Monday, July 10, 2006

Staying Alive - Automatic Stay Not Dead Yet

Rumors of the death of the automatic stay (and of this blog, by the way!) appear to be greatly exaggerated. With one notable exception, that seems to be the consensus of several decisions issued by judges around the country dealing with BAPCPA amendments to 362 of the Bankruptcy Code that restrict the availability of the automatic stay to repeat filers. We have discussed several decisions extensively here earlier -- see "Oh Won't You (362) Stay Just a Little Bit Longer?" Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV. Several more recent cases have built on the foundations discussed in those postings, although at least one court seems to have veered off in another direction.

Generally, where a debtor has been in one prior bankruptcy case which has been dismissed within the year prior to the current case, new 362(c)(3) provides that certain protections of the automatic stay terminate on the 30th day unless a motion to extend the stay is filed and heard before the 30th day. We mentioned in Part IV how the decision in In re Toro-Arcila, 334 B.R. 224 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 2005) effectively found a way around the 30-day deadline for hearing a motion to extend the stay under 362(c)(3) by holding that a single repeat filer could still use the provisions of 362(c)(4) (which generally cover multiple repeat filers) to reimpose the stay after they stay had expired. Typically this situation arises where the debtor files the motion too close to the 30th day to get a hearing (there is generally no good reason for waiting so long, by the way). At least one other court has concurred with Toro-Arcila, and has ruled that a debtor who files a motion within the 30 day period, but fails to get it heard, can still pursue reimposition of the stay under 362(c)(4). In re Beasley, 339 B.R. 472 (Bankr. E.D. Ark. 3/16/06).

Judge Dalis in Georgia disagreed. In re Whitaker, 341 B.R. 336 (Bankr. S.D. Ga. 4/20/06). All was not lost for the debtor, though. Judge Dalis did not subscribe to the reasoning in Toro-Arcila that much of 362(c)(4)(D) would be rendered meaningless surplusage if that section only applied to multiple repeat filers. But since the debtor had established a case to overcome the presumptive lack of good faith, and there was no other way of granting relief, the court held that it could reimpose the stay under 11 U.S.C. s. 105, which gives the court authority to issue orders "necessary or appropriate" to carry out the provisions of the Code. In doing so, Whitaker relied on a long line of prior decisions recognizing the authority to reimpose the stay in appropriate circumstances.

While Beasley and Whitaker involved situations where stay extension motions were filed on the eve of the 30 day deadline, and consequently could not be heard before the deadline passed, creditors nonetheless should be aware that they need to be on their toes. In In re Frazier, 339 B.R. 516 (Bankr. N.D. Fla. 3/17/06), a court held that five days' notice of a hearing on a motion to impose the stay under 362(c)(4) was adequate. In Frazier, the court reports that the debtor's counsel prior to filing the motion had called the counsel who represented the creditor in the prior case, and served the motion and notice of hearing by fax and mail, and that the creditor (and counsel) did not respond to the motion or appear at the hearing. The creditor then moved for reconsideration, claiming not to have received notice, but at the hearing on the motion for reconsideration failed to provide any evidence and the lawyer appearing had minimal knowledge of the case. The Frazier court held the notice adequate, and made clear that it expected creditors to be prepared to respond to such motions on short notice: "The limited automatic stay for repeat filers is a major feature of BAPCPA which was passed by congress at the behest of the credit industry. Now that they have it, the credit industry, and especially the mortgage servicing companies and the law firms they retain to represent them, need to adapt their practices in order to deal with what they have created."

But one of the most significant - and perhaps surprising - ways in which the significance of the 362 amendments has been limited is that courts are actually taking Congress at its word. Specifically, in 362(c)(3)(A), Congress amended the Code to provide that when a debtor has been in a prior case dismissed within a year of the present filing, the stay shall terminate "with respect to the debtor" on the 30th day after the filing date unless an extension of the stay is granted. Now, bankruptcy practitioners know that "property of the debtor" is generally something different than "property of the estate". Section 362 as it existed prior to the amendments makes multiple, clear distinctions between property of the debtor and property of the estate, and the effect of the stay as to each. Moreover, Congress used different language in 362(c)(4) in describing what happens to multiple repeat filers (i.e., more than one prior case dismissed in the year prior to the current case), where it says, without any such distinctions, that "the stay under subsection (a) shall not go into effect."

Applying generally accepted principles of statutory construction -- that when particular language is used in one section but not another, it is presumed that Congress acts purposefully in using the different language to signify different meanings -- several courts have held that 362(c)(3), if triggered, terminates the automatic stay only as to actions against the debtor or against property of the debtor, but not against property of the bankruptcy estate. See, e.g., In re Harris, 342 B.R. 274 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio 5/1/06); In re Jones, 339 B.R. 360 (Bankr. E.D.N.C. 3/21/06); In re Moon, 339 B.R. 668 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio 3/28/06). Each of these courts notes that if Congress had intended to terminate the stay completely after 30 days for single repeat filers under 362(c)(3), it could have simply used similar language to that used for multiple repeat filers under 362(c)(4). Having chosen not to do so, judges must assume Congress meant what it said.

It is not the first time the Courts (or even these particular judges) have applied this method of statutory analysis to BAPCPA. Indeed, as Judge Small (who also decided In re Paschal, 337 B.R. 274, which previewed this issue as discussed here) noted: "Once again, warily, and with pruning shears in hand, the court re-enters the briar patch that is s. 362(c)(3)(A)."

But at least one court, upon entering that briar patch, has not found the same thing as the others. In In re Jumpp, __ B.R. __, 2006 WL 1731172 (Bankr. D. Mass. 6/23/06), Judge Rosenthal contrarily holds that (1) stay termination under 362(c)(3) is not limited to just property of the debtor; (2) 362(c)(4) cannot be used by a single repeat filer to reimpose the stay after the 30 day period under 362(c)(3) has lapsed; and (3) 11 U.S.C. 105 also cannot be used to reimpose the stay after it has lapsed under 362(c)(3).

In Jumpp, the debtor filed a bankruptcy within a year of a prior dismissal, and on the 29th day after filing moved to extend the stay under 362(c)(3). Unsurprisingly, the hearing was set after the 30th day, and a creditor objected. Judge Rosenthal declined to follow Toro-Arcila's conclusion that 362(c)(4) can be used by a single repeat filer to reimpose the stay (citing Whitaker, discussed above), and denied the motion. The debtor then moved for reconsideration, asking the court to determine that the stay only terminated as to "debts and property of the debtor" and not as to "property of the estate." This was not a meaningless distinction to the debtor, since in the debtor's district the courts treat property -- including, apparently, exempt property -- as property of the bankruptcy estate until a Chapter 13 plan is fully consummated. The court refused to address the issue on a motion for reconsideration and the debtor then filed a motion for a declaratory judgment, and then a motion to reimpose the stay under 105. The motions were opposed by the debtor's mortgagee.

The mortgagee argued that while the 362 amendments were "poorly drafted," it would be an "absurd outcome" to hold that termination of the stay does not apply to property of the estate when it was clear that Congress intended that a repeat filing debtor be required to show by clear and convincing evidence that the petition was not filed in bad faith. Judge Rosenthal noted interpreting 362(c)(3) is "challenging to say the least" and that the language in question "even when read in isolation" is "less than clear."

The court recognized that "there is a difference between property of the debtor and property of the estate" but that the legislative history, "while sparse," "does not indicate that there was an intent to differentiate between the debtor's and the estate's property." Since the "thrust of amended section 362 is to burden the so-called 'repeat filer' with demonstrating why the automatic stay should be extended," the court found that reading 362(c)(3) as being limited to only property of the estate frustrates such a goal.

The Jumpp court also noted that the language of 362(c)(3) does not "directly parallel" that of 362(c)(4), which omits the phrase "with respect to the debtor," but nonetheless could not believe that Congress intended to give a debtor filing her second bankruptcy within a year "significantly greater protection" than one filing her third petition. "It is the number of filings that is the critical distinction Congress was asking courts to make, not the extent to which the automatic stay applies." (Judge Shea-Stonum in Harris clearly felt otherwise, stating "In addition to choosing to differentiate between the number of a debtor's prior bankruptcy filings, Congress also chose to differentiate between the penalty that would be imposed.")

Finally, the Jumpp court rejected the debtor's motion to reimpose the stay under 105, holding that it could not use its equitable powers under 105 to impose a stay that Congress has declared must terminate if the requirements of 362(c)(3) are not met. In so holding, it does not square this conclusion with the opposite holding in Whitaker, even though the Jumpp court relied on Whitaker to conclude that the debtor could not avail herself of 362(c)(4).

The Jumpp decision does a curious job of attempting to adhere to a Congressional intent that is not clearly expressed in the statutory language itself nor clearly developed in any legislative history. The best it can say about that history is that it "does not indicate that there was an intent to differentiate between the debtor's and the estate's property." Yet the statutory language clearly does make such a distinction by including the phrase "with respect to the debtor" (a distinction which is already well-recognized both in the existing language of the statute and in common bankruptcy practice), and the decision provides no explanation for why that language is used in 362(c)(3) and what it means, nor why it was not used in 362(c)(4).

Clearly, interpreting the BAPCPA amendments is no easy task for judges, especially when traditional principles of statutory construction appear to yield results that are not nearly as dramatically creditor-friendly as BAPCPA was advertised to be.

In response to the many who expressed concern, frustration or exasperation at the absence of recent posts here -- no, we did not retire the blog on the one-year anniversary of the BAPCPA amendments (poetic as that may have been). Expect to see several more updates on recent developments here shortly. Please let us know if you come across an interesting decision.


Skilly said...

Welcome Back. I missed your submissions

Thomas E. Johnson, Chapter 13 staff attorney (MN) said...

Regarding the used of 362(c)(4) by a debtor who has had one prior case dismissed, you'll want to keep an eye out for a Minnesota case, In re Novack, on appeal from the Bky. Court to the District Court. The pro se debtor in this case attempted to used 362(c)(4) to argue that the Bky. court could still consider his motion for continuation of the automatic stay, even though he'd had only one prior case dismissed within the previous year and he filed his motion late. The Bky. court (Judge Dreher) denied the motion on procedural grounds & the debtor has appealled to the District Court (Judge Montgomery), where the appeal is still in the briefing stage. The District Court case no. is 0:06-cv-02204, Novack v. Wurst, et al.

Anonymous said...

Creditors, listen up. There is a serious argument to be mounted against the opinions of In re Harris, 342 B.R. 274, In re Jones, 339 B.R. 360, and In re Moon, 339 B.R. 668.

These cases all hinge on the ambiguous phrase "with respect to the debtor." 11 U.S.C. s. 362(c)(3)(A). Now to what exactly does this phrase refer?

These courts would have us believe that Congress, in making these elaborate "disappearing stay" provisions, meant only that creditors could attach property of the debtor, and NOT property of the estate. But see s. 541(a)(stating that practically all assets belongs to the estate as of the petition date).

In other words, the whole issue is practically moot. Why even bother filing motions to extend the stay?

While I would not go so far as to say that these opinions are wrong, per se, there is an obvious argument against them. To wit:

The phrase "with respect to the debtor" is a reference not to the "property of the debtor" but specifically to the debtor described in s. 362(c)(3) (main paragraph) who "is an individual" who had 1 or more cases dismissed in the prior year, etc.

Here is the problem Congress was wrestling with: Say you have two debtors, H & W. All by his lonesome, H filed a case that was dismissed 6 months ago. Now he and his wife (W) are filing a new joint case. "[W]ith respect to the debtor" refers not to property of the debtor, but to the specific language of the main paragraph.

In other words, it refers to H. And it excludes W. So W gets an (enduring) automatic stay. But H has to beg for it. If he does not, then the stay will be void as to property which H alone has title. After 30 days pass, rapacious creditors can drag him back into state court... first come, first serve.

Not pretty, but I think this is what Congress intended.

This interpretation explains the elaborate hemming and hawwing at the beginning of s. 362(c) that In re Paschal and other courts find so tedious. ("[I]f a single or joint case is filed by or against debtor who is individual... [etc.]")

Congress was trying to draft language that would protect W, while isolating H as a bad actor. Hence the phrase "with respect to the debtor."

That, I would argue, is how s.362(c) ought to be interpretted.

Courts are understandably trying to minimize the impact of this statute. Bankruptcy without the protection of the stay is about as pointless as... say... pre-petition credit counseling (ha).

But these opinions just don't consider the ambiguity of the phrase in question. When that ambiguity is brought to light, I think the arguments favor creditors. Congress didn't write this lengthy new section for nothing.

NOTE: Nothing in this comment is intended to be legal advice. The author renounces any and all liability for others' reliance on the comments contained herein.