Friday, August 18, 2006

Another Partial Blow to Constitutionality of BAPCPA "Debt Relief Agency" Rules

Another court has joined the fray in addressing the constitutionality of the BAPCPA provisions regulating "debt relief agencies." In Olsen v. Gonzales, Case No. 05-6365-HO (D. Or. 8/11/06), an Oregon District Court has held unconstitutional the provisions prohibiting certain advice, but otherwise upheld several other provisions. This follows two other recent decisions, Hersh v. U.S., 2006 WL 2088270 (N.D. Tex. 7/26/06) which held the same provision unconstitutional (as discussed in here in "Portion of BAPCPA "Debt Relief Agency" Provisions Held Unconstitutional"), and Geisenberger v. Gonzales, 2006 WL 1737405 (E.D. Pa. 6/19/06) which declined to address the constitutional issues on standing grounds (as discussed in "Pennsylvania Constitutional Challenge to BAPCPA Rejected on Standing Grounds").

In Olsen, three attorneys (two of whom represented consumers debtors in bankruptcies, and one of whom advised clients regarding bankruptcies but did not file bankruptcy petitions or represent clients in bankruptcy cases) challenged the constitutionality of BAPCPA provisions prohibiting "debt relief agencies" from providing advice to clients to incur debt [11 U.S.C. 526(a)(4)], prohibiting "debt relief agencies" from failing to provide services which they advised that they would provide [11 U.S.C. 526(a)(1)], requiring "debt relief agencies" to make certain disclosures [11 U.S.C. 527], and requiring "debt relief agencies" to make certain statements in advertisements [11 U.S.C. 528], all as violating the First Amendment protection of free speech. The attorneys also challenged the BAPCPA provisions as being unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.

The court initially tackled the question of whether attorneys are "debt relief agencies" covered by the provision. Notwithstanding the sua sponte opinion in In re Attorneys At Law and Debt Relief Agencies, 332 B.R. 66 (Bankr. S.D. Ga. 2005) the Olsen court found that the plain language of the definition included attorneys. It also noted that a proposed amendment that would have excluded attorneys from the definition was not adopted, giving further support to the plain language interpretation.

Having crossed that initial threshold, it considered whether the attorneys had standing to challenge the statute's constitutionality. It noted that there had been no threatened enforcement of BAPCPA against the plaintiffs. In considering the "chilling effect" on speech, the court referred to one case which permitted such a challenge despite an attorney general's acknowledgment that it would not likely enforce the statute, as compared to another where the court denied standing when the attorney general had unequivocally acknowledged the statute's unconstitutionality and communicating her intention and direction not to enforce it. Here, the attorney general had somewhat equivocally taken the position that 526(a)(1) "does not require attorneys to perform services that become unnecessary or unethical because to do so would be contrary to the purpose of the statute" (a remarkable bit of double-speak, it would seem), which the court apparently concluded was not sufficient to preclude a possible "chilling effect" challenge. As a result, the court addressed the challenged statutes for their "chilling effect," but otherwise found the plaintiffs lacked standing.

On the merits, the Olsen court agreed with the Hersh court that the restrictions on advising clients to incur debt in contemplation of bankruptcy were unconstitutionally overbroad. As in Hersh, the court noted that there may be legitimate reasons for providing such advice to a client, such as taking out a loan to obtain the services of a bankruptcy attorney or to pay the filing fee, legitimately converting a non-exempt asset to an exempt asset, or refinancing a mortgage in order to pay off other debts. However, that was the only provision which the court rejected on constitutional grounds.

On 526(a)(1) (which directs that a debt relief agency "shall not fail to perform any service that such agency informed an assisted person ... it would provide"), the court rejected the challenge that the statute might compel attorneys to provide services which it turned out the client did not need, or which might turn out to be unethical. Instead, the court held that "courts should interpret this section to not require attorneys to provide ill-advised or unethical services," on the theory that this was the purpose of the statute and an interpretation "is based on purpose." (Whoa, what happened to plain language? The case cited by the court, Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005), involved an ambiguous statute; where is the ambiguity in 526(a)(1)?) Alternatively, the court suggested that speech would not be chilled, as attorneys would simply be required to couch their promises in conditional language and not abstain from speech.

The court also rejected the attorney's challenge that the disclosure requirements of 527 -- for instance, that attorneys must advise assisted persons that they have a right to hire a bankruptcy petition preparer who is not an attorney -- unconstitutionally compel speech. Like Hersh, the Olsen court held that these provisions do not compel disclosure of an "opposing viewpoint," but only require "notice of another option," and as such pass constitutional muster, particularly since attorneys are also free to provide additional information including the benefits of hiring an attorney.

The court then addressed the 528 advertising requirements - i.e., that any "debt relief agency" (that is, any person who provides "bankruptcy assistance" to an "assisted person") clearly and conspicuously state in advertisements, "We are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code" or a substantially similar statement. Although one of the plaintiff attorneys did not in fact file bankruptcy petitions or represent people in bankruptcies, the court nonetheless found the statute did not compel him to make an untrue statement, since it permitted a "substantially similar statement" (such as, "We advise people about filing for bankruptcy assistance under the code"). It evaluated the provision under an "intermediate scrutiny" standard for commercial speech as applied to professional service advertising as in In re R.M.J., 455 U.S. 191 (1982). Under this four-prong test, described in Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm'n of New York, 447 U.S. 557 (1980), the expression must be protected speech; the government must have a substantial interest; the regulation must directly advance that interest; and it must be narrowly drawn. The Court found that "narrowly drawn" does not mean the "least restrictive means" but rather "something short of a least-restrictive-standard," citing Board of Trustees of State Univ. of New York v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 477 (1989) (How's that for guidance?) .

Applying this standard, the Olsen court found: (1) the advertisement was protected speech; (2) Congress' intent to prevent deceptive and fraudulent advertisement is a substantial interest; (3) on its face, at least, the regulation advances that interest, notwithstanding arguments of possible overinclusion; and (4) the statute is adequately narrowly drawn, requiring only the insertion of a "two-line admonition into certain advertisements". Even if "there may be better ways to prevent deceptive advertising", Section 528 generally applies to most consumer bankruptcy attorneys while generally not applying to non-consumer bankruptcy attorneys. Accordingly the provision was upheld.

Finally, the court rejected the attorneys' vagueness challenge to sections 526-528, finding that the provisions were not subject to a facial challenge on that basis but would only be subject to an "as applied" challenge. Although the plaintiffs could come up with "abstract challenge[s]" to the language of certain provisions, they were not ripe for review and did not demonstrate facial unconstitutionality.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I wonder if the real intent of the statute was to restrict attorneys to the point that they may feel compelled to get out of the bankruptcy business. If the law says you can't advise your clients to incur additional debt in advance of the filing, aren't you skirting the law when you advise them they have to pay you and the court costs?