Monday, August 07, 2006

Pennsylvania Constitutional Challenge to BAPCPA Rejected on Standing Grounds

The Constitution may have been signed there, but it won't be interpreted there. At least that's the decision of a Philadelphia District Court Judge on a challenge to the constitutionality of the BAPCPA "debt relief agency" provisions in Geisenberger v. Gonzales, __ B.R. __, 2006 WL 1737405 (E.D. Pa. 6/19/06). In contrast to the decision in Hersh v. U.S., __ B.R. __, 2006 WL 2088270 (N.D. Tex. 7/26/06) (discussed recently here), Judge Sanchez has held that a bankruptcy attorney lacks standing to challenge provisions imposing certain obligations and restrictions on attorneys who fall within the definition of a "debt relief agency".

The BAPCPA provisions challenged by attorney Geisenberger were the ones: (1) requiring attorneys to certify that a debtor's decision to reaffirm a debt represents a "fully informed and voluntary" agreement that "does not impose an undue hardship" (11 U.S.C. 524); (2) prohibiting attorneys from advising potential debtors to incur more debt in contemplation of a filing (11 U.S.C. 526); (3) requiring attorneys to inform debtors how to value certain assets at "replacement value" (11 U.S.C. 527); and (4) requiring attorneys to state in advertisements: "We are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code" (11 U.S.C. 528).

The Geisenberger court held that the complaint failed to adequately establish sufficient injury to present a "case or controversy." Specifically, the complaint failed to allege that any governmental entity had threatened to enforce the "debt relief agency" provisions of BAPCPA against the attorney. Holding that the plaintiff must present a "real and immediate" threat of enforcement, the court found that the mere possibility of future enforcement was not enough to confer standing. Nor had the plaintiff established an imminent danger of economic loss which would establish standing. Rather, the court found that Geisenberger was merely seeking an "advisory opinion", and dismissed the complaint.

The holding in Geisenberger stands in contrast to that in Hersh, which found that BAPCPA's potential chilling effect on protected First Amendment speech was sufficient to confer standing on the attorney (and then went on to find that portions, specifically the 526 restrictions, are in fact unconstitutional). In finding standing, the Hersh court cited to cases recognizing that when First Amendment issues are at stake, the threshold for standing may be relaxed and does not necessarily require an imminent threat of enforcement. See Center for Individual Freedom v. Carmouche, 449 F.3d 655 (5th Cir. 2006), citing Virginia v. Am. Booksellers Ass'n, 484 U.S. 383 (1988). Rather, the potential chilling effect of the statute on protected speech is sufficient to confer standing (even when the effect may be on the First Amendment rights of others, as in the Am. Booksellers case).

Curiously, the Geisenberger court did not address this line of authority on First Amendment issues, even though it seems to have been followed within the Third Circuit in other cases. See, e.g., Ruocchio v. United Transp. Union, Local 60, 181 F.3d 376, 385 (3d. Cir. 1999); Amato v. Wilentz, 952 F.2d 742, 749 (3d Cir. 1991); Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1199-1200 (3d Cir. 1988). Why not? It seems we will never know, as no appeal of the dismissal order was taken.


Anonymous said...

Why not? Maybe no one raised the issue.

Frodnesor said...

Actually, upon reading the government's brief, I was surprised that the government didn't really push the standing issue either - rather it was raised by the court sua sponte.

Anonymous said...

Wait, I'm confused. You have to break the law and see if they come after you before the court will consider the issue a "threat" and rule on it? It seems like it could only be the right thing to always follow the law, and to try to have mistakes in a law corrected before just going out and taking actions because you're not in "imminent" danger of getting in trouble for it.

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