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Seventh Circuit Smackdown of City of Chicago

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals this week released its opinion in In re Fulton, the highly anticipated consolidated appeal of four Chapter 13 cases involving debtors whose cars had been impounded. The City of Chicago had refused to release them to the debtors (exercising the rights of trustee under section 1303) after the petition filings, as clearly required by section 542 and Seventh Circuit precedent, Thompson v. GMAC, 566 F3d 699 (7th Cir. 2009). The Court rejected the City's arguments in favor of repealing Thompson or recognizing a stay/turnover exception for the City to maintain its possessory lien on impounded cars by keeping, well, possession.

The Court reached the right result here, in my view, and two things really jumped out at me. First, the Court explains several times that the case should be governed by "the purpose of bankruptcy - 'to allow the debtor to regain his financial foothold and repay his creditors.'" The Court's emphasis on the debtor-salutary purpose of bankruptcy is refreshing, even in cases where the repaying-creditors purpose is likely to be largely defeated.

More striking were the first lines of the portion of the opinion recounting the facts of Fulton's case. She used the car "to commute to work, transport  her young daughter to day care, and care for her elderly parents on weekends." You can already anticipate where the Court is heading in the case, but then it gets better: "On December 24, 2017, three weeks after she purchased a 2015 Kia Soul, the City towed and impounded the vehicle for a prior citation of driving on a suspended license." Really??!! The City towed and impounded her new car on Christmas Eve!!?? It probably still had a temporary plate indicating it was new. And it got towed for what? A prior citation having nothing to do with the car at all. Note to self, City of Chicago: When the Court opens the fact section with a smackdown recounting @$$hole behavior like this, you can just skip to the end. You lose. Three cheers for the Seventh Circuit again!

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