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Supreme Court Grants Cert To Decide Fate of Repossessed Cars in Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

Yesterday, the SCOTUS granted certiorari in City of Chicago v. Fulton, 19-357, to resolve a circuit split about whether a creditor's inaction in not returning property repossessed pre-petition can violate the automatic stay. The split arises predominately from chapter 13 cases in which, pre-petition, creditors repossessed or cities impounded debtors' cars. As the petition for cert stated, this issue is of significant practical importance. As Slipster Bob Lawless, former Slipster Debb Thorne, and I set forth in our new paper based on Consumer Bankruptcy Project data, Driven to Bankruptcy (Wake Forest Law Review, forthcoming 2020), bankruptcy courts deal with more than a million cars in every year. Creditors will have repossessed, but not disposed of some of those cars, and cities (for instance, Chicago) and municipalities will have impounded some of those cars.

In our new paper, we note that bankruptcy seems to be an important tool for some people to keep their cars, including getting their cars back from creditors and impound yards. As will be decided by the Supreme Court in addressing the issues regarding the automatic stay raised by the circuit split, if debtors need to request that bankruptcy courts order creditors or cities to return their cars after they file bankruptcy, the usefulness of filing bankruptcy will decrease, potentially significantly. Stated differently, people need their cars now -- to get to work, to get food, to get their kids to daycare, to get to the doctor. For some households, one of the biggest benefits of filing bankruptcy seems to be that their creditors must turn over repossessed and impounded cars as soon as the debtor files . The question now is -- is that actually what the Code provides? 

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