentially the same facts as Crawford. Other courts, including the Second Circuit, have seemingly held that FDCPA liability can never lie in a bankruptcy case.

Putting the merits of applying the FDCPA in a bankruptcy case aside, it seems to me that in this specific instance potential liability under the Act could serve very useful functions: namely efficiency and cost savings.

Continue reading "Stale Debts in Bankruptcy" »

Bankruptcy Lawyers Have Right to Work

posted by Katie Porter

 In the debate in Wisconsin over the  Right to Work bill, the legislators opposed to the bill questioned why no businesses were testifying in support of the law, if it was--as stated--going to drive business growth.

The Wisconsin Assembly got an answer when James Murray testified about the Right to Work bill. Mr. Murray explained that if passed, Right to Work would definitely increase his business: helping people file personal bankruptcy. Bankruptcy could become big business in Wisconsin, he said, noting that with a Right to Work law, Wisconsin could climb higher than 12th place on the per capita filing rate. 

Enjoy 7 minutes of brilliant satire and bankruptcy humor, courtesy of You Tube. Hat tip to Professor Michelle Arnopol Cecil for sharing this with me.

 

Quantifying the Benefits of the Fresh Start

posted by Jason Kilborn

I recently discovered a not-so-new paper that provides a useful answer to a question I've asked before:  Who benefits from consumer bankruptcy, and to what degree? This is a real challenge for policy-making, and well-supported answers are essential to greasing the wheels of reform.

In this paper, Will Dobbie (Princeton) and Jae Song (SSA) use a creative technique, comparing the financial outcomes of Chapter 13 debtors whose plans were--and were not--confirmed to probe the positive effects of access to such relief (apparently whether or not the payment plan is successfully completed). Successful access to Chapter 13 protection led to over $5000 in increased annual earnings in the first ten post-filing years and a 3.5 percentage-point increase in employment over the first five post-filing years, including a nearly 3 percentage-point increase in self employment. Access to relief also reduced the receipt of "welfare" benefits and increased retirement savings contributions.  Most striking, access to debt relief reduced mortality (presumably by decreasing stress) during this period by almost 2 percentage points--which is a 47.5% decrease from the mean for filers whose cases were dismissed, largely attributable to a large, positive effect on filers over 60. The authors attribute these gains to an increased incentive to work and produce earnings and  reduction in economic instability and stress.

The results of this study are among the many individual and societal benefits of consumer bankruptcy commonly identified in legal literature. Indeed, the authors conclude that "individual debt relief is much more likely to be welfare-improving than previously realized"--and these instances of individual welfare redound in direct ways to the state and society as a whole. While I can see a variety of quibbles that empirical scholars might have with this study, the results provide fairly solid support for the most common working theories of relief, and they offer even greater comfort for policymakers searching for reasons to introduce or expand individual debt relief.

Credit Slips Bloggers' Amicus Briefs in Caulkett

posted by Bob Lawless

With my attention drawn to other matters, my personal blogging has been light for the past month. One of the things that had my attention was the Caulkett case currently pending before the Supreme Court. The issue in Caulkett is whether a wholly underwater second mortgage can be avoided in a chapter 7 bankruptcy. Without any value to reach, a wholly underwater second would not seem to be an allowed secured claim within the meaning of section 506.

Along with fellow Credit Slips blogger, John Pottow, and Professor Bruce Markell, I filed an amicus brief in Caulkett supporting the debtor.  One of our points is that Long v. Bullard, which supposedly stands for the proposition that "liens ride through bankruptcy," involved other issues entirely. I'll try to expand on that point in another blog post. But, we were not alone in representing Credit Slips in the case. Blogger Adam Levitin filed his own superb amicus brief supporting the debtor that provides an in-depth look at the facts, evidence, and policy around second mortgages. All of the briefs in the case can be found at SCOTUSBlog.

Bankruptcy Attorney Advertising in the Digital Age

posted by Pamela Foohey

Yellow Pages--maybe not so much anymore. Websites, AdWords, and social media--yes, yes, and occasionally.

Little has been written about bankruptcy attorney advertising. The last Credit Slips post focused on bankruptcy attorneys' ads in the 2013 Yellow Pages and surveyed the wording that attorneys used to describe their roles as debt relief agencies. One of the comments on the post suggested that the Yellow Pages remained a fruitful advertising venue for consumer bankruptcy attorneys. But my current research seems to point in a different direction.

As part of my research regarding nonprofits' use of reorganization to deal with financial distress, over the last year, I've spoken with 76 attorneys who represented religious organization debtors in their Chapter 11 cases. Many of these attorneys' practices are predominately consumer debtor oriented. Half of the attorneys maintain practices that are at least 70% consumer debtor work. The attorneys also are located across the country--from Massachusetts to Colorado to California.

As part of the interviews, I asked the attorneys if and how they advertise their practices. The results are anecdotal, but the attorneys' experiences may signal a switch from print and television advertising to complete reliance on websites, Internet leads, and social networking sites.

Continue reading "Bankruptcy Attorney Advertising in the Digital Age" »

Rent Control in New York and Bankruptcy

posted by Stephen Lubben

Following up on my prior post, the New York Court of Appeals has ruled that a rent stabilized appartment is a public benefit, rather than an asset.

Are Some Banks Using Credit Reports to Help Collect Discharged Debts?

posted by Dalié Jiménez

Last week, Adam pointed us to a NYT's story on "zombie debt" after bankruptcy. I did a bit more research into the story because I had a hard time understanding the problem from the article.

There are a few lawsuits that have been filed about this (I found ones against GE Capital/Synchrony, Bank of America/FIA Card Svcs, Citigroup, and Chase). The GE complaint alleges that the banks have a systematic practice of "selling and attempting to collect discharged debts and ... failing to update and correct credit information to credit reporting agencies to show that such debts are no longer due and owing because they have been discharged in bankruptcy." You can download the complaint in the GE case here.

More specifically, the allegations are that after a discharge, some creditors do not update their tradelines to a status of "in bankruptcy" and instead leave them as "charged-off." The credit report of a person in this situation would then say they have filed bankruptcy and obtained a discharge but you could not tell whether any individual debt has been discharged in that bankruptcy. The (non-binding) credit bureau reporting guidelines (METRO 2) specify that creditors should report accounts as "included in bankruptcy" once they receive a notice of discharge.

The complaint characterizes GE's argument as being that the FCRA does not require it to make this change, perhaps especially in particular after a debt has been sold and they no longer have an interest in it. (GE has not filed an answer yet, but it seems like this is one argument they might make from reading their other filings). That seems to me to be a wrong interpretation of the FCRA and the FTC's Furnisher Rule. It should also be a violation of the discharge injunction. As Judge Drain put it in an opinion denying a motion to compel arbitration:

One could argue that the reporting of a discharged debt as still outstanding when the credit report also shows that the debtor has been in bankruptcy is even a worse result, indicating to those who are considering providing credit in the future that the debtor has fallen into the category of the dishonest debtor who did not receive a discharge.

I am told that NPR's On Point will be doing a segment on this on Thursday at 10AM EST with one of the attorneys filing these cases. You can listen to the podcast here.

Note: post has been edited to correct the timing of the NPR program and to add the link to the podcast.

"Don't give me so much that you've given me nothing" - Remembering M. Caldwell Butler's Contribution to Bankruptcy Law

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Former Virginia Congressman M. Caldwell Butler died last week. He is widely known for his role in the Nixon impeachment proceedings, his efforts to limit extensions of the Voting Rights Act, and his support for ensuring legal representation for low-income individuals. But Congressman Butler is also a major figure in the history of bankruptcy law. He was a principal co-sponsor of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 that serves as the foundation of the modern bankruptcy system. Professor and lawyer Kenneth N. Klee worked closely with Congressman Butler on the House Judiciary Committee in the 1970s. I asked Professor Klee to share a few words of remembrance with us, which I repeat in their entirety here:

I first met M. Caldwell Butler in 1975 when he became the Ranking Minority Member of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee. Caldwell was most interested in the Voting Rights Act legislation and finding a way for the South to get out from under the Act. In his view, Washington was improperly interfering with the sovereignty of the southern states based on predicate acts that had long since ceased to serve as a basis for federal control. He asked me to draft a series of amendments that would permit the South to extricate itself from the Voting Rights Act. The requirements to regain sovereignty were quite demanding, to the point that the amendments became known as the "impossible bailout."  Nevertheless, the amendments did not come close to passing. It was evident that there were no circumstances under which the majority in Congress wanted to let the southern states out from the Voting Rights Act.

Caldwell assumed his responsibilities over bankruptcy legislation with diligence and good cheer. His fabulous sense of humor carried us through many long markup sessions during which the members of the Subcommittee read the bankruptcy legislation line by line. He had a sharp legal mind and deep curiosity. He also was very practical and to the point. He was fond of telling me "don't give me so much that you've given me nothing."

It was a privilege and honor to work with him. The bankruptcy community should join in paying him tribute.

                        -- Ken Klee

Congressman Butler made another round of contributions to bankruptcy reform in the 1990s. The fact that they are not all reflected in today's Bankruptcy Code makes this story more pressing, not less. Well over a decade after he had returned to the practice of law in Virginia, Congressman Butler was appointed to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, for which I was a staff attorney. Expressing satisfaction with the 1978 Code, the House Judiciary Committee directed this Bankruptcy Commission to focus, for two years, on "reviewing, improving, and updating the Code in ways which do not disturb the fundamental tenets of current law."  Not one to leave the heavy lifting to others, even in a pro bono post, Congressman Butler stepped up to the challenge of forging a compromise, among those with diverging politics and views, to improve the consumer bankruptcy system.

Continue reading ""Don't give me so much that you've given me nothing" - Remembering M. Caldwell Butler's Contribution to Bankruptcy Law" »

Do Debtors or Creditors Get Undisbursed Chapter 13 Plan Payments Upon Conversion? -- A New Circuit Split

posted by Pamela Foohey

Chapter 13 trustees handle millions of dollars in plan payments every year. At some point in likely a sizable portion of cases, the trustee accumulates these payments instead of distributing the funds to creditors. What happens if a debtor's case is converted while the trustee has this accumulated money in its account? In 2012, the 3rd Circuit, in a majority opinion, held that the trustee must return the funds to the debtor (see decision here). Yesterday the 5th Circuit held that the trustee must distribute the funds to creditors (see decision here), thus creating a split on an issue that, as the Fifth Circuit stated, "has divided courts for thirty years," though only had previously produced one appellate court decision squarely on point.

With only one-third of Chapter 13 cases making it to discharge, the issue potentially affects a good number of debtors and involves a significant amount of money in total. Each individual debtor may (or may not) be entitled to a large sum of money in his or her estimation. In the 3rd Circuit case, the Chapter 13 trustee had accumulated over $9,000 in undistributed payments. In the 5th Circuit case, the trustee was holding about $5,500 in undistributed payments. And to the extent there isn't at least a local rule to rely on, Chapter 13 trustee probably would like clearer guidance on the issue.  

Continue reading "Do Debtors or Creditors Get Undisbursed Chapter 13 Plan Payments Upon Conversion? -- A New Circuit Split" »

Turning Away From the Dark Side!

posted by Susan Block-Lieb

Just a quick note to follow up on previous posts (here and here) and report that the First Circuit reversed In re Traverse.  Thanks to Mike Baker for pointing this out to me.  Further reflections on this case and its implications later.

Did Law v. Siegel Sound the Death Knell for the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court?

posted by Adam Levitin

Did Law v. Siegel Sound the Death Knell for the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court?  Mark Berman thinks so.  I'm skeptical (fuller version of my argument here).  But it depends what we mean when we refer to "equity", which is often used as a rubric for an array of different non-Code practices.  More complete coverage at the Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable.

Book Review: Jennifer Taub's Other People's Houses (Highly Recommended)

posted by Adam Levitin

I just read Jennifer Taub's outstanding book Other People's Houses, which is a history of mortgage deregulation and the financial crisis. The book makes a nice compliment to Kathleen Engel and Patricia McCoy's fantasticThe Subprime Virus. Both books tell the story of deregulation of the mortgage (and banking) market and the results, but in very different styles. What particularly amazed me about Taub's book was that she structured it around the story of the Nobelmans and American Savings Bank.

The Nobelmans?  American Savings Bank? Who on earth are they? They're the named parties in the 1993 Supreme Court case of Nobelman v. American Savings Bank, which is the decision that prohibited cramdown in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Taub uses the Nobelmans and American Savings Banks' stories to structure a history of financial deregulation in the 1980s and how it produced (or really deepened) the S&L crisis and laid the groundwork for the housing bubble in the 2000s.

Continue reading "Book Review: Jennifer Taub's Other People's Houses (Highly Recommended)" »

Working and Living in the Shadow of Economic Fragility

posted by Melissa Jacoby

OupbookCredit Slips readers, please note the publication of a new book edited by Marion Crain and Michael Sherraden. The New America Foundation is hosting an event on the book tomorrow, Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at 12:15 EST. Not in Washington, D.C.? The event will be webcast live

The book project developed out of a stimulating multi-disciplinary conference at Washington University in St. Louis. Participants had great interest in considering how bankruptcy scholarship fits within the larger universe of research on financial insecurity and inequality. My chapter with Mirya Holman synthesizes the literature on medical problems among bankruptcy filers and presents new results from the 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project on coping mechanisms for medical bills, looking more closely at the one in four respondents who reported accepting a payment plan from a medical provider. Not surprisingly, these filers are far more likely than most others to bring identifiable medical debt, and therefore their medical providers, into their bankruptcy cases. We examine how payment plan users employ strategies - including but not limited to fringe and informal borrowing - to manage financial distress before resorting to bankruptcy, and (quite briefly) speculate on the future of medical-related financial distress in an Affordable Care Act world.

Just Punch My Bankruptcy Ticket

posted by Pamela Foohey

TicketsThat's the title of Denver Law Professor Michael Sousa's new article exploring debtors' evaluations of the pre-filing credit counseling course and the post-filing financial management course mandated by BAPCPA. The data for the article came from in-depth interviews that Sousa conducted with 58 individuals from Colorado who filed under Chapter 7 between 2006 and 2010. Bob Lawless previously posted about another article Sousa wrote based on the interviews that discusses debtors' perceptions of bankruptcy stigma. Like Sousa's previous article, this paper carefully presents the interviews for what they are and what they can reveal about debtors' interactions with these two components of the bankruptcy process.

Sousa's findings generally confirm the limited prior research about the two courses. In fact, they may paint an even grimmer picture of the courses' usefulness. None of the debtors thought the credit counseling to be of any help, and only 2 couples (4 of the 58 debtors, or 7%) thought they had learned anything useful from the financial management course. Indeed, and one of Sousa's more interesting findings, what some debtors took from the credit counseling course contravenes Congress's aim for the course to inform debtors of all their options and thereby convince some debtors to settle their debts outside of bankruptcy. Debtors instead said the course affirmed their decision to file because it showed them how bad their situation was and provided them some psychological comfort in accepting that bankruptcy was the last remaining option.

Continue reading "Just Punch My Bankruptcy Ticket" »

Reflections on the Dark Side

posted by Susan Block-Lieb

Thanks to all who commented on my earlier post on the interaction of §§ 544(a)(3) and 551 and homeownership in bankruptcy; as hoped, CreditSlip readers helped me frame the questions that I continue to have about Traverse and the larger policy questions it raises. Some readers emphasized the importance of variations in state mortgage law to the trustee’s strong-arm powers; others questioned whether these distinctions should affect the trustee’s power to sell the residence (or the avoided lien) following avoidance.

Clearly, the trustee had the power to avoid the unrecorded mortgage in Traverse; let’s assume for purposes of argument that he also had the power to sell full title to the debtor’s home after avoidance.  For me the more interesting question is whether the trustee should have exercised these powers, and also whether the exercise might be viewed as an abuse of discretion.

Another way to think about this question is from an even broader angle: What position should a trustee play in a individual borrower’s chapter 7 case?  Is a trustee’s role to maximize distributions to unsecured creditors, full stop? Or might the trustee’s fiduciary obligations to the estate sometimes sit in tension with an interest in maximizing creditors’ interests?

Continue reading "Reflections on the Dark Side" »

Supreme Court denies certiorari in Sinkfield (chapter 7 lien strip-off case)

posted by Jean Braucher

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition for writ of certiorari in Bank of America v. Sinkfield, an 11th Circuit case raising the issue whether a junior lien wholly unsupported by collateral value can be stripped off in chapter 7. 

The high court's denial of certiorari yesterday (March 31) is a victory not only for the debtor who prevailed in the case below but also for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, represented by the National Consumer Bankruptcy Rights Center, which argued in an amicus brief against Supreme Court review on the ground that the case had not been fully litigated below and thus was a poor one for the Supreme Court to take up.   

The creditor in Sinkfield stipulated to the result that strip off was permitted in the case, based on an Eleventh Circuit opinion so holding in another case,  In re McNeal, 735 F.3d 1263 (11th Cir. 2012), one in which en banc rehearing has been sought.

The Supreme Court's decision not to review Sinkfield avoids for now the possibility of disturbing the solid precedent for lien strip off in chapter 13.  McNeal is the first circuit court case to allow lien strip off in chapter 7; two other circuits have extended Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410 (1992), to come to the opposite conclusion.  See here for background.  Lien strip off in chapter 13 has been one of the few ways for debtors in bankruptcy to hold on to homes on which they are underwater while making them more affordable by removing junior liens unsupported by collateral value.  Extending that sort of relief to chapter 7 cases would be helpful, but Supreme Court review also poses a serious downside risk of making bankruptcy less promising for consumer debtors. 

Sousa on Bankruptcy Stigma

posted by Bob Lawless

If you are looking for trite and oversimplified assertions about bankruptcy stigma, then stay away from the latest issue of the American Bankruptcy Law Journal. In those pages, Professor Michael Sousa from the University of Denver has a wonderful paper reporting on his interviews with consumer bankruptcy debtors in Colorado. You can find a preprint version of the paper on SSRN. I had the pleasure of commenting on the paper at a conference earlier in the spring. Sousa is a new voice in the area of consumer debt who demonstrates with this paper the potential to make important contributions in the field.

Continue reading "Sousa on Bankruptcy Stigma" »

A Dark Side to the Trustee's Strong Arm Powers

posted by Susan Block-Lieb

Conventional wisdom views bankruptcy as a place that protects homeowners and homeownership.  One of the primary reasons Chapter 13 allows debtors to retain all property of the estate, whether exempt or not, is to allow debtors to hang on to their personal residences even though applicable exemption law would not otherwise allow this.  OK Chapter 13 doesn’t permit modification of residential mortgages, but it does allow debtors to decelerate and cure mortgages in default, providing some consumer debtors some protection from foreclosure.  Chapter 7 is traditionally viewed as less protective of the homestead – that is, it protects residences only to the extent of applicable homestead exemption law, but it has been widely accepted that debtors might protect their homes in chapter 7 by combining a discharge from unsecured debts with reaffirmation of a residential mortgage. 

The recent financial crisis has strained both the state court foreclosure process and the federal bankruptcy system, raising questions about the continuing accuracy of the notion that bankruptcy provides a safe place for homeowners.  Whether bankruptcy does or even should protect homeownership is a very big question, one undoubtedly best answered in combination with careful analysis of data, and I won’t presume to tackle that question in a blog.  But I do want to use this format as a safe place for thinking about these issues.

Continue reading "A Dark Side to the Trustee's Strong Arm Powers" »

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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