Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Riddles and Rhymes - Court Ponders "Automatic" Dismissal

Many judges and practitioners have complained that the BAPCPA amendments are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Such puzzlement has moved Judge A. Jay Cristol to break out in verse. In the aptly named case of In re Riddle, Case No. 06-11313-BKC-AJC (Bankr. S.D. Fla. 7/17/06), Judge Cristol ponders what Congress meant when it said that a case is "automatically dismissed" if the debtor fails to timely file certain required information.

By way of background, 521(a)(1) requires a debtor to file a list of creditors, schedules, statement of financial affairs, copies of payment advices received in the 60 days prior to the petition date, a statement of monthly net income, and a statement disclosing any reasonably anticipated increase in income or expenditures. If a debtor fails to do so within 45 days, 521(i)(1) provides that the case is "automatically dismissed effective on the 46th day" after the petition date. Congress further provides in 521(i)(2) that any party in interest may request the entry of an "order dismissing the case," which if requested should be provided by the court within five days.

All of which raises the question: what happens if a debtor fails to comply with the filing requirements, but no party in interest seeks dismissal of the case? Is the case dismissed, even if there is nothing on the docket reflecting it? How would anyone know? As Judge Cristol puts it (in a tribute to Dr. Seuss' legendary "Green Eggs and Ham"):

I do not like dismissal automatic,
It seems to me to be traumatic.
I do not like it in this case,
I do not like it any place.

As a judge I am most keen
to understand, What does it mean?
How can any person know
what the docket does not show?

The puzzle of 521(i) leads Judge Cristol to plead:
What does automatic dismissal mean?
And by what means can it be seen?
Are we only left to guess?
Oh please Congress, fix this mess!
Until it's fixed what should I do?
How can I explain this mess to you?

Fortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Riddle, all of their required papers had in fact been filed, and their case was not subject to dismissal - automatic or otherwise.

Yet this provision and related ones are proving to be a continuing source of puzzlement and frustration for practitioners, trustees and judges. Several courts have now held that there is no discretion to avoid the automatic dismissal consequence of non-compliance with the 45 day deadline. See In re Lovato, 343 B.R. 268 Bankr. D.N.M. 5/8/06); In re Ott, 343 B.R. 264 (Bankr. D. Col. 4/12/06); In re Williams, 339 B.R. 794 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 3/17/06); In re Fawson, 338 B.R. 505 (Bankr. D. Utah 2/21/06). Lovato granted a trustee's motion to dismiss, Ott and Williams denied debtors' motions to vacate dismissal orders, and Fawson denied a debtor's belated motion to extend time after the deadline had run. None of these approaches gives the court discretion to preserve the case, much to the consternation of some judges.

In Ott, Judge Brooks found that the legislative commentary on BAPCPA demonstrates a "creditor-friendly" "tone and substance" which is intended to remedy a perceived imbalance favoring debtors. Noting a statement by Professional Todd Zywicki from one of the joint hearings (which starts, "Shoplifting is wrong; bankruptcy is also a moral act. Bankruptcy is a moral as well as an economic act. There is a conscious decision not to keep one's promises."), Judge Brooks notes, "It would seem it is with this lens that Congress viewed debtors as moral equivalents to "shoplifters" in enacting BAPCPA. In so doing, it created a law that is sometimes self-executing, inflexible, and unforgiving. 11 U.S.C. 521(i) is just one of those provisions."

Although the statute permits an extension of time if a request is made before the expiration of the 45-day period under 521(i)(3) "if the court finds justification," the language of that subsection and the automatic dismissal provisions preclude an interpretation of that extension option that would permit an extension after the deadline had expired. As Judge Brooks notes, an "excusable neglect" exception "has been effectively legislated out of the hands of [the] court."

The Lovato case actually presents a curious twist that may merit further discussion - there, the court had entered an administrative order directing that payment advices not be filed with the court, but rather be provided to the trustee at least 7 days before the 341 meeting. The debtor failed to do so and the trustee moved to dismiss, which the court granted. Since the debtor apparently had not attempted to argue excusable neglect or any other excuse, it is unclear whether if she had, the rigid requirements of 521(i)(1) would still hold. The 521(a)(1) filing requirements apply "unless the court orders otherwise." If the court has ordered otherwise, does that take the entire question of compliance out of the realm of 521(i) and back into the standard ream of judicial discretion?

Another variation is presented by the new requirement of 11 U.S.C. 521(e)(2) that a debtor provide copies of its latest tax return at least 7 days before the 341 meeting. Unlike 521(a) and (i), however, the BAPCPA amendments do not provide that noncompliance requires that a case be "automatically" dismissed; rather, 521(3)(2)(B) provides that if the debtor fails to comply, "the court shall dismiss the case unless the debtor demonstrates that the failure to so comply is due to circumstances beyond the control of the debtor." Courts have held that this provision does not result in "automatic" dismissal, and furthermore that the trustee has discretion to decline to file a motion to dismiss despite a debtor's untimely submission of the tax returns if in the best interests of the estate. In re Grasso, 341 B.R. 821 (Bankr. D.N.H. 5/16/06); In re Duffus, 339 B.R. 746 (Bankr. D. Or. 3/8/06). The Grasso case further holds that there is some leeway in interpreting the "circumstances beyond the control of the debtor" standard, and in particular that where the untimeliness is due to attorney error, the consequences of that error need not be visited upon the client in the form of dismissal.

If you're a fan of Judge Cristol's poetry, you will probably also enjoy In re Love, 61 B.R. 558, and In re General Development Corp., 180 B.R. 303.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am afraid if I investigate too much, I'll find out the debtors are my relatives.