10 Wake Forest L. Rev. Online 55

Sara Kathryn Mayson*

I.  Introduction

It is no secret that many American farmers are in financial trouble, specifically small family farmers.  As a part of an effort to alleviate farmers in a struggling agriculture economy, Congress passed the Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019, an amendment to Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code that expands specialized bankruptcy relief to more farmers.[1]  The bill was signed into law on August 23, 2019, and it became effective immediately.  Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code allows small family farms to continue their farming operations while creating a debt repayment plan that successfully reorganizes their business through a set of provisions “created specifically to provide repayment flexibility and reorganizational advantages for family farms during poor economic times.”[2]

This amendment increases the debt limit of Chapter 12 from $4.4 million to $10 million.[3]  The change now incorporates farmers who were originally meant to be protected, as the farming industry has changed since Chapter 12 was originally enacted in 1986 and amended in 2005.  While the Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 adjusts the definition of a family farmer to promote the underlying policy behind Chapter 12, the amendment also engages in something deeper.  The amendment directly aims to help small family farmers remain in business by restructuring their debts, but it also indirectly targets the development and maintenance of the rural communities where these farms are located.

This Article will discuss the history and purpose of Chapter 12, the continued need for Chapter 12 in the Bankruptcy Code, and the need for the 2019 amendment.  The Article will also touch on the broader implications of Chapter 12 and the importance of preserving small family farms for rural communities and society as a whole.  Chapter 12 is important beyond outside simply the bankruptcy context, because (i) reorganizing and facilitating the continued operation of small family farms strengthens the economy of the communities where they are located and provides food security, (ii) the benefits of megafarms are limited, if not outweighed, by the negative impacts they have on their surrounding communities, and (iii) a healthy rural economy creates a healthier urban economy.  The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 is an important amendment that realizes Chapter 12’s design by assisting small family farms to reorganize during economic hardship and continues to support the benefits of small family farms.

II.  History

In the 1980s, thousands of family farms were foreclosed because of an agricultural economic crisis that rivaled conditions during the 1930s.[4]  One contributing factor to the crisis was an agricultural boom in the 1970s which encouraged farmers and investors to expand operations and leverage their farming assets,[5] a credit option made easier under new federal law which allowed farmers to take out higher risk loans.[6]  However, the strong agriculture market of the 1970s began to crumble in the early 1980s, leaving farmers with large loans and high interest rates that they could not afford and assets that were no longer valuable enough to secure those loans.  These dire circumstances came to a head as a result of  various issues such as: economic forces outside agriculture that caused interest rates to dramatically increase; a grain embargo in 1980 that lowered commodity prices while production costs were increasing;[7] and the plummet in value of the farmland that secured most farm debt by the late 1980s.[8]  The massive dissolution of family farms indicated that the existing reorganization provisions under the Bankruptcy Code were ineffective to provide the needed debt relief to family farmers.  In response, Congress enacted the Family Farmers Bankruptcy Act of 1986 which created a new proceeding under the Bankruptcy Code titled Chapter 12, designed specifically for family farmers to help avoid farm foreclosures in favor of reorganizations and continued operation.[9]  Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code was enacted to “give family farmers facing bankruptcy a fighting chance to reorganize their debts and keep their land.”[10]

III.  Chapter 12

Chapter 12 is a specific type of bankruptcy available to family farmers, a defined term under the Bankruptcy Code determined by a debtor’s farm income, farm debt, and engagement in farming.[11]  Upon filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 12, a family farmer receives judicial protections, such as an automatic stay, which prevent creditors from certain debt collections and foreclosing on property.[12]  Throughout bankruptcy, the Chapter 12 debtor will continue to operate the farm and a trustee is appointed to monitor and oversee the case.[13]

Within 90 days of filing, the debtor must submit a reorganization plan to the bankruptcy court, proposing a repayment plan which is typically over a three- to five-year period.[14]  The plan is meant to restructure a farmer’s debt through debt modification.  This is accomplished by mechanisms uniquely available to family farmers under Chapter 12, such as reducing a secured debt to the value of the collateral, lowering the interest rate on a debt, and extending a loan’s repayment term.[15]  A secured debt may be bifurcated if the debt exceeds the value of the collateral, in which case the debt amount above the value of the collateral is reclassified as unsecured debt.[16]  A Chapter 12 plan must provide for full payment of priority claims,[17] and a debtor is required to pay all secured debts in full, in addition to market rate interest if the payment occurs over time.[18]

This secured debt repayment may be extended beyond the life of the plan, providing extra flexibility in light of the sporadic income stream of farm products.[19]  Chapter 12 debtors may, however, only be required to pay a small portion of their unsecured debt.[20]  Unsecured creditors, or unsecured portions of a secured claim, are only entitled to receive at least as much as they would receive in a liquidation under Chapter 7 and, in most cases, the debtor’s projected net disposable income.[21]  Upon successful completion of the plan, the farmer receives a discharge and any debt left unpaid to unsecured creditors is forgiven.[22]

Prior to the enactment of Chapter 12, family farmers could only reorganize under Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code.[23]  Chapter 11, however, is typically used for restructuring large businesses.  Under Chapter 11, the debtor must propose a plan that is supported by at least a majority of the debtor’s creditors.[24]  The unequal bargaining power between farmers and creditors made this plan requirement unrealistic for most farmers.[25]  Additionally, the absolute priority rule requires a debtor to pay unsecured creditors in full if they object to the plan in order to maintain any ownership interest in their property. [26]  Chapter 12, however, does not require creditor support and a plan may be approved over creditor objections, compelling debt adjustments while enabling a farmer to keep its property. [27]  The absolute priority rule is also replaced in Chapter 12 by the liquidation and disposable income tests to allow reorganization for the family farmer along with some security for creditors. [28]

Chapter 13 is designed for individuals with regular income seeking to reorganize their debts.  This chapter of the Bankruptcy Code is unavailable to corporate or partnership farmers, or any individual whose debt exceeds a prescribed amount.[29]  While the plan does not require creditor acquiescence, the debt ceiling for Chapter 13 prevents many family farmers from qualifying.[30]  Additionally, Chapter 13 restricts reorganization of real estate debt to residential property, which often precludes a farmer’s ability to restructure a typical family farm mortgage.[31]  Chapter 13 also requires regular payments to creditors and complete payment to secured creditors before receiving a discharge.  The unpredictable nature of farm income hinders regular payments and the ability to pay off large secured debts within three to five years, meaning that any Chapter 13 case filed by a family farmer would inevitably be dismissed for noncompliance.

These reorganization impediments under Chapter 11 and 13 would force family farmers into liquidation, while Chapter 12 successfully deals “with the special problems created by farm bankruptcies which each of the other options failed to resolve.”[32]

IV.  Impact of Chapter 12 and Adjustments

Proponents of Chapter 12 believe its enactment has brought great benefits to small family farmers.[33]  Some scholars, though, question the need for Chapter 12.[34]  They argue (i) that Chapter 12 has not had a significant impact because it has rarely been utilized and (ii) that the low filing numbers of Chapter 12 bankruptcies as compared to other chapters indicate Chapter 12’s futility in providing reorganization relief to small family farmers.[35]  These Chapter 12 filing statistics, though, are misleading.  The existence of this chapter in the Bankruptcy Code provides a uniform system of debt restructuring that facilitates negotiations outside of court.  Chapter 12 has had a shadow effect, providing farmers with a bargaining chip to get creditors to negotiate outside of court.[36]

Because Chapter 12 gives farmers more leverage to demand concessions from secured creditors than under any other reorganizational chapter,[37] creditors are encouraged to engage in out-of-court negotiations.  One study finding support for the out-of-court influence was in Iowa where attorneys reported that one-third to one-half of their clients’ farm credit disputes were negotiated after the enactment of Chapter 12.[38]  Additionally, the number of filings will naturally be higher when the population that qualifies for relief under those provisions is larger.[39]  Despite the limited number of filings, the success rate of Chapter 12 is greater than cases filed under other reorganization chapters.  Over the last ten years, Chapter 12 has enjoyed a success rate of around forty percent, while Chapter 11 has had between a ten to thirty percent reorganization success rate and Chapter 13 only has about a thirty-seven percent success rate.[40]

Lawmakers recognize the value of Chapter 12, even though it only reaches a small percentage of the population.  In 2005,[41] Congress made Chapter 12 a permanent provision of the Bankruptcy Code as a part of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA).[42]  Not only did BAPCPA make Chapter 12 a permanent provision of the Bankruptcy Code, it also modified the definition of family farmer to align with the realities of the farming industry.  The definition was expanded to include part-time farmers who earn at least half of their income from farm work instead of the previous eighty percent income requirement.[43]  Also, the look back period to determine whether a debtor meets the definition of family farmer was extended to cover the previous three years instead of the last year, providing greater flexibility for farmers who might have sought non-farm work temporarily to address financial problems with their farming operation.[44]  Additionally, the debt limit was raised.[45]  The revised definition of family farmers and increase in debt limits was a response to the change in how small family farmers operate and earn their income.  These changes were made to provide relief to the types of farmers that Congress intended to help when Chapter 12 was originally enacted.

V.  Why Is the Debt Limit Increase Necessary?

Although the Family Farmer Act of 2019 changed only one aspect of Chapter 12, it was critical.  The debt limit is a bright line rule that determines whether Chapter 12 relief is available to a farmer.  Debt limits in Chapter 12 are extremely important because of the debt-centric nature of farming.  Farmers are required to obtain credit and take on debt in order to operate, and a lot of debt at that.[46]  National farm debt has reached over 416 billion dollars and has increased 182 percent since 1986.[47]  The 2019 amendment allows the purpose of Chapter 12 to be fulfilled since farming has changed significantly over the last few decades.  Additionally, the current economic conditions that farmers face further punctuate the need to provide access to specialized restructuring relief. [48]

The original debt limit restrictions in Chapter 12 were set to limit relief to small family farmers only,[49] in part because large agricultural businesses could successfully reorganize under Chapter 11 without the same impediments that a small farm would face.[50]  Land prices generally indicate an appropriate debt limit for debtors.[51]  The original $1,500,000 cap was “set in 1986 when farm land values were low,”[52] and the amended debt limit in 2005 was to account for inflation.[53]  By 2017, farmland prices had almost tripled since 2005.[54]

With increased land values, family farmers were able to leverage that land for larger loans.[55]  The larger loans were needed as production costs increased.[56]  Additionally, farm equipment has changed and become more complicated, bearing a higher price.[57]  The increased debt limit reflects the increased cost of production as well as the increased value of land.

Although farmland has increased in value, other economic conditions have created an agricultural downturn in addition to more expensive production costs.  Mimicking the pattern from the 1970s and 1980s, there was an agricultural boom at the beginning of the 21st century that began to decline in 2013.[58]  Since then, net farm income has declined for the past five years[59] and is almost half of what it was in 2013,[60] as commodity prices decrease as a result of globalization.[61]  Natural disasters resulting from climate change have devastated farms,[62] and the trade war with China has displaced a large market of consumers.[63]  The result of the accumulation of these pressures resembles the conditions of the 1980s farm crisis.[64]

These pressures have manifested themselves in a variety of ways. Some small farmers are retiring or selling their farms, while others have filed for bankruptcy.[65]  More than 100,000 farms closed between 2011 and 2018,[66] and Chapter 12 farm bankruptcy filings have increased every year for the past five years with a twenty percent increase in 2019 alone, ending at an eight-year high.[67]

How many more farmers will qualify for Chapter 12 protection going forward is unclear.  One agricultural policy analyst has found that only around 5,000 farms would become newly eligible for Chapter 12 relief out of the 2.1 million existing farms.[68]  If this is true, the 2019 amendment might not yield as much assistance as lawmakers in Washington had hoped.  This study, however, based its findings on data from 1992 to 2011.  In 2011, the national farm debt was 139 billion dollars,[69] while today that debt has almost tripled to 416 billion dollars.  Only time will tell how effective the increased debt limit will be in preserving small family farms.

Raising the debt limit gives more farmers the opportunity to benefit from favorable and flexible restructuring under Chapter 12 that is needed in today’s depressed farm economy.[70]  Following the 2019 amendment, Chapter 12 is now more aligned with family farm scale and credit needs.[71]  The amendment was intended to prevent “mass liquidations and further consolidation in the largest sectors of the industry” and will enable more small family farmers to retain their assets and continue their operations.[72]

VI.  Broader Implications: Why Does Chapter 12 Matter?

The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 is a bill that was aimed at preserving small family farmers in America, an important societal goal.  The Supreme Court has noted that “[f]amily farmers hold a special place in our Nation’s history and folklore,”[73] but some legal scholars argue that family farmer protections are simply pursued for sentimental reasons.[74]  Small family farms, though, provide tangible benefits for our country, besides nostalgia, that support a grant of specialized legal relief.

One of the largest critiques of providing additional agricultural relief is that policymakers rely on agricultural relief as the pipeline for rural development.[75]  While this critique may have some validity, it does not follow that support for small family farms is inconsequential.  Although farms and agriculture may no longer be the backbone for rural America, small family farms still play an important role in our society.  Small family farms, the kind Chapter 12 aims to benefit, contribute to the security of our food supply chain, biodiversity, and the vitality of rural economies.

If small family farms disappeared, large megafarms would be vulnerable to food supply failure.  This is because large farms typically specialize in only a few products and monocultures.[76]  In the event of a disease or a natural disaster that destroys the product or isolates a region from the rest of the country, that region loses its entire access to that product.[77]  Additionally, small farms often produce specialized foods that bolster biodiversity.[78]  Because megafarms focus on a limited number of products, small farms offer diversification of our food supply.  And even if the small farmer grows the same crop as a large producer, that farmer will often cultivate a different variety of that product.[79]  Food chain supply security, biodiversity, and food variety all support preservation of small family farms.

Rural economies and communities also benefit from small family farms, experiencing improved qualities of life.  While megafarms might appear to create benefits for rural communities, such as jobs, more efficient farming, and lower food costs, the community suffers when a small farm is taken over.  The vertical integration of megafarms forecloses open and competitive markets at a local level.[80] 

Additionally, the perceived greater efficiency of megafarms is not realized.[81]  The local economy and consumers do not receive the monetary benefits of megafarm production and investment, as supplies are obtained outside the community and profits go to investors, often in urban areas. [82]  Just as large corporate farms are less likely to put money into the local economy, they are also less likely to care about the environmental impacts of their operations.  Because small family farms are connected to their land and the community, they are more likely to “manage their natural resources responsibly.”[83]  Some scholars have suggested that rural communities do not need small family farms because those farms actually depend on the local rural economy to continue.[84]  But studies have consistently shown that rural communities with small family farms have a higher standard of living than rural communities surrounded by industrialized farms.[85]

Small family farm success and the adjacent success of its rural economy is important because rural prosperity affects the productivity and success of our entire society.  Rural and urban areas are interdependent.  Rural communities provide many things, including food, energy, and unique experiences, while urban communities provide a market, specialized services, and resources for investment.[86]  Quality of life in rural and urban communities also in turn impact one another.[87]

Taken together, small family farms should continue to receive policy attention because of the tangible benefits they provide to rural communities, as well as their urban counterparts.  Protecting small family farms should not be labeled as the “silver bullet” solution to rural economic problems though; family farms are only one important piece of rural community success.[88]

VII.  Conclusion

The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019’s debt limit increase for Chapter 12 qualification will help family farmers maintain their operations and potentially encourage farmers away from retiring and selling off their productions to large farm operations that are starting to dominate agriculture.  The purpose of Chapter 12 is to provide reorganization relief to small family farmers during economic difficulties and the changes in farming operations necessitated this amendment.  Chapter 12’s preservation of small family farmers in turn provides food supply security and benefits rural communities.  And while this is true, both agriculture and non-farm rural development should be integrated because agriculture alone cannot revitalize rural communities.[89]  Nevertheless, without policies supportive of family farms, rural and urban communities would suffer as small family farms disappeared.

The unique circumstances of small family farmers required a specialized provision to accomplish the reorganization goals of the Bankruptcy Code.  The need for individualized rules for particular areas in our economy is further illustrated by the special treatment for small businesses and the recent enactment of the Small Business Reorganization Act.[90]  Chapter 12 continues to provide relief to small family farmers that is unavailable under other reorganization provisions.  Protecting individual producers is not just about sentiment; it’s also about our nation’s prosperity as a whole.


*   Law clerk for the Honorable Robert L. Jones, United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Texas. Wake Forest University School of Law, J.D. 2019. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, B.A. 2016. Sara Kathryn is a former Articles Editor of the Wake Forest Law Review and would like to thank her family and friends for their support and feedback during the publishing process. In particular, she thanks her mother, Ann Matthews, for inspiring and sharing her love of bankruptcy law; Angus Jackson for his assistance throughout the writing process, and to Mike Garrigan for believing in this Article and encouraging her to publish it.

       [1].   See Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019, Pub. L. No. 116-51, 133 Stat. 1075.

       [2].   165 Cong. Rec. H7439 (daily ed. July 25, 2019) (statement of Rep. Delgado).

       [3].   Revision of Certain Dollar Amounts in the Bankruptcy Code Prescribed under Section 104(a) of the Code, 84 Fed. Reg. 3488 (proposed Feb. 21, 2019) (noticing the debt limit of $4,411,400, effective April 1, 2019).

       [4].   David Ray Papke, Rhetoric and Retrenchment: Agrarian Ideology and American Bankruptcy Law, 54 Mo. L. Rev. 871, 881–82, 889–90 (1989).

       [5].   U.S. Dept. Agric.: Econ. Res. Serv., Are Farmer Bankruptcies a Good Indicator of Rural Financial Stress? 3 (1996) (“The economic climate of the 1970s encouraged farmers to expand production and benefit from export opportunities and strong commodity prices. High rates of inflation and low real interest rates further encouraged investment in farmland.  Per acre farmland values increased more than threefold from $196 in 1970 to $823, its 1982 peak.  Total farm-sector equity grew 255 percent during 1970-80.  Total farm business debt nearly quadrupled from $48.8 billion in 1970 to $193.8 billion at its peak in 1984.  A considerable number of farmers were financially extended and vulnerable to sudden shifts in economic forces.”), http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/33675/
files/ai967246.pdf
.

       [6].   Farm Credit Act of 1971, Pub. L. No. 92-181, 85 Stat. 583 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 31 U.S.C.) (increasing the loan-to-value ratio of mortgage debt).

       [7].   Nat’l Bankr. Rev. Comm’n, Bankruptcy: The Next Twenty Years 1012 (1997), http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/nbrc/report/23chapte.pdf.

       [8].   Susan A. Schneider, Bankruptcy Reform and Family Farmers: Correcting the Disposable Income Problem, 38 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 309, 324–25 (2006).

       [9].   Bankruptcy Judges, United States Trustees, and Family Farmer Bankruptcy Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-554, 100 Stat. 3088, 3105–16 (1986).

     [10].   H.R. Rep. No. 99-958, at 48 (1986), reprinted in 1986 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5246, 5249.

     [11].   11 U.S.C. § 101(18) (2018).  The provision also includes family fishermen as of 2005.

     [12].   § 362.

     [13].   §§ 1203, 1204, 1207; see also § 1202(a) (protecting creditors’ interests).

     [14].   § 1221.

     [15].   P. Maureen Bock-Dill, Note, Get Down and Dirty: The Eighth Circuit’s Admonition to Farmers Seeking the Protection of Chapter 12, 43 Ark. L. Rev. 701, 701 (1990).

     [16].   §§ 506(a); 1225(a)(5)(B).

     [17].   Priority claims are defined in the Code, but include things like taxes owed to the IRS and child support payments.

     [18].   § 1225(a)(5).

     [19].   § 1222(b)(9).

     [20].   Susan Schneider, Chapter 12 Bankruptcy: Family Farm Restructuring, 2015 Ark. L. Notes 1686 (2015) [hereinafter Schneider, Family Farm Restructuring].

     [21].   §§ 1225(a)(4), (b).

     [22].   § 1228.

     [23].   Of course, they may be able to still proceed under these chapters.

     [24].   § 1126.

     [25].   Mark Bromley, The Effects of the Chapter 12 Legislation on Informal Resolution of Farm Debt Problems, 37 Drake L. Rev. 197, 197 (1988); Jonathan K. Van Patten, Chapter 12 in the Courts, 38 S.D. L. Rev. 52, 97 (1993).

     [26].   § 1129(b)(2)(B)(ii).

     [27].   Schneider, Family Farm Restructuring, supra note 20.

     [28].   See In re Foster, 84 B.R. 707, 710 (Bankr. D. Mont. 1988)

     [29].   § 109(e) (unsecured debt limit of $419,275 and secured debt limit $1,257,850).

     [30].   In re Perkins, 581 B.R. 822, 833–34 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2018).

     [31].   Schneider, Family Farm Restructuring, supra note 20.

     [32].   Bock-Dill, supra note 15, at 703.

     [33].   Nat’l Bankr. Rev. Comm’n, supra note 7, at 1014 (citing To Extend the Period During Which Chapter 12 of Title 11 of the United States Code Remains in Effect: Hearing on H.R. 5322 Before the Subcommittee on Economic and Commercial Law of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 102d Cong., 2d Sess. 21 (1992) (“Chapter 12 has saved literally thousands of family farms, stabilized farm values, and encouraged more out-of-court negotiations and settlements between lenders and farmers.”) (testimony of A. Thomas Small, one of the principal drafters of Chapter 12, before the House Judiciary Committee)).

     [34].   These critiques were generally raised prior to 2005, when Chapter 12 became a permanent provision in the Bankruptcy Code.

     [35].   Katherine M. Porter, Phantom Farmers: Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code, 79 Am. Bankr. L.J. 729, 729–30 (2005).

     [36].   Bromley, supra note 25, at 197–98; Schneider, Family Farm Restructuring, supra note 20; Van Patten, supra note 25, at 97.

     [37].   Porter, supra note 35, at 731.

     [38].   Chris Faiferlick & Neil E. Harl, The Chapter 12 Bankruptcy Experience in Iowa, 9 J. Agric. Tax’n & L. 302, 331 (1988).

     [39].   Today there are about 2 million farms, which includes farms that do not fit into the definition of family farmer under the Code; compared to 32.5 million businesses and over 327 million people in America today.

     [40].   U.S. Tr. Program, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Chapter 12 Standing Trustee FY18 Annual Reports (2019), https://www.justice.gov/ust/private-trustee-data-statistics/chapter-12-trustee-data-and-statistics (278 new cases were filed in 2018 and 97 were completed with a plan); see Jamey M. Lowdermilk, A Fighting Chance? Small Family Farmers and How Little We Know, 86 Tenn. L. Rev. 177, 192 n.100 (2018) (citing U.S. Trustee Chapter 12 Standing Trustee Annual Reports for years 2009-2017 and finding that “approximately forty percent of Chapter 12 cases complete a reorganization plan measured by the number of Chapter 12 cases closed with a completed plan divided by the number of new Chapter 12 cases filed between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2017 (the years for which data is available) ((122+137+154+119+99+88+97+118+125) / (259+259+194+221+270+347+428+421+264) = 0.40)”).   When the data from 2018 is included, the percentage goes down slightly, to a 39.3% success rate.  See sources cited supra this note.  See also Cathy Moran, Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Explained, Bankr. in Brief, https://www.bankruptcyinbrief.com/chapter-11-bankruptcy-explained/ (last visited Mar. 8, 2020) (“The rate of successful Chapter 11 reorganizations is depressingly low, sometimes estimated at 10% or less.”); Elizabeth Warren & Jay L. Westbrook, The Success of Chapter 11: A Challenge to the Critics, 107 Mich. L. Rev. 603, 614 (2009) (“The data show that the success rate is at least twice what conventional wisdom holds, approaching a third of the cases filed, even if a simple, naïve metric is employed.”); Jonathan Petts, Why is Chapter 13 Probably a Bad Idea?, Upsolve, https://upsolve.org/learn/why-chapter-13-is-probably-a-bad-idea/#1-chapter-13-has-a-failure-rate-of-67 (last updated Aug. 16, 2019) (“[O]nly 33% of Chapter 13 cases result in a discharge . . . .”); Ed Flynn, Chapter 13 Case Outcomes by State, 33 Am. Bankr. Inst. J., Aug. 2014, at 40, 76 (chapter 13 plan completion was about 36% between 2007 to 2013); Ed Flynn, Success Rates in Chapter 13, 36 Am. Bankr. Inst. J., Aug. 2017, at 38, 38 (showing a success rate of 38.8% between 2010 and 2016).

     [41].   Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Pub. L. No. 109-8, 119 Stat. 23.

     [42].   See Jerome M. Stam & Bruce L. Dixon, U.S. Dept. Agric.: Econ. Res. Serv., Farmer Bankruptcies and Farm Exits in the United States, 1899-2002, at 31–32 (2004), https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42532/
17750_aib788_1_.pdf?v=
; see also Susan A. Schneider, History of Chapter 12 Bankruptcy: On Again, Off Again, 18 Agric. L. Update 1, 1–2 (2001) (seven-year sunset provision that was renewed by Congress several times maintaining its temporary nature), https://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/
aala/08-01.pdf
.

     [43].   Porter, supra note 35, at 734.

     [44].   See Pub. L. No. 109-8, § 1005 (codified as amended at 11 U.S.C. § 101(18)(A)(ii) (2018)).

     [45].   See What is Chapter 12 Family Farmer Bankruptcy?, Am. Farm Bureau Fed’n (Apr. 11, 2019), https://www.fb.org/market-intel/what-is-chapter-12-family-farmer-bankruptcy.

     [46].   Nat’l Bankr. Rev. Comm’n, supra note 7, at 1018 (“Even at the family farm level, farming is a debt-intensive business. Farm debt does not only include land and equipment financing, but the cyclical nature of farming requires farmers to finance their working capital on a year-to-year basis.”).

     [47].   Robert J. Keach, ABI Testifies on Family Farmers and Small Business Reorganizations, 38 Am. Bankr. Inst. J., Aug. 2019, at 8, 8.

     [48].   P.J. Huffstutter, U.S. Bill Raising Debt Ceiling for Farm Bankruptcies Heads to White House, NASDAQ (Aug. 2, 2019, 6:18 PM), https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/u.s.-bill-raising-debt-ceiling-for-farm-bankruptcies-heads-to-white-house-2019-08-02 (“With what’s going on in farmland today – as net income has continued to decrease, all the market uncertainty and the natural disasters – this is a very timely change.”).

     [49].   Nat’l Bankr. Rev. Comm’n, supra note 7, at 1017.

     [50].   Id.

     [51].   Alexandria C. Quinn, The Next Generation of Chapter 12 Bankruptcy: Revising the Remedy, 22 Drake J. Agric. L. 245, 261–62 (2017).

     [52].   Nat’l Bankr. Rev. Comm’n, supra note 7, at 1017.

     [53].   Porter, supra note 35, at 734.

     [54].   Quinn, supra note 51, at 262.

     [55].   See Nat’l Bankr. Review Comm’n, supra note 7, at 1017, discussing how the $1.5 million set in 1986 had not changed at the time of the report in 1997.

     [56].   Keach, supra note 47, at 8 (“Relative to 1986, and in nominal dollars, production expenses in agriculture have increased by 198 percent and farm debt has increased by 182 percent, while net cash income has experienced only half of that growth . . . .”).

     [57].   Not Fake News: Congress Enacts New, Sensible Bankruptcy Reform, 38 Am. Bankr. Inst. J., Oct. 2019, at 10, 76 (“It had gone from two-wheel drive tractors to monster machines pulling wide, wide swaths of equipment with GPS precision.  So today’s $10 million limit is basically today’s equivalent of $1.5 million back in 1986.”). 

     [58].   Alana Semuels, ‘They’re Trying to Wipe Us Off the Map.’ Small American Farmers Are Nearing Extinction, Time (Nov. 27, 2019), https://time.com/5736789/small-american-farmers-debt-crisis-extinction/.

     [59].   165 Cong. Rec. H7439 (daily ed. July 25, 2019) (statement of Rep. Delgado).

     [60].   Semuels, supra note 58.

     [61].   P.J. Huffstutter & Jason Lange, Wall Street Banks Bailing on Troubled U.S. Farm Sector, Reuters (July 11, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-farmers-lending-insight/wall-street-banks-bailing-on-troubled-u-s-farm-sector-idUSKCN1U618F.

     [62].   165 Cong. Rec. H7438 (daily ed. July 25, 2019) (statement of Rep. Cicilline).

     [63].   Humeyra Pamuk & Julie Ingwersen, Farm Real Estate Prices Holding Up, But USDA Worried About a Fall, Reuters (Feb. 21, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-farm/farm-real-estate-prices-holding-up-but-usda-worried-about-a-fall-idUSKCN1QA2MB.

     [64].   Huffstutter & Lange, supra note 61 (quoting Michelle Bowman, a governor at the U.S. Federal Reserve, that farm decline was a “troubling echo” of the 1980s farm crisis).

     [65].   U.S. Farm Bankruptcies Hit an Eight-Year High, Am. Bankr. Inst. (Jan. 31, 2020), https://www.abi.org/newsroom/bankruptcy-headlines/us-farm-bankruptcies-hit-an-eight-year-high.

     [66].   Semuels, supra note 58.

     [67].   Admin. Office of U.S. Courts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts – Business and Nonbusiness Cases Filed, by Chapter of Bankruptcy Code, During the 12-Month Period Ending Dec. 31, 2019; Admin. Office of U.S. Courts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts – Business and Nonbusiness Cases Filed, by Chapter of Bankruptcy Code, During the 12-Month Period Ending Dec. 31, 2018; Admin. Office of U.S. Courts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts – Business and Nonbusiness Cases Filed, by Chapter of Bankruptcy Code, During the 12-Month Period Ending Dec. 31, 2017 (counting 498 Chapter 12 cases filed in 2018, while 595 were filed in 2019).

     [68].   Jim Monke, Farm Debt and Chapter 12 Bankruptcy Eligibility, CRS Insight (Mar. 15, 2019), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IN11073.pdf.

     [69].   Jennifer Ifft et al., U.S. Dept. Agric.: Econ. Res. Serv., Debt Use by U.S. Farm Businesses, 1992-2011, at 6 (2014), https://www.ers.usda.gov/
webdocs/publications/43840/44987_eib122.pdf
.

     [70].   165 Cong. Rec. H7439, supra note 59.

     [71].   Keach, supra note 47, at 8.

     [72].   P.J. Huffstutter, U.S. Bill Raising Debt Ceiling for Farm Bankruptcies Heads to White House, Reuters (Aug. 2, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/
us-usa-congress-farms/u-s-bill-raising-debt-ceiling-for-farm-bankruptcies-heads-to-white-house-idUSKCN1US2L8
(quoting Sen. Grassley).

     [73].   Norwest Bank Worthington v. Ahlers, 485 U.S. 197, 209 (1987).

     [74].   See Porter, supra note 35, at 736–37.

     [75].   See, e.g., Karl N. Stauber, Why Invest in Rural America – And How? A Critical Public Policy Question for the 21st Century, Econ. Rev., 2d Q. 2001, at 34­–35.

     [76].   Mario Hereto et al., Farming and the Geography of Nutrient Production for Human Use: A Transdisciplinary Analysis, 1 Lancet Planetary Health e33, e37–e38 (2017) (shifts to larger-scale industrial farming are associated with declines in the diversity of nutritional diversity because they are primarily monocultures).

     [77].   See, e.g., Semuels, supra note 58; Kelsey Nowakowski, Why We Need Small Farms, Nat’l Geographic (Oct. 12, 2018), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/photos-farms-agriculture-national-farmers-day/.

     [78].   Nowakowski, supra note 77.

     [79].   James K. Boyce, A Future for Small Farms? Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture 6 (Univ. of Mass. Amherst Political Econ. Research Inst., Working Paper No. 86, 2004).

     [80].   Nat’l Comm’n on Small Farms, U.S. Dep’t. of Agric., A Time to Act 18 (1998); Food & Water Watch, The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies 11 (2012) (“Rural communities often bear the brunt of agribusiness consolidation. For nearly 80 years, academic studies have documented the negative impact of agriculture’s consolidation and industrialization, which aligns farms more closely with food manufacturers than their local communities.”).

     [81].   See generally Willis L. Peterson, Are Large Farms More Efficient? (Univ. of Minn. Dep’t of Applied Economics, Staff Paper No. P97-2, 1997).

     [82].   See, e.g., Alicia Harvie & Hilde Steffey, Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems 12–13 (2010).

     [83].   Christy Anderson Brekken, South Dakota Farm Bureau, Inc. v. Hazeltine: The Eighth Circuit Abandons Federalism, Precedent, and Family Farmers, 22 L. & Ineq. 347, 354 (2004).

     [84].   Stephen R. Miller, Three Legal Approaches to Rural Economic Development, 23 Kan. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 345, 348 (2014)

     [85].   S. Special Comm. to Study Problems of Am. Small Bus., 79th Cong., Small Business and the Community: A Study of the Central Valley of California on Effects of Scale of Farm Operations 13 (Comm. Print. 1946) (authored by Dr. Walter R. Goldschmidt, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, UCLA); see also David J. Peters, Revisiting the Goldschmidt Hypothesis: The Effect of Economic Structure on Socioeconomic Conditions in the Rural Midwest 20 (2002); Linda Lobao & Curtis W. Stofferahn, The Community Effects of Industrialized Farming: Social Science Research and Challenges to Corporate Farming Laws, 25 Agric. & Hum. Values 219, 223 (2008).

     [86].   Brian Dabson, Rural-Urban Interdependence: Why Metropolitan and Rural America Need Each Other 2 (The Blueprint for Am. Prosperity Metro. Plc’y Program at Brookings, 2007).

     [87].   Robert D. Atkinson, Reversing Rural America’s Economic Decline: The Case for a National Balance Growth Strategy (2004).

     [88].   See Katherine Porter, Going Broke the Hard Way: The Economics of Rural Failure, 2005 Wis. L. Rev. 969, 1027 (2005).

     [89].   See Strategies to Revitalize Rural America, Ctr. Rural Affairs,  https://www.cfra.org/strategies_to_revitalize_rural_america (last visited Mar. 10, 2020).

     [90].   Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019, Pub. L. No. 116-54 (addressing issues small businesses faced in reorganization under Chapter 11 by creating specialized provisions for business with a prescribed debt limit); see also Andrew D. Simmons, Comment, Expanding Bankruptcy Protection to the Individual Businessman: Taking Chapter 12 One Step Further, 24 San Diego L. Rev. 1201, 1219–20 (1987).

By Cole Tipton

SummitBridge National v. Faison

In this bankruptcy action, SummitBridge National (“National”) appeals the district court’s holding that it is barred from claiming attorney’s fees incurred after a bankruptcy petition was filed.  The contract between National and Ollie Faison (“Faison”) stated that Faison would pay “all costs of collection, including but not limited to reasonable attorneys’ fees.”  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and stated that the Bankruptcy Code does not preclude contractual claims to attorney’s fees that were guaranteed by a pre-bankruptcy contract.  The determination of the district court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

US v. Pratt

In this criminal action, Samual Pratt (“Pratt”) appeals his conviction of various counts of sex trafficking and child pornography due to evidentiary errors.  Pratt contends the district court should have suppressed evidence from his cellphone and should not have admitted certain hearsay statements.  First, the Fourth Circuit held that it was reversible error to admit evidence from Pratt’s cellphone because the phone was seized without consent and the government waited thirty-one days before obtaining a search warrant.  The Court stated that such a delay was unreasonable.  Second, the Fourth Circuit held that an unavailable witness’s hearsay statements were admissible because Pratt had procured the witness’s unavailability through phone calls and threats.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Pratt’s convictions on the two counts prejudiced by the cell phone evidence, vacated his sentence, and remanded.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc 

In this civil action, Evangeline Parker (“Parker”) appeals the district court’s dismissal of her complaint against her employer, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“Reema”).  The central issue of the appeal was whether a false rumor circulated by Reema that Parker slept with her boss for a raise could give rise to liability under Title VII for discrimination “because of sex.”  The Fourth Circuit held that because the complaint alleged Reema spread the rumor and acted on it by penalizing the employee, a cognizable claim for discrimination “because of sex” was alleged.  The district court’s dismissal was reversed.

US Dep’t of Labor v. Fire & Safety Investigation

In this civil action, Fire & Safety Investigation Consulting Services, LLC (“Fire & Safety”) appealed the district court’s determination that they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for failing to pay overtime compensation.  Fire & Safety uses an alternative work schedule for its employees in which an employee works 12 hours per day for 14 days and then receives 14 days off.  Because employees under this plan will work 88 hours in one work week, Fire & Safety pays its employees a blended rate for all 88 hours that is supposed to account for the 48 hours of overtime worked, rather than paying 40 hours of standard pay plus 48 hours of overtime.  The Fourth Circuit held that this blended rate fails to observe the formalities required by the FLSA which requires all overtime hours be recorded and paid at one and one-half times the standard rate of pay for all hours worked over 40.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, including over $1.5 million in back wages and liquidated damages.

Trana Discovery, Inc. v. S. Research Inst.

In this civil action, Trana Discovery, Inc. (“Trana”) brought a fraud and negligent misrepresentation action against Southern Research Institute (“Southern”).  Trana alleged that Southern had provided false data in research reports of a new HIV medication it was researching.  The district court granted summary judgment for Southern on both claims.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgement, stating that there was no genuine dispute of material fact due to an insufficiency of evidence regarding damages and the standard of care Southern was exacted to.  Accordingly, summary judgement was affirmed.

Jesus Christ is the Answer v. Baltimore County, Maryland

In this civil action, Jesus Christ is the Answer Church (“Church”) brought an action alleging violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act.  Church alleged that Baltimore County, Maryland (“Baltimore”) had infringed upon their State and Federal rights by denying their modified petition for zoning variances to establish a church.  Several neighbors, who had expressed open hostility towards Church, opposed the petition.  After the petition was denied, Church filed an action in district court which was dismissed for failure to state a claim.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded because Church’s complaint contained facts sufficient to state a claim that was “plausible on its face.”  The Fourth Circuit held that the neighbors apparent religious bias towards Church was sufficient to plead a plausible Constitutional claim and violation of the Religious Land Use Act. 

Curtis v. Propel Property Tax Funding

In this civil action, Garry Curtis (“Curtis”) brought a suit on behalf of himself and similarly situated individuals against Propel Property Tax Funding (“Propel”), alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.  Propel was engaged in the practice of lending to third parties to finance payment of local taxes.  The district court denied Propel’s motion to dismiss and certified two interlocutory questions.  Propel appealed, asserting that Curtis did not have standing and that he failed to state a claim for relief.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that: 1) Curtis had standing because he was personally subject to the harms these consumer protection statutes were designed to protect against; and 2) Curtis had sufficiently pled violations of the lending acts because Propel was conducting consumer credit transactions.

US v. Charboneau

In this civil action, Blake Charboneau (“Charboneau”) challenges the determination that he is a “sexually dangerous person” under the civil commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.  The district court held that Charboneau was a “sexually dangerous person” within the meaning of the act and committed him to the custody of the Attorney General.  On appeal, Charboneau raised two issues: 1) whether he must be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder to be committed under the act; and 2) if the record supported the district court’s findings.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that an actual diagnosis was not necessary under the act and the record was sufficient under a clear error standard of review.

US v. Johnson

In this criminal action, Willie Johnson (“Johnson”) appealed a district court’s order to resentence him for bank robbery under the sentencing recommendation in his original plea agreement.  Johnson argued that the government’s original agreement not to seek a mandatory life sentence under the federal three-strikes law was not beneficial because his prior state crimes should not be counted for federal three-strikes treatment.  The Fourth Circuit held that state crimes are encompassed by the three-strikes program and the district court’s decision to honor the original sentencing recommendation was affirmed.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 6.56 Acres of Land

In this civil action, owners of 6.56 acres of land appealed a district court judgement granted Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (“Pipeline”) a preliminary injunction for access and possession of property it was acquiring through eminent domain.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s application of the test set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008) for preliminary injunctions.  In doing so, the Court found that Pipeline had established it was likely to succeed on the merits, would suffer irreparable harm, the balance of equities was in its favor, and that an injunction served the public interest.  Accordingly, the district court was affirmed.

Booking.com B.V. v. US Patent & Trademark

In this civil action, Booking.com and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) appeal the district court’s grant of summary judgment protecting the trademark BOOKING.COM.  Booking.com appeals the district court’s grant of attorney’s fees to the USPTO, and the USPTO appeals the court’s decision that BOOKING.COM is protectable.  The Fourth Circuit held that BOOKING.COM is not generic and can be registered as a descriptive mark with secondary meaning.  Moreover, the Court upheld the grant of USPTO’s expenses because the Lanham Act requires a party to pay “all the expenses of the proceeding” when a USPTO decision is appealed to the district court.  Thus, the district court’s judgment was affirmed.

US v. Jones

In this criminal action, James Eric Jones (“Jones”) appeals the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  Jones was originally sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) which requires a mandatory fifteen-year minimum sentence for defendants with at least three prior violent felony convictions.  However, Jones claims that he does not qualify for sentencing under the act because his South Carolina conviction for assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer is not a violent conviction as defined by the ACCA.  The Fourth Circuit held that assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer does not qualify under the ACCA because it includes conduct that does not involve violent physical force. Therefore, the district court’s judgment was vacated and remanded.

Weekly Roundup: 2/26-3/2

By: Cara Katrinak & Raquel Macgregor

Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc. v. PDR Network, LLC

In this civil case, Carlton & Harris Chiropractic appealed the district court’s dismissal of its claim against PDR Network for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) by sending an unsolicited advertisement via fax. Carlton & Harris argued that the district court erred by failing to defer to a 2006 rule promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreting provisions of the TCPA–specifically, interpreting the term “unsolicited advertisement.” Carlton & Harris further argued that the Hobbs Act required the district court to defer to the FCC’s rule. The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the case, holding both that the Hobbs Act deprived the district court of jurisdiction to consider the validity of the FCC rule and the district court’s reading of the FCC rule conflicted with the plain meaning of the rule’s text.  

Singer v. Reali

This appeal and cross-appeal arose from the district court’s dismissal of a securities fraud class action complaint related to the healthcare provider reimbursement practices of defendant TranS1 and four of its officers in connection with TranS1’s AxiaLIF system (the “System”). Named plaintiff Phillip J. Singer alleged that TranS1 and its officers, through the System, enabled surgeons to secure fraudulent reimbursements from health insurers and government-funded healthcare programs. Singer initiated this class action against TranS1 and its officers pursuant to Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, claiming that TranS1 and its officers concealed the fraudulent reimbursement scheme from the market through false and misleading statements and omissions and that TranS1’s stock price plummeted when the scheme was revealed.

Here, Singer appealed (No. 15-2579) the district court’s dismissal of his complaint for failure to sufficiently plead the material misrepresentation element or the scienter element of his Section 10(b) claim. TranS1 and its officers cross-appealed (No. 16-1019), contending that the district court erred in dismissing their challenge to the loss causation element of Singer’s claim. In reviewing the complaint, the Fourth Circuit held that Singer sufficiently pleaded the misrepresentation and scienter elements because the complaint specified statements made by TranS1 and its officers about its reimbursement practices that support Singer’s claim. In addition, the Court held that Singer also sufficiently pleaded the loss causation element because the complaint alleged losses resulting from “the relevant truth . . . leak[ing] out” about TranS1’s previously concealed fraudulent reimbursement scheme. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded No. 15-2579 and affirmed No. 16-1019.

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co. L.P.

In this civil case, Sprint Communications appealed the district court’s order granting Norfolk Southern Railway’s motion to confirm an arbitration award. The arbitration arose from a disputed license agreement between the parties. The agreement granted use of Norfolk Southern’s railroad rights of way for Sprint’s fiber optic telecommunications system. The parties disagreed over the amount Sprint owed Norfolk Southern for such continued use and, pursuant to their agreement, hired three appraisers to determine an appropriate amount. On appeal, the parties disputed whether the final decision of the appraisers constituted a “final” arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Because the text of the appraisers’ final decision reserved the right to withdraw assent in the future, the award could not be considered “final.” Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case, holding that the arbitration award was not “mutual, final, and definite” as required by the FAA.        

U.S. v. Phillips

In this civil case, claimant Damian Phillips appealed the district court’s holding that he lacked standing to intervene in his brother Byron Phillips’ forfeiture case. Damian sought to intervene after the United States claimed that $200,000 in cash found in a storage unit leased by Byron was subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) for being connected to the “exchange [of] a controlled substance.” Damian claimed that the cash was his life savings and, therefore, was not connected with drugs in violation of the statute. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that–based on the record–Damian lacked the necessary colorable interest in the $200,000 to establish standing.     

Janvey v. Romero

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of Maryland’s decision denying a motion to dismiss a bankruptcy petition. Appellee, Romero, had originally filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition after he was found liable for a $1.275 million Ponzi scheme. The receiver, Janvey, moved to dismiss the bankruptcy petition due to bad faith under 11 U.S.C. §707(a). The Fourth Circuit was tasked with assessing whether the district court abused its discretion in deciding that Romero’s decision to file bankruptcy had not risen to the level of “bad faith.” The Fourth Circuit emphasized that the purpose of the Bankruptcy Code is to “grant a fresh start to the honest but unfortunate debtor,” and dismissing a bankruptcy petition for cause under bad faith is only warranted “in those egregious cases that entail concealed or misrepresented assets . . . excessive and continued expenditures, [and] lavish life-style.” The Court rejected Appellant’s arguments that filing bankruptcy in response to a single debt or the debtor’s ability to pay the debt constitute bad faith per se. The Court noted that although Romero had $5.348 million in assets, most of these assets were statutorily exempt. Moreover, Romero was supporting his wife’s medical costs, which averaged $12,000 a month for a bacterial brain infection that had left her incapacitated. The Court noted that Romero filed for bankruptcy in part for legitimate reasons, such as the inability to pay his wife’s medical expenses, and Romero was unable to find work after the Ponzi scheme was made public. Thus, the Court found that the district court had not abused its discretion in finding that Romero’s bankruptcy petition had not risen to the level of bad faith.

Hickerson v. Yamaha Motor Corp.

In this case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of South Carolina’s decision to exclude the Plaintiff’s expert testimony and enter summary judgment for the Defendant. The Plaintiff had filed suit against Yamaha for a WaveRunner’s (jet ski) inadequate warnings and defective design that resulted in serious internal injuries during a watercraft accident. The WaveRunner itself contained several warnings to wear a swimsuit bottom and to only have three passengers riding the craft at a time. When the accident occurred, a ten-year-old was driving, the Plaintiff was only wearing a bikini bottom, and she was the fourth passenger. The district court excluded the Plaintiff’s expert testimony regarding potential warnings because the expert’s proposals were scientifically untested and thus were unreliable under the Daubert standard. The Fourth Circuit offered little independent analysis regarding the expert testimony exclusion, but the Court agreed with the district court’s reasoning under the abuse of discretion standard of review. Moreover, regarding Plaintiff’s defective design claims, the Court noted that in South Carolina, design defects can be “cured” by adequate product warnings. The Court found that the warnings were adequate as a matter of law, and thus the district court did not err in granting summary judgment on the Plaintiff’s design defect claims.

Elliott v. American States Insurance Co.

This appeal arose from Plaintiff Elliott’s claim against her automobile insurer. In 2013, Elliott was in an automobile accident that left her with serious bodily injuries. As Plaintiff’s insurance coverage through the Defendant was capped at $100,000 and Plaintiff claimed more than $200,000 in damages, her recovery was insufficient to cover her expenses. The Plaintiff then initiated an action to recover damages first against Jones, the other driver in the accident, and then against her insurer. The District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ultimately denied Plaintiff’s motion to remand the case back to the Superior Court (where she originally filed the case) and granted Defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the Plaintiff had three claims: (1) that the Defendant’s filing for removal to the district court was untimely, (2) that the district court erred in determining parties were diverse, and thus subject matter jurisdiction did not exist in federal court; and (3) the district court erred in granting Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. On the Plaintiff’s first claim, the Court concluded that the original service of process was made on a “statutory agent,” not an agent appointed by the defendant. Thus, the thirty-day time period to file the notice of removal did not start until the Defendant actually received a copy of the complaint, not when the service of process was actually delivered. Consequently, the Defendant filed its notice of removal within the allotted time period. As to the second claim, the Court held that the “direct action” variation on diversity jurisdiction from § 1332(c)(1) does not include an insured’s suit against his or her own insurer for breach of the insurance policy terms; thus the parties were diverse. Lastly, the Court rejected the Plaintiff’s claims regarding the Defendant’s motion to dismiss on multiple grounds, including that the Defendant had no obligation to settle the Elliot’s claims until after a judgment was settled against the other motorist, Jones.

By Mickey Herman

On Thursday, March 30, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in LVNV Funding, LLC v. Harling, a bankruptcy case. Creditor-appellant, LVNV Funding, LLC (“LVNV”) appealed the bankruptcy court’s decision to sustain Rhodes’ and the Harling’s (collectively “Debtors”) objections to LVNV’s unsecured claims, which were raised after the confirmation date. After rejecting LVNV’s argument that such objections were precluded by the doctrine of res judicata, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy’s judgments.

Facts & Procedural History

In July 2014, Jeffrey Rhodes filed for bankruptcy relief under Chapter 13. Rhodes’ Chapter 13 plan was confirmed in October 2014. In June 2015, Derek and Teresa Harling similarly filed for relief under Chapter 13. Their plan was confirmed in August 2015. The Debtors’ Chapter 13 plans both “provided for treatment of unsecured creditors as a single class,” the members of which would be paid pro rata to the extent that funds remained after payment of all other claims. They also reserved to the Debtors the right to object to claims after plan confirmation.

LVNV filed proofs of claim in each case before the plans were confirmed, and neither the Debtors, nor their trustees, acted on the claims before their plans’ respective confirmations. Following their plans’ confirmations, the Debtors—relying on the reservation of rights clauses—objected to LVNV’s proof of claims, arguing that they were barred by the statute of limitations. Although LVNV conceded that its claims would ordinarily be so barred, it characterized the confirmation orders as final judgments and argued that the Debtors’ objections were precluded under the doctrine of res judicata. The bankruptcy courts disagreed with LVNV and sustained the Debtors’ objections. LVNV appealed, and the Fourth Circuit consolidated the Debtors’ cases.

Analysis

The court began by summarizing the role of res judicata in bankruptcy cases. Because “[a] debtor’s bankruptcy case ‘involves an aggregation of individual controversies,’” the court emphasized that it “may contain many ‘final decisions’ that do not necessarily fit squarely into the conventional formulation of res judicata.” Still, the court emphasized, confirmation orders “have a preclusive effect on those issues litigated at confirmation.” Resolution of the issue, therefore, required the court to consider what issues were determined by the confirmation orders and whether the courts “adjudicate[d] the merits of any individual unsecured creditor’s claim.”

The court first addressed the statutory structure of the Bankruptcy Code. After summarizing the distinctions between treatment of unsecured and secured claims, it emphasized that “[n]o provision of the . . . Code provides for the determination of the merits of an individual unsecured claim within the class of unsecured claims as part of plan confirmation.”

It turned next to the question of whether the elements of res judicata were met in the instant case. “Res judicata applies where three conditions are met: (1) there is a prior judgment, which was final, on the merits, ‘and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of due process’; (2) the parties to the second matter are identical to, or in privity with, the parties in the first action; and (3) ‘the claims in the second matter are based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding.’” Noting that both parties agree that the confirmation orders constitute final judgments “as to their subject matter” and that the parties were before the court when such confirmations were ordered, the court concluded that the first two elements of the doctrine were met.

The court concluded its analysis by considering “whether the ‘cause of action’ in the later proceeding—the validity of the Debtors’ objections to LVNV’s claims—was any part of the cause of action in the first proceeding, plan confirmation.” Ultimately, the court determined that the causes of action differed in that while the Debtors’ objections focused on LVNV’s claims, the plan confirmations only considered unsecured creditors as a class. This result is necessitated by the structure of the Bankruptcy Code, in which “Congress had made Chapter 13 plan confirmation and claim-allowance on contested unsecured claims to be separate and distinct actions within a . . .  proceeding.”

Conclusion

Rejecting the contention that plan confirmation constitutes a final judgment as to an individual unsecured creditors claim, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Debtors’ objections to LVNV’s claims were not barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

By Sophia Blair

On January 5, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published an amended opinion for the civil case, Lynch v. Jackson, originally decided on January 4, 2017.

Bankruptcy Court Decision and Appeal to the Fourth Circuit

Gabriel and Monte Jackson (“Jackson”) filed a petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief. Marjorie Lynch (“Lynch”), a Bankruptcy Administrator, moved to dismiss their case as an abuse. Lynch alleged that the Jacksons over reported their expenses when filing for relief because they used the National and Local Standard amounts in their application form instead of their actual expenses, which were lower.

In filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the Jacksons had to fill out a means test because they earned over the median income for a family of their size. The test is used to determine the amount of a debtor’s disposable income, which may reveal abuse if that income is above a certain level and prevent them from proceeding under Chapter 7. The Jacksons followed the instructions of form 22A-2, which says, “Deduct the expense amounts set out in lines 6-15 regardless of your actual expense. In later parts of the form, you will use some of you actual expenses if they are higher than the standards.” The Jacksons used the standard mortgage and car payment expenses, even though both were higher than their actual expenses.

Lynch argued that the official forms were incorrect and that a Chapter 7 debtor was “Limited to deducting their actual expenses or the applicable National or Local Standard, whichever [was] less.” The Jacksons countered, stating the statute was unambiguous. The Bankruptcy Court denied Lynch’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the Jackson’s interpretation comported with the plain meaning of the statute, and both parties filed a request for permission to directly appeal to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit held that they had jurisdiction over the appeal, and granted the appeal with respect to the question: does 11 U.S.C. § 707(b)(2) permit a debtor to take the full National and Local Standard amounts for expenses even though the debtor incurs actual expenses that are less than the standard amounts?

Was there an abuse of Bankruptcy Relief?

The Fourth Circuit held that under the plain meaning of the statute, a debtor is entitled to deduct the full National and Local Standard amounts even though their actual expenses are below the standard amounts.

In order to determine whether the Jacksons abused bankruptcy relief, the Fourth Circuit looked to the plain meaning of § 707(b)(2)(A)(ii)(I) of the statute. This section states: “the debtor’s monthly expenses shall be the debtor’s applicable monthly expense amounts specified under the National Standards and Local Standards, and the debtor’s actual monthly expenses for the categories specified as Other Necessary Expenses issued by the Internal Revenue Service for the area in which the debtor resides . . . .”

Where the statute’s language is plain, the Fourth Circuit ends its inquiry after enforcing the statute according to its terms in the context of the overall statutory scheme. See Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Union Planters Bank, N.A., 530 U.S. 1, 6 (2000); Davis v. Mich. Dep’t of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809 (1989). The court found that the language of  § 707(b)(2)(A)(ii)(I) was clear on its face because it specified that “[t]he debtor’s monthly expenses shall be the debtor’s applicable monthly expense amounts specified under the National Standards and Local Standards.” The court relied on the theory of statutory construction that where Congress uses different words in the same statute, they should have different meanings. Here the court distinguished between “applicable monthly expenses” in the first clause of the statute, and “actual monthly expenses” in the second clause. Therefore, the court understood that the”applicable monthly expenses” were the full National and Local Standard amounts.

Additionally, the Fourth Circuit opined that to construe “applicable” and “actual” to have the same meaning would have the absurd result of punishing frugal debtors. A frugal debtor would be punished to for spending less. Relying on Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564, 575 (1982), the court sought to read the statute in such a way as to avoid absurd results.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy court’s judgment to deny Lynch’s motion to dismiss, because the Jacksons had not abused bankruptcy relief by providing the National and Local Standard amounts, instead of their actual expenses in form 22A-2.

By Amanda Whorton

On March 11, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Providence Hall Associates v. Wells Fargo Bank. The court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Providence Hall Associates’ (“PHA”) lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank (“Wells Fargo”), holding that it was precluded by res judicata.

The Three Agreements and Bankruptcy Proceedings

PHA, a Virginia limited partnership, entered into three agreements with Wells Fargo. These transactions were a $2.5 million loan, a $500,000 line of credit, and an interest-rate-swap agreement. PHA defaulted on its loans and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2011. Wells Fargo filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for almost $3 million. PHA objected and filed an adversary complaint, alleging that Wells Fargo falsely represented that it would refrain from collecting the principal balance of the line of credit. PHA asserts that this caused it to default and enter bankruptcy.

The U.S. Trustee obtained court approval to sell two of PHA’s properties to satisfy its debts to Wells Fargo. In the Trustee’s sale motions, it requested that the proceeds be distributed to Wells Fargo. In November 2012, after PHA’s debts to Wells Fargo had been satisfied from the proceeds of the sales, the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding was dismissed.

Over a year after the dismissal, PHA filed a suit in Virginia state court repeating the claims it made in the bankruptcy adversary complaint. Wells Fargo removed the suit to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted on res judicata grounds, stating that the bankruptcy court’s sale orders precluded PHA from bringing this subsequent action.

Doctrine of Res Judicata

Res judicata, or claim preclusion, bars relitigation of issues that were or could have been raised in a previous action when the previous action constituted a final judgment on the merits and was between the same parties or their privies. Three elements of res judicata have to be met in order for it to bar a subsequent action: (1) final judgment on the merits, (2) identical causes of action between the prior and subsequent suits, and (3) identical parties or their privies in the two suits. The court also took into account two practical considerations, which include (1) whether a party or its privy knew or should have known of the claims during the first action, and (2) whether the court that ruled in the first action was an effective forum to litigate the claims.

The Sale Orders Meet the Three Elements of Res Judicata and the Two Practical Considerations

The Fourth Circuit found cases from its sister circuits persuasive in holding that the first prong of the res judicata analysis was met. Bankruptcy sale orders are considered final orders on the merits in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits. The Fourth Circuit further reasoned that the trustee, acting as PHA’s representative, would not have moved to sell the property to satisfy the debt if PHA did not in fact owe the amount that Wells Fargo claimed it was due. These motions to sell effectively conceded the validity of Wells Fargo’s claims and the proceeds of those sales satisfied PHA’s debts. The court reasoned that it would not serve judicial economy and promote finality if PHA was allowed to challenge in a new proceeding the transactions after the sales were made, the debt was satisfied, and the bankruptcy proceeding closed. Furthermore, the fundamental purpose of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding is the rehabilitation of the debtor. This is served by holding that PHA’s bankruptcy case ended in a final judgment on the merits.

The court held that the second prong of res judicata was also met. The Fourth Circuit uses the transactional approach with this prong: res judicata will bar a new claim if it is based on the same underlying transaction involved in the earlier suit. The court reasoned that the sale orders arose out of the same nucleus of operative facts as PHA’s claims in the current case, which are the three agreements between PHA and Wells Fargo.

The third prong was met, the Fourth Circuit reasoned, because the trustee was in privity with PHA as its representative in the bankruptcy proceeding. The trustee was able to therefore effectively litigate on PHA’s behalf.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court

The Fourth Circuit held that PHA’s claims were barred by res judicata and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of PHA’s suit.

By Sarah Saint

In the March 11 civil case Providence Hall Associates Limited Partnership v. Wells Fargo Bank, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to give res judicata effect to sale orders issued during Providence Hall Associates’ (“PHA”) Chapter 11 bankruptcy and thus dismiss PHA’s lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank.

Procedural History of the Res Judicata Effect

PHA, a Virginia-based limited partnership, entered three transactions with Wells Fargo’s predecessor-in-interest prior to bankruptcy: (1) a $2.5 million loan, (2) a $500,000 line of credit, and (3) an interest-rate-swap agreement. The loan and line of credit had a cross-default clause–a default on one is a default on both–and were secured by deeds of trust, mortgages, and assignments of rent for PHA real estate holdings. When PHA defaulted on the loans, it filed a petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Shortly after, PHA defaulted on the interest-rate-swap agreement.

Wells Fargo filed a proof of claim in the Chapter 11 case, to which PHA objected, alleging that Wells Fargo falsely represented that it would forbear the collection of the principal balance of the line of credit, which caused PHA to enter bankruptcy. The United States Trustee then moved to convert the Chapter 11 case to a Chapter 7 proceeding or, alternatively, dismiss it because PHA had failed to file monthly reports. Wells Fargo filed a memorandum in support of the motion, repeating that PHA’s principals used Wells Fargo’s cash collateral to pay distributions to themselves. The bankruptcy court decided to appoint a Chapter 11 trustee instead of converting or dismissing the case.

The trustee obtained court approval to sell two of the bankruptcy estate’s properties to satisfy the debts owed to Wells Fargo and bring PHA out of bankruptcy. The sale motions recognized PHA’s obligations to Wells Fargo, and the bankruptcy court noted that PHA was in debt to Wells Fargo in granting the motions. The proceeds of the sales satisfied PHA’s debts to Wells Fargo, and a principal of PHA filed a motion to dismiss the Chapter 11 proceeding, which was granted with the trustee’s consent.

Over a year later, PHA filed suit in Virginia state court, which Wells Fargo removed to federal court, alleging the same claims in the bankruptcy adversary complaint and new theories of lender liability. PHA specifically claimed that the interest-rate-swap transaction was a sham because the rate was illegally manipulated. Wells Fargo then filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted on res judicata grounds. PHA subsequently appealed.

Standard of Review and Rules of Law

The Fourth Circuit reviewed de novo the district court’s dismissal based on res judicata. The doctrine of res judicata maintains that a final judgment on the merits precludes the parties from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that earlier action. Three elements must be satisfied for res judicata to apply: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit; (2) an identity of the claim in both the prior and present suit; and (3) an identity of parties or their privies in both the prior and present suit. Additionally, two practical considerations should be taken into account: whether the party knew or should have known of its claims at the time of the first action and whether the court that ruled in the first suit was an effective forum to litigate the other relevant claims.

Prong 1: A Final Judgment on the Merits

The district court used cases from the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits to determine that the bankruptcy sale order was a final order on the merits. The Fourth Circuit found those circuit decisions persuasive and also concluded that the first prong of the res judicata test was satisfied. Despite PHA’s attempts to distinguish its suit from the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuit determinations, the Fourth Circuit found that the distinctions were misplaced, unhelpful, unmeaningful and unpersuasive.

The Court dedicated a large portion of its analysis to PHA’s attempted distinction from the Seventh Circuit decision, where the trustee alleged fraud surrounding the sale proceedings while PHA alleged fraud unrelated to the sale proceedings. The trustee in this case moved to sell PHA’s property to satisfy specific obligations arising out of PHA’s transactions with Wells Fargo, which the bankruptcy court approved. The Court reasoned that it would not make sense to allow PHA to challenge the transactions that gave rise to its now-extinguished debt. In fact, it would upend the purpose of res judicata, to promote finality and judicial economy.

Relying on the other Circuit’s decisions, as well as the purpose of Chapter 11 bankruptcy–to rehabilitate the debtor–the Court concluded that sale orders are final orders on the merit. The fact that a bankruptcy court sale order is an in rem proceeding does not remove in personam lender liability claims arising out of the same claims and involving the same parties from the reach of res judicata. PHA contended that a previous Fourth Circuit decision and a district court decision would decline to give preclusive effect to sale orders. The Fourth Circuit rejected the prior Fourth Circuit decision because the discussion about res judicata in that decision was merely dicta and because PHA’s fraud claims arose out of the same underlying transaction as the sale order. The Fourth Circuit also rejected the district court decision because it is not binding authority, because it involved a lift-stay order and not a sale order, and because it does not make sense to liquidate a bankruptcy estate and then allow claims to be brought against the creditor regarding the now-satisfied debts.

Prong 2: Identity of the Claims

Res judicata bars a second suit if it is based on the same underlying transaction that was involved in the first suit and if it could have been brought in the prior action. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the sale orders arose out of the same nucleus of facts as PHA’s prior claims: the circumstances surrounding the three agreements between PHA and Wells Fargo. Accordingly, the second prong of the res judicata test was met.

Prong 3: Identity of the Parties of their Privies

Even though PHA was not a party to the sale order–the trustee was–the trustee was in privity with PHA as a representative of the debtor’s bankruptcy case. Thus, the third prong of the res judicata test was met.

Practical Considerations

PHA argued that it, as a debtor who was no longer a debtor-in-possession, could not have effectively litigated its claims against Wells Fargo. However, in doing so, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that PHA was relying on a faulty premise because the trustee was the party to the sale order and not PHA. Thus, the question is whether the trustee could have effectively litigated in the bankruptcy court. Because PHA offered no argument that the trustee could not effectively litigate in the bankruptcy court, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the two practical considerations were met.

Conclusion

Because the Fourth Circuit found that the three elements of res judicata were met and the two practical considerations were also satisfied, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly dismissed PHA’s suit against Wells Fargo and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

By Taylor Ey

Chapter 11 Attorney vs. Bankruptcy Trustee

Today, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case, In re Anderson.  In this case, the debtor, Mr. Henry L. Anderson, Jr., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2010 and was represented by Stubbs & Perdue, P.A.  Subsequently, Anderson’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case converted to a Chapter 7 case.  James B. Angell was appointed as the Chapter 7 Trustee. Anderson had two outstanding debts: approximately $200,000 in legal fees related to the bankruptcy proceedings owed to Stubbs & Perdue, P.A., and nearly $1 million in secured tax claims owed to the IRS.  Anderson’s estate had insufficient funds to pay both of the outstanding debts.  Stubbs & Perdue sued the bankruptcy estate trustee, Angell, seeking the attorneys’ fees granted by order during the Chapter 11 proceedings.  Thus, the issue was whether the attorneys’ fees claim or the secured tax claims take priority in a Chapter 7 liquidation under the Bankruptcy Code.

Governing Law: Changes in the Bankruptcy Code Lead to Confusion as to Which Version Applies

Generally under the Bankruptcy Code (“the Code”), secured claims take priority over unsecured claims, such as the unsecured claim for attorneys’ fees from the bankruptcy proceedings.  There is a limited exception to this general rule under 11 U.S.C. § 724(b)(2) for “administrative expenses.”  Until 2005, the Code was relatively straightforward.  It provided that all holders of claims for administrative expenses had the right to subordinate secured tax creditors.  In 2005, Congress redrafted the language in the exception to narrow it, but this change created confusion.  Congress again amended the Code in 2010, clarifying that § 724(b)(2) did not subordinate Chapter 11 administrative expense claims to secured tax claims.

Competing Arguments

Stubbs argued that the prior version of the § 724(b)(2) exception, before 2010, should apply and thus his claims for attorneys’ fees should subordinate the secured tax claims.  Angell argued that the law in effect at the time at the time of the decision should apply, that is the 2010 revision that clearly states that Chapter 11 administrative expense claims cannot subordinate secured tax claims.

Governing Principles: The Law in Effect at the Time of the Decision Governs and Retroactivity Is Disfavored

The Fourth Circuit stated that, unless the law in effect at the time of a decision would have retroactive effect, the law in effect will govern.  Therefore, in this case, because the 2010 version of the Code would not have retroactive effect, the Court applied the 2010 law.  The Court favored this outcome because it is clear and easy to administer.  This clarity is especially important in the bankruptcy context, said the Court, because the bankruptcy trustee has a fiduciary duty to repay the debtor’s creditors in an expeditious manner.

The Court Affirmed the District Court.

The district court applied the 2010 version of the Code, deciding that the secured tax claims had priority over the Chapter 11 administrative expenses.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed this decision.

 

By George Kennedy

On July 1, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Houck v. Substitute Trustee Services, Inc. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims brought under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k) was erroneous, and consequently vacated the district court’s judgment, reversed its order, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Plaintiff’s Foreclosure Proceedings and Petition for Bankruptcy

In 2000, Plaintiff Diana Houck secured financing from Lifestore Bank, F.S.A. to purchase a mobile home for her property. In 2007, Houck refinanced the loan so that she could make renovations to her family farmhouse. Two years later, however, Houck lost her job and began to have difficulty making loan payments. Because of this, Houck asked Lifestore for a loan modification. In response, Lifestore referred Houck to a debt collection agency, Grid Financial Services, Inc., which denied Houck’s request.

In July 2011, the Hutchens Law Firm, representing both Lifestore and Grid Financial, served Houck with a notice of foreclosure. To stop the foreclosure proceedings, Houck filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection because the filing of a bankruptcy petition triggers an automatic stay for certain debt collection actions under 11 U.S.C. § 362(a). While the bankruptcy court denied this first petition , Houck again filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. After filing the second petition, Houck called the Hutchens Law Firm to notify it of the bankruptcy filing. Notwithstanding Houck’s second bankruptcy petition, however, the Substitute Trustee, also represented by Hutchens, sold Houck’s property in a foreclosure sale.

Dismissal of Plaintiff’s Claims by the District Court

To undo the sale of her property, Houck commenced an action against Lifestore, Grid Financial, and the Substitute Trustee. Houck alleged a claim against the three Defendants under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k) for violation of the automatic stay triggered by the filing of a bankruptcy petition. Houck also alleged related state law claims.

In two separate orders, one in October 2013 and the other in February 2014, the district court dismissed all of Houck’s claims. In October 2013, the district court granted the Substitute Trustee’s motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court held that Houck failed to allege facts that showed that the Substitute Trustee’s violation of the automatic stay was willful. Since this is a necessary element for a claim under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k), the district court held that Houck failed to state a claim for relief and granted the Substitute Trustee’s motion. In February 2014, the district court dismissed the remaining claims against Lifestore and Grid Financial on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear Houck’s claim under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k). The district court reasoned that such claims can only properly be heard in federal bankruptcy courts, and not district courts. The district court then dismissed Houck’s related state law claims.

The District Court Reversed

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing Houck’s claims and rejected the reasoning underlying the district court’s holding. Yet before resolving Houck’s claims on the merits, the Fourth Circuit established that it had jurisdiction to hear Houck’s appeal. At issue in terms of appellate jurisdiction was whether Houck was appealing from a final judgment as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1291(a). The Fourth Circuit held that Houck was in fact appealing from a final judgment under the doctrine of cumulative finality. In so holding, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that the district court’s initial dismissal of Houck’s claims against the Substitute Trustee and subsequent dismissal of Houck’s claims against Lifestore and Grid Financial had the cumulative effect of rendering all Houck’s claims against these defendants as decided with finality.

Next, the Fourth Circuit addressed the district court’s holding that it did not have jurisdiction to hear claims brought under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k). The district court held that such claims can only be brought in the bankruptcy courts, and therefore, district courts do not have jurisdiction to resolve them. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, however, and held that the statute provides both district courts and bankruptcy courts with original jurisdiction over claims brought under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k). Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held the district court erred in dismissing Houck’s 11 U.S.C. § 362(k) claims against Lifestore and Grid Financial for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Lastly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Houck’s claims against the Substitute Trustee under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In dismissing Houck’s claim, the district court argued that Houck failed to allege facts that, if true, would have satisfied all the required elements under 11 U.S.C. § 362(k). In particular, the district court held that Houck failed to provide any facts showing that the Substitute Trustee’s violation of the automatic stay was willful. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, and argued that by notifying the Hutchens Law Firm of her bankruptcy petition, Houck provided the Substitute Trustee with notice since the Substitute Trustee was also represented by Hutchens. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that Houck did allege facts to show that the Substitute Trustee’s violation of the automatic stay was willful because Houck alleged that the Substitute Trustee had notice of Houck’s bankruptcy petition which triggers an automatic stay under 11 U.S.C. § 362(a).

Vacated, Reversed in Part, and Remanded

Because the district court erred in dismissing Houck’s claims against Lifestore, Grid Financial, and the Substitute Trustee, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment, reversed its order, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

 

piles-of-money

By Taylor Anderson

On April 27, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion regarding the civil case In re Jenkins. The appellant, Matthew Alan Jenkins (“Jenkins”), appealed the decision of the lower courts, arguing that the Bankruptcy Administrator and the Trustee’s (collectively, “the Trustee”) complaint should have been dismissed as untimely. The Fourth Circuit sided with the appellant and applied Rule 2003(e) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure in order to determine when a creditors’ meeting concludes. The Court held that the meeting of the creditors “concluded” on the date the rescheduled meeting ended when counsel for Trustee failed to adjourn the meeting in compliance with Rule 2003(e); however, the Fourth Circuit declined to adopt the bright-line rule that the per se conclusion of the creditors’ meeting is the date that the trustee fails to strictly comply with Rule 2003(e) in adjourning the creditors’ meeting.

Factual Background

On April 11, 2012, Jenkins filed a petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief. The Trustee convened a creditors’ meeting at which Jenkins testified as to disputed proceeds he had received; however Jenkins did not provide all the necessary information that Trustee needed from this meeting. As a result, counsel for the Trustee requested an extension of the deadline to file a complaint objecting to Jenkins’s discharge because another creditors’ meeting was needed. Pursuant to Rule 4004(b) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the bankruptcy court granted the Trustee’s request and extended the deadline to “sixty days beyond . . . whenever the 341 [creditors’] meeting is concluded.”

The next creditors’ meeting was scheduled to reconvene on July 11, however Jenkins did not attend this meeting. At a rescheduled creditors’ meeting on July 19, Jenkins appeared by telephone, but he again failed to provide the Trustee with the necessary information on that date, and so, before ending the telephonic meeting, counsel for the Trustee announced that she was “not going to conclude the meeting today.” Counsel further explained, “I am going to talk with the trustee and, if he determines that we can adjourn the meeting, we will file a notice of that, but officially the meeting is continued.” No notice of a continued meeting was ever filed, nor did the meeting ever reconvene.

On September 26, 2012, sixty-nine days after the July 19 creditors’ meeting, the Trustee filed a complaint, objecting to Jenkins’s discharge in bankruptcy. Jenkins asserted that the Trustee’s complaint was “barred by the applicable statute of limitations.” The bankruptcy court found the Trustee’s complaint timely and denied Jenkins a bankruptcy discharge. The district court affirmed, and Jenkins appealed.

Rule 2003 Speaks in Terms That Are Plainly Mandatory

Rule 2003 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure supplies the procedures by which a creditors’ meeting must progress. Specifically, Rule 2003(e) explains how a trustee is to conclude a creditors’ meeting. It provides, in its entirety: “The meeting may be adjourned from time to time by announcement at the meeting of the adjourned date and time. The presiding official shall promptly file a statement specifying the date and time to which the meeting is adjourned.”

Date of Creditors’ Meeting Conclusion

Jenkins asserted that the creditors’ meeting concluded on July 19, 2012, when the Trustee failed to adjourn the meeting to a stated later date and time. The Fourth Circuit agreed, holding that Trustee failed to follow Rule 2003(e)’s clear procedures.

In discussing Rule 2003(e)’s legislative history, the Fourth Circuit mentioned that Rule 2003(e) was amended in 2011 to add the requirement that “[t]he presiding official shall promptly file a statement specifying the date and time to which the meeting is adjourned” in order to prevent indefinite adjournment. To allow Trustee to prevail in this situation would allow him to do precisely what Rule 2003(e) seeks to prevent.

The Fourth Circuit found that Trustee undeniably violated Rule 2003(e). Though Trustee attempted to adjourn the creditors’ meeting on July 19, 2012, he failed either to announce the date and time of the adjourned meeting or to file a statement thereafter containing that information. Because Rule 2003(e) unambiguously requires these actions to effectuate an adjournment, the meeting was never adjourned. The Fourth Circuit said “because the meeting was never adjourned, we hold it was concluded” on July 19, 2012. Because Trustee filed the complaint sixty-nine days after July 19, 2012, this was an untimely filing and thus Trustee’s complaint should not have been considered by the lower court.

Fourth Circuit Declines to Adopt Bright-Line Approach

The Fourth Circuit made clear that it was stopping short of adopting a Rule 2003(e) “bright-line approach.” This approach states that the per se conclusion of the creditors’ meeting is the date that the trustee fails to strictly comply with Rule 2003(e) in adjourning the creditors’ meeting.

The Court discussed an example where a trustee fails to announce at the initial meeting the adjourned date and time, but promptly thereafter files a written notice setting forth that information. The Fourth Circuit stated that although the trustee in that situation is not in strict compliance with Rule 2003(e)’s twin requirements, such an action may not warrant an automatic declaration of the meeting’s conclusion as the date of the improperly adjourned meeting.

Judgment Reversed and Remanded

Because the Trustee did not comply with any part of Rule 2003(e), the judgment of the district court was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

By Chad M. Zimlich

On Monday, March 16, 2015, the Fourth Circuit in Moses v. CashCall, Inc., a published civil opinion, considered an appeal from a district court affirmation of a bankruptcy court decision from the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The appeal centered around whether claims for declaratory relief and for monetary damages asserted by Oteria Moses, a resident of Goldsboro, North Carolina, against CashCall, Inc. were subject to arbitration. The bankruptcy court retained jurisdiction over both claims, denying CashCall’s motions to compel arbitration. With respect to the claim of monetary damages, the bankruptcy court also made recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s decision.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that that the district court did not err in affirming the bankruptcy court’s exercise of discretion to retain in bankruptcy Moses’ first claim for declaratory relief. However, the majority of the Court found that the district court erred in retaining in bankruptcy Moses’ claim for damages under the North Carolina Debt Collection Act and denying CashCall’s motion to compel arbitration of that claim. As to this part of the holding, the judges were split three ways, Judges Gregory and Davis for concurring in a judgment reversing the issue of arbitration for the money damages, and Judge Niemeyer dissenting.

A Question of Where the Case Belongs: Bankruptcy or Arbitration

The issue that the Fourth Circuit was confronted with was whether it was appropriate for either of Moses’ claims to be submitted to arbitration, or if one or both claims required the use of the bankruptcy court system. The question may seem simple, however, there were two distinct inquiries regarding each claim centered on the jurisdiction that the bankruptcy court had.

Loan Sharking By Western Sky

Facing financial difficulties, Moses signed a Western Sky Consumer Loan Agreement (“Loan Agreement”) on May 10, 2012, and agreeing to pay Western Sky, or any subsequent holder of the debt, $1,500 plus 149% interest. Pursuant to the agreement, Western Sky gave Moses $1,000, and retained $500 as a “prepaid finance charge/origination fee.” The Loan Agreement stated that the annual percentage rate for the loan was 233.10%, with the amount of all scheduled totaling $4,893.14. North Carolina law limits interest rates to a maximum of 16%. The Loan Agreement also gave Western Sky’s address as being in South Dakota and stated that the agreement was subject to the Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Additionally, Western Sky was not licensed to make loans in North Carolina.

The Loan Agreement provided that any disputes relating to it were to be resolved by arbitration “conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation.” Lastly, the Loan Agreement stated that the arbitration could take place either on tribal land or within 30 miles of Moses’ residence, but in either case the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe would retain sovereign status or immunity.

Three days after signing the Loan Agreement, Moses received a notice from Western Sky that the Agreement had been sold to WS Funding, LLC, a subsidiary of CashCall, Inc., and would be serviced by CashCall. Three months later Moses filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in the Eastern District of North Carolina. One week later, CashCall filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding, asserting that Moses owed it $1,929.02. Moses objected on the basis the loan was not enforceable in North Carolina, both because of the unlicensed lending and the 16% limit. Moses also filed an adversary proceeding against CashCall seeking a declaratory judgment that the loan was void under North Carolina law, as well as damages against CashCall for its illegal debt collection.

After the bankruptcy court approved Moses’ bankruptcy plan, CashCall filed simultaneous motions to withdraw it’s claims, or, in the alternative, to compel Moses to arbitrate pursuant to the Loan Agreement. Because Moses had already filed an adversary proceeding against CashCall, CashCall could not withdraw its proof of claim without court approval. Moses objected to CashCall’s motion to withdraw its proof of claim. She contended that CashCall, which had 118 similar claims in the Eastern District of North Carolina, sought to withdraw its proof of claim in her case only after she had challenged its practices. The purpose of the withdrawal, Moses argued, was simply an attempt by CashCall to divest the bankruptcy court of jurisdiction.

The bankruptcy court denied CashCall’s motion to dismiss the complaint or to stay and compel arbitration, concluding that Moses’ claim for a declaratory judgment that CashCall’s loan was void was a “core” bankruptcy claim. As to Moses’ second claim, which sought damages, the court concluded that the claim was non-core, over which it could only recommend findings of fact and conclusions of law for a decision by the district court. The bankruptcy court also denied CashCall’s motion to withdraw its proof of claim, finding that the withdrawal would prejudice Moses by removing the court’s jurisdiction over the other causes of action. CashCall filed interlocutory appeals on both counts to the district court. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s orders.

Whether a Claim is Statutorily or Constitutionally Core, and Tensions Between the FAA and Bankruptcy Code

The rule iterated by the Fourth Circuit was the basis of this decision hinges on whether or not the claim in question was constitutionally core according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Stern v. Marshall. The Court there held that “Article III of the Constitution prohibits bankruptcy courts from issuing final orders regarding statutorily core claims unless they ‘stem[] from the bankruptcy itself or would necessarily be resolved in the claims allowance process.’” That means that, should the claim be based in a statute but raise no constitutional questions, it should be treated as statutorily non-core and the district court is given de novo review, making it the court of first impression.

However, a further issue was the tension between the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), which favors the use of arbitration and grants the decision to arbitrate to the court of first impression, and the Bankruptcy Code, which gives the bankruptcy courts their jurisdiction and lays out a completely separate purpose intended by Congress.

The Claim of a Declaratory Judgment Belonged to the Bankruptcy Court

The Court first noted that previous courts that have considered agreements similar to the Loan Agreement, specifically the Eleventh and Seventh Circuits and the District of South Dakota, have “found that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has no laws or facilities for arbitration and that the arbitration procedure specified is a ‘sham from stem to stern.’” The Fourth Circuit agreed and found that the Loan Agreement was clearly illegal under North Carolina law due to the extreme interest rate, however that did not negate the fact that the agreement specified that Indian tribal law would apply and that any dispute under the agreement would be resolved by the Sioux Tribe’s arbitration.

However, while arbitration agreements should normally be enforced, in this case the Court found that the fundamental public policy present in the Bankruptcy Code was in direct conflict with a decision to arbitrate. Meaning that, should it be declared that the Loan Agreement was illegal this would have a direct and substantial impact on Moses’ Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings. Therefore, as the bankruptcy court had first impression for this claim, its denial of arbitration was not a violation of its discretion.

The Problem of the Claim of Damages and a Flurry of Opinions

Moses’ claim for damages was based on the North Carolina Debt Collection Act, and the majority’s opinion found no inherent conflict between the Bankruptcy Code and the effect that arbitration would have on Moses’ bankruptcy proceeding. However, even the two-judge majority split in their reasoning for this conclusion.

Judge Gregory relied on the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Ackerman v. Eber in stating that bankruptcy courts generally have no discretion in refusing to arbitrate a claim that is found to not be constitutionally core. His concurrence went on to state that, while the claims shared a common question, the claim of damages did not pose an inherent conflict with the reorganization of Moses’ estate under the Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding. Additionally, Judge Gregory saw no issue with conflicting results, as the arbitrator’s order would be subject to enforcement by the district court. In this case, any conflicts that may arise would not be “inherent” and “sufficient” to the point that they overrode the presumption in favor of arbitration.

Judge Davis relied on a previous Fourth Circuit decision from 2005, In re White Mountain Mining Co., L.L.C., which spoke indirectly on the subject. Judge Davis’ opinion, while reflecting on the “odiousness” of CashCall’s practices and perhaps faulty arbitration procedures, emphasized the fact that the non-core claim of damages that Moses had in this case would in no way be frustrated by arbitration itself, and therefore the lack of direct conflict required deference to the FAA.

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent argued that the district court’s exercise of discretion to retain the damages claim presented the same question as the declaratory judgment. So in this view, if the loan agreement were invalid, separating the two claims would be inefficient and create issues of collateral estoppel. Therefore, the district court had not abused its discretion.

Bankruptcy Court May Keep Declaratory Judgment But Must Lose Damages Claim

The Fourth Circuit concluded that resolution of Moses’ claim for a declaratory judgment could directly impact the claims against her estate, and arbitration with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe would “significantly interfere” with the bankruptcy reorganization. Therefore, the district court was not in error in upholding the bankruptcy court’s decision. However, the money damages sought were not in direct conflict with the Bankruptcy Code and its procedures for Moses under Chapter 13, and the question of damages was one for an arbitrator and not the bankruptcy court.

By Taylor Ey

Today, the Fourth Circuit issued its public opinion in Covert v. LVNV Funding, LLC, affirming the decision of the District Court of Maryland, Greenbelt.

Procedural History

In 2008, Plaintiffs Covert, Haworth, Haworth, Ayele, and Brown separately filed petitions for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland.  Defendants, LVNV Funding, LLC (“LVNC”) had acquired defaulted debt against each plaintiff.  LVLN filed proofs of claim against each plaintiff.  “A proof of claim is a form filed by a creditor in a bankruptcy proceeding that states the amount the debtor owes to the creditor and the reason for the debt.”  The bankruptcy court confirmed a plan that these claims were to be paid in pro rata amounts.

In March 2013, plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging that defendants had violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) and Maryland law by filing proofs of claim without a Maryland debt collection license.  The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6).

The District Court Properly Dismissed Plaintiffs’ Complaint for Failure to State a Claim

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were not legally entitled to collect the debt because they did not have a license at the time they filed in bankruptcy court.  Plaintiffs requested injunctive relief and an instruction requiring defendants to return to the plaintiffs all the money paid pursuant to the proofs of claim.  Defendants asserted that plaintiffs failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, and thus the claims should be dismissed.  The Fourth Circuit held that the district court properly dismissed the claims, but should have done so on res judicata grounds.

The Doctrine of Res Judicata in the Bankruptcy Context

In bankruptcy cases, prior bankruptcy judgment has res judicata effect when three conditions are met: “(1) the prior judgment was final and on the merits, and rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of due process; (2) the parties are identical, or in privity, in the two actions; and, (3) the claims in the second matter are based upon the same cause of action involved in the earlier proceeding.”  In re Varat Enters., Inc., 81 F.3d 1310, 1315 (4th Cir. 1996).

The Bankruptcy Court Decision Had Res Judicata Effect

The confirmation of a bankruptcy plan was a final judgment on the merits, and thus the bankruptcy judgment met the first element of the test.

Because both plaintiffs and defendants were parties to the proceedings in the bankruptcy court, the second element was met.

The claims before the district court arose “out of the same transaction or series of transactions, or the same core of operative facts” as those in the bankruptcy court action.  Varat, 81 F.3d at 1316. The plaintiffs would need to rely on the same facts as in the bankruptcy case to succeed in the present action.  Therefore, the bankruptcy judgment met the third element of the test.  Because all three elements are met, the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by res judicata.

The District Court’s Reading of the Cen-Pen Exception Was Too Broad

The district court held that plaintiffs’ claims were not barred by res judicata because it applied the Cen-Pen exception.  In Cen-Pen, the Fourth Circuit held that “[i]f an issue must be raised through an adversary proceeding it is not part of the confirmation process and, unless it is actually litigated, confirmation will not have a preclusive effect.”  Cen-Pen Corp. v. Hanson, 58 F.3d 89, 93 (4th Cir. 1995).

According to the Fourth Circuit, the district court misread Cen-Pen as creating a rule that “plan confirmation does not have preclusive effect to any issue that must have been decided through an adversary process.”

In this case, the Fourth Circuit clarified the rule.  First, the exception is limited to the facts; it applies to cases of secured claims after a bankruptcy proceeding.  In contrast, the present case involved a process used to collect an unsecured claim.  Moreover, because the parties in Cen-Pen were not directly involved in the bankruptcy proceeding that court sought to protect those parties’ rights in the subsequent proceeding.  Instead, the parties in this case were on notice as parties to the previous bankruptcy proceeding and did not need protection.

The District Court’s Decision Is Affirmed

Because plaintiffs did not assert any evidence suggesting that they could not have raised their present claims in the previous action, plaintiffs’ claims were barred.  The Fourth Circuit warned that holding otherwise would run counter to bankruptcy law policy.