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Craig D. Robins, Esq. New York Bankruptcy Attorney, Longisland bankruptcy attorney

“ Craig D. Robins, Esq., has been a practicing Long Island bankruptcy attorney for over twenty-four years ”

Craig D. Robins, Esq.

Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions

Mafia Movie Producer in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Liable for Corporate Business Debt

Posted on Friday (January 18, 2013) at 4:00 pm to Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions

Long Island Bankruptcy Judge pierces corporate veil of Chapter 13 consumer debtorWritten by Craig D. Robins, Esq.
 
Long Island bankruptcy judge pierces corporate veil to permit investor in movie about mafia member, to file claim against the individual debtor, even though the debtor had done business through a corporate entity
 
It is basic advice for individuals conducting business to set up a corporate entity to provide a mechanism to limit personal liability in the event the business is not successful. 
 
However, as was demonstrated in this Long Island Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, when the corporate entity is used for illegitimate purposes, the individual should not be permitted to insulate himself from the consequences of his fraudulent conduct.
 
The debtor, Georgios Stamou, in 2009, filed an individual Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York, located in Central Islip. The debtor’s 100% plan was thereafter confirmed.
 
The debtor probably thought everything was going well.  It was not.  A creditor of his corporate business entity was now seeking recourse on a business debt.  Several years earlier, the debtor created a corporate entity to handle his business of producing television programs and movies.  The debtor was the sole employee.
 
“Easy Street” Movie — A Troubled Child Drawn Into Life of Organized Crime
 
The wife of a self-proclaimed former member of an organized crime family wrote a script for a movie project, tentatively titled, “Easy Street,” about a troubled child who is drawn into a life of organized crime, based on her husband’s life.
 
She hired the debtor’s corporate entity to produce the movie and paid him more than $400,000.  When the project failed, she sued him in state court, alleging that the debtor improperly diverted $343,000 for unrelated business and personal expenses.
 
The debtor did not even schedule the potential claim in the bankruptcy.  The creditor learned of the bankruptcy filing during post-petition state court litigation against the corporate entity.  The matter soon landed before Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Grossman who had presided over the Chapter 13 case.
 
After an evidentiary hearing, Judge Grossman concluded that the corporate veil should be lifted and that the debtor should be responsible for the harm to the creditor.  He then permitted the creditor to file a proof of claim in the individual case, although the decision did not address the amount of the claim or whether it should be dischargeable.
 
Corporate Veil Pierced by Bankruptcy Court
 
In a twenty-page decision that Judge Grossman issued on January 17, 2013, the Judge provided a detailed discussion with regard to piercing the corporate veil and stated that in order to succeed in piercing the corporate veil, the creditor must show that 1) the owner “exercised complete domination of the corporation in respect to the transaction attacked” and 2) “such domination was used to commit a fraud or wrong against the plaintiff which resulted in injury.”   In re Georgios Stamou  (8-09-78895,  Bankr.E.D.N.Y.).
 
Here, the debtor disclosed that he used the funds to pay for groceries, hotels, pet supplies, doctor bills, meals and entertainment, income tax, and 100% of the costs of operating the corporate office, even though the corporate entity simultaneously had other ongoing projects with other clients.
 
He also used the money for travel, flying to three European countries, claiming that he was scouting movie locations for the film.  Judge Grossman did not find the debtor to be credible with some of his explanations and determined that the corporate entity did not satisfy its implied duty of good faith and fair dealing under an oral agreement with the creditor. 
 
Once the creditor files the proof of claim, the debtor will have to decide whether to object to it.  In any event, he will need to modify his plan if he still has a feasible financial situation to cover the additional payments needed to satisfy the new claim.
 
 
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Discharging Christmas Gift Purchases in Bankruptcy – An Unusual Case

Posted on Wednesday (January 9, 2013) at 2:00 am to Bankruptcy Practice
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

Bankruptcy adversary proceeding over Barbie doll purchases.  Will same result happen on Long Island?Written by Craig D. Robins, Esq.

 
An Unusually Entertaining Decision from Several Years Back Teaches Valuable Lesson
 
Bankruptcy attorneys often get busy towards the end of January each year as consumers, having just finished their family holiday obligations, receive a new round of ever-increasing credit card bills, compelling them to seek bankruptcy advice.
 
Of course, many of these bills contain charges for holiday gift purchases made just weeks before.  An interesting and most unusual opinion from 1992, which I found most entertaining for a bankruptcy court decision, addressed this very issue.   In re Johannsen, 160 B.R. 328 (Bkrtcy. W.D.Wis. 1992).
 
However, as unusual as this decision is, its importance to us today really has nothing to do with the atypical subject matter.  To me, the real lesson to be learned from this case is that no matter how sure you are of being successful with litigation, you can still end up losing what appears to be a slam-dunk case. 
 
To further pique your interest, let me quote some of the wording from the published opinion:
 
“[s]he’s short and buxom with a tiny waist and remarkably long legs which — despite her age (34) — are cellulite free.”
 
This is not the typical verbiage we usually see in judicial decisions.  But here, the judge is talking about Barbie, the iconic plastic doll manufactured by Mattel, and a perennially favorite gift to young girls everywhere.
 
Can You Discharge $1,100 of Barbie Dolls Purchased Just Before Filing for Bankruptcy?
 
The debtor in this case, a woman who filed Chapter 7 jointly with her husband even though they were in the process of divorce, bought some Barbie dolls from Sears for her seven-year-old daughter, intending them to be Christmas presents.  Shortly thereafter, the debtor filed for Chapter 7 relief, seeking to discharge various debts including her Sears credit card debt. 
 
The debtor had made several purchases including Barbie and Ken items, a Barbie case, a Barbie armoire, and an extensive wardrobe of Barbie clothes.  The purchases totaled $1,100.  That’s a lot of Barbie toys! 
 
All of these purchases were made in the five weeks prior to filing the bankruptcy petition, including one purchase of $178 which was made a mere two days before the petition was filed.
 
Sears Brings Adversary Proceeding
 
Sears then filed an adversary proceeding pursuant to Bankruptcy Code § 523(a)(2)(C), claiming that the debt for these Barbie doll purchases, which the debtor charged on her Sears credit card, should be declared non-dischargeable.
 
An adversary proceeding contesting dischargeability is essentially a federal lawsuit brought within a bankruptcy.  Sears commenced this with a federal summons and complaint, leading to a full-blown trial in which both the debtor and a Sears employee testified.
 
In bankruptcy proceedings, creditors have a few grounds to challenge the dischargeability of a debt, and they must do so by adversary proceeding.
 
Sears argued that the debts for these purchases should be non-dischargeable under several theories including § 523(a)(2)(A), which prevents discharging a debt if was incurred by false pretenses, and § 523(a)(2)(C), which prevents a debtor from discharging a debt of more than $500 for “luxury goods or services” incurred within 40 days prior to filing.  (Note: the dollar amount and number of days in the statute has since changed.)
 
Sears contended that the Barbie dolls and accessories were not reasonably necessary for the debtor or her daughter’s support or maintenance.  The Sears employee testified that the Barbie dolls of the type purchased were at the higher end of the price scale of toys sold by Sears.
 
The Parties Introduce Evidence at Adversary Proceeding Trial
 
The debtor testified that some of these purchases consisted of “collector” Barbie dolls.  She even introduced the Sears Christmas Catalog as an exhibit.  But on cross-examination, the debtor testified that she was just a waitress earning minimum wage and that she had been separated from her husband, and was receiving support and maintenance.
 
Sears brought to the court’s attention that the debtor could have purchased a much less-expensive Barbie doll for just $9.99, but the debtor responded that the collector Barbies were investments which would appreciate in value.
 
The debtor also testified that her daughter owned a collection of 25 Barbie dolls, to which Sears argued was proof that the additional Barbies were clearly luxury expenses, as they were not necessary for the daughter’s welfare.  After all, how many Barbies does a seven-year-old need?
 
Just gleaning these facts would probably lead any bankruptcy attorney to conclude that the Barbie purchases would certainly be non-dischargeable.  The judge even pointed out that these purchases may have been foolish and irresponsible in light of the debtor’s financial condition.
 
Bankruptcy Judge Issues Surprise Decision
 
However, the judge held that the debt was indeed dischargeable!  He stated: “Although this case at first glance appeared to be a classic case for § 523(a)(2)(C)’s luxury goods exception, subsequent investigation and testimony revealed no evidence of such intent in making the relevant purchases.”
 
The judge pointed out that the discharge exception for luxury goods provided a presumption that the debt ought not to be discharged, basically a conclusion that the debtor did not have the intent to pay the debt.  However that presumption can be rebutted and the debtor did just that.
 
Apparently, the debtor was only added to the petition at the last minute, and at the request of divorce counsel.  In addition, the judge determined that the debtor, at the time she made the various purchases, had the intent to pay for them, despite her precarious financial circumstances.
 
Lessons to Be Learned from this Case
 
Imagine the surprise to Sears’ counsel of this highly unexpected result!  But that’s the lesson.  You never know how the court will rule, and being sure of the merits of your case is no guarantee for success.
 
Although we have some fine trustees in this district, I’ve found some of them to suffer from myopic vision when evaluating the cases they litigate against consumer debtors.  A review of the written decisions from the Eastern District of New York shows numerous instances in which trustees have vigorously litigated, only to lose. 
 
I would suggest a more pragmatic approach involving settlement would have better served both trustee and debtor, alike.  This may be especially true when considering the extent that some bankruptcy courts will go, as is the case here, to favorably enable debtors to get a fresh financial start. 
 
Hopefully all litigants will become more open-minded to pragmatic approaches towards case resolution.
 
Also please note that the Johannsen case does not necessarily mean that another judge would rule similarly or that another debtor today, who is in a similar situation, would fare as well as the debtor in this case.  I think Mrs. Johannsen was incredibly lucky with the result she obtained.
 
Click here to see a full copy of the Johannsen decision
 
 
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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the February  2013 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream.      Call  (516) 496-0800 . For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com.  
 
 
 
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Suspended Bankruptcy Attorney and Paralegal Punished

Posted on Tuesday (December 11, 2012) at 8:00 pm to Bankruptcy Practice
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court punishes bankruptcy attorney and paralegal as a bankruptcy petition preparerWritten by Craig D. Robins, Esq.
 
In Recent Brooklyn Case, Attorney and His Paralegal Flaunted the Bankruptcy Petition Preparer Statute
 
Non-attorney bankruptcy petition preparers can get into a heap of trouble if they do not accurately follow certain Bankruptcy Code provisions designed to protect consumer debtors.
 
This was evident in a case just decided by Judge Carla E. Craig, the Chief Bankruptcy Judge of the Eastern District of New York, sitting in the Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court.
 
To make matters more interesting, the case also involves disgraced attorney, Peter J. Mollo, who was the subject of my column in May 2012:  Two Bankruptcy Attorneys Get Into Serious Trouble Over E.C.F. Filings .
 
Mollo, despite having been suspended from practicing law earlier this year, continued to represent clients and tried to get away with it by forging another attorney’s name on several bankruptcy petitions which he then filed.
 
Judge Craig sanctioned him in a decision dated March 22, 2012.  In re:  Clyde Flowers, (01-12-40298-cec, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.)
 
It seems that Mollo didn’t learn his lesson and immediately embarked upon a new scheme to circumvent his suspension by having his paralegal, Anna Pevzner, continue to meet with debtors and prepare petitions.
 
When the Office of the United States Trustee learned about this conduct in four separate Chapter 7 consumer cases, it quickly brought proceedings against both of them, seeking sanctions and disgorgement of fees.
 
After several evidentiary hearings, Judge Craig issued a 31-page decision on September 28, 2012, in which she severely sanctioned both of them and in doing so discussed the various statutory requirements that bankruptcy petition preparers must adhere to. In re Edith L. Moore, et. al., (12-41111-cec, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.).
 
  
What is a “Bankruptcy Petition Preparer?”
 
A bankruptcy petition preparer (BPP) is essentially a non-attorney who prepares bankruptcy petition legal forms.
 
Congress was so concerned about vulnerable debtors who had been victimized by non-attorney petition preparers who rendered bad legal advice and charged unreasonable fees that in 1994 it implemented Bankruptcy Code section 110 which is devoted to regulating their services.
 
That section defines a BPP as a person, other than an attorney or an employee of an attorney, who prepares a bankruptcy court document for a fee. 
 
Since BPPs are non-attorneys, they are not permitted to give legal advice and may only type documents and charge a reasonable fee for doing so.
 
That means that they cannot assist with determining what assets are exempt or what exemptions statutes to use, nor can they suggest what chapter to file.  They cannot offer advice as to whether a debt is dischargeable or whether a car loan should be reaffirmed.
 
In addition, BPPs may not collect, receive, or handle the court filing fees in connection with a bankruptcy case.  That means that BPPs cannot file petitions with the bankruptcy court.
 
BPPs may not us the word “legal” or any similar term in any advertising.  This is to prevent them from misleading the public into thinking that they are authorized to practice or render legal advice.
 
If a BPP prepares a petition, the BPP must sign it (there is a special area of the petition form devoted to this) and print his or her name, address and Social Security number.
 
The BPP must also disclose, under penalty of perjury, any fee or compensation received for preparing the documents, and the BPP is obligated to file a declaration as to this within ten days of the filing of the petition.
 
Code section 110 also provides for the assessment of various penalties for BPPs who act negligently or with intentional disregard for the Bankruptcy Code and Rules, or if the BPP commits any fraud, or unfair or deceptive act.
 
In such instances the court can award actual damages, and the greater of $2,000 or twice the amount paid to the BPP, and reasonable attorneys fees and costs. 
 
In addition, each failure to comply with a particular subsection of the statute, such as failing to sign the petition, include the Social Security number, disclose the fee, etc., is punishable by a fine of not more than $500.
 
The statute also requires the court to triple the fines if the BPP failed to disclose the identity of the BPP.  As you will see, it was this provision that really socked Mollo and Pevzner big time.
 
Court Imposes $45,000 Sanction Against the Suspended Bankruptcy Attorney and His Paralegal
 
After Mollo was sanctioned in March, potential clients were still contacting him from his advertising, which he did not stop.  Rather than turn them away, he had Pevzner, his paralegal of six years, meet with them, and in some instances, he met with the clients as well.
 
She then prepared the bankruptcy petitions, and rendered legal advice in doing so.  She had the debtors sign a retainer agreement which contained the name of a different attorney who did not have anything to do with these cases.
 
At the hearing, Paralegal Pevzner admitted that she prepared the petitions and claimed that she was not an employee of Attorney Mollo and worked strictly as a “volunteer” for him without salary.
 
Pevzner testified that she was familiar with Bankruptcy Code section 110.  Although Code section 110 required the BPP to sign the petition and provide a declaration as to legal fees, she did not do that either, claiming that this was an “honest mistake.”
 
Judge Craig stated that both Attorney Mollo and Paralegal Peyzner were not credible witnesses and concluded that Pevzner repeatedly violated a number of subsections of the statute and that they both engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
 
The Judge pointed out that Mollo continued to hold himself out as a bankruptcy attorney, despite his suspension, and despite his representations to the Court in the earlier case.
 
It was clear to Judge Craig that Paralegal Peyzner was the BPP, as she prepared the petitions.  However, the Judge applied an unusual theory and held that Attorney Mollo was vicariously liable for Peyzner’s violations.
 
The judge rejected Peyzner’s claim that she was a volunteer, and instead concluded that she continued to be an compensated employee under Mollo’s direction.  Thus, the Court found that Mollo also violated the same provisions of section 110 under the doctrine of vicarious liability.
 
As for punishment, Judge Craig directed both of them to disgorge all fees received, being $3,100, and in addition, fined them jointly and severally $15,000.  However, it did not stop there.
 
Because Paralegal Peyzner failed to disclose on the petitions that she was the BPP, Judge Craig stated that she was required to triple the fine to $45,000 as provided by the statute.  Hopefully, this duo has finally learned their lesson.
 
As with many things, consumers get what they pay for.  A BPP cannot give legal advice and at most, can only act as a data entry clerk.  There are no requirements that a BPP take any courses or be certified.  Yet, bankruptcy is a highly complex area of the law.
 
There are many horror stories about consumers who lost valuable assets, believing that they were exempt, because a bankruptcy petition preparer drafted the petition. 
 
The Office of the U.S. Trustee takes BPP improprieties very seriously.  Last year they brought 504 actions against BPPs across the country.
 
If you are a consumer looking for a bankruptcy attorney, make sure the attorney is legitimate and currently admitted and in good standing.  If anything seems suspicious, think twice about using that attorney.
 
To see the decision in this case, click here:  In re Edith L. Moore, et. al., (12-41111-cec, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.). 
 
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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the November  2012 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream.      Call (516) 496-0800. For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com.  
 
 
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Bankruptcy Court Says $5,000 Chapter 13 Legal Fee Is Reasonable

Posted on Thursday (December 6, 2012) at 3:00 am to Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Lawyer to Lawyer
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

Bankruptcy legal fees in Chapter 13 casesWritten by Craig D. Robins, Esq. 

 Recent Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court Decision Reviews Legal Fee Factors
 
What is a reasonable legal fee for a typical Chapter 13 bankruptcy case?  That issue was addressed in a decision just released by Judge Jerome Feller, a bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of New York, sitting in the Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court.

 

In that case, Chapter 13 trustee Marianne DeRosa objected to a $7,500 flat legal fee that the debtor’s attorney had charged.  She insisted that the debtor’s attorney, Paul Hollender, of New York City, bring a formal fee application to approve his fee.  She then filed opposition to his fee, arguing that it was in excess of the fees customarily charged for routine cases in this district. 

Judge Feller issued a twelve-page decision on October 11, 2012 in which he concluded that reasonable compensation for a routine Chapter 13 filing in this jurisdiction is $5,000.  In re: Nicholas Moukazis, (01-12-42200-jf, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.).  (In her motion papers, Trustee Marianne DeRosa pointed out that the customary Chapter 13 legal fees in this jurisdiction are between $3,500 and $5,000.)

This is important news as Long Island bankruptcy attorneys have at times been at odds with the two Chapter 13 trustees in this district over what a reasonable fee is. 

For a period of time, the other Chapter 13 trustee in our district, Michael J. Macco, insisted that every bankruptcy practitioner charging over $4,000 had to bring a fee application to seek approval of the fee.  Now we have a current judicial determination indicating what is reasonable for routine Chapter 13 cases.

For those who are not familiar with Chapter 13 practice, these bankruptcy proceedings, which involve a payment plan, usually require several court appearances, and often involve at least twice as much work as a typical Chapter 7 case.

Factors In Determining What a Reasonable Bankruptcy Attorney Fee Is In a Consumer Case

Judge Feller began the legal analysis in his decision by reviewing the elementary bankruptcy law concept that the Bankruptcy Court not only has the authority, but the duty, to determine the reasonableness of compensation paid or agreed to be paid for representing a debtor in a bankruptcy case regardless of whether a party in interest objects to it.

The Judge then determined that the following factors were necessary to assess the reasonableness of the legal fee: the necessity of the services rendered, the benefit to the debtor, the time expended, the customary fees and reasonable hourly rates for the services performed, and public policy concerns.

Judge Feller observed that the Moukazis case was unexceptional and uncomplicated.  The debtors’ income was about $150,000 per year.  They owed about $92,000 in unsecured debt.  Their mortgage was current.  The plan proposed a distribution of about 44% to unsecured creditors. 

The debtors retained their attorney about seven weeks before the petition was filed. There was only one meeting of creditors.  The Court confirmed the Chapter 13 plan less than six weeks after that.  The attorney performed the legal work well.

The retainer agreement the attorney used provided for the $7,500 flat legal fee, and also indicated that this was for the bare minimum of possible legal services in a Chapter 13 case. 

The attorney also indicated that he reserved the right to charge additional fees for services such as amendments, attendance at additional meetings of creditors or hearings, and routine motion practice. 

Of the $7,500 fee, the debtors paid $2,000 prior to filing.  In his fee application, the debtor’s attorney claimed he spent 12 hours devoted to the case, and that his paralegals expended a total of 23 hours.

The debtors were actually able to afford the higher fee; however, that did not sway the judge.  He observed that they were paying a portion of the fee through the Chapter 13 plan, and that unless there is a 100% plan, unsecured creditors will effectively pay the fee while receiving a lower pro rata distribution.

Public Policy Considerations Come In To Play In Determining Reasonableness of Bankruptcy Legal Fee

The Judge also commented on the public policy considerations for ensuring that Chapter 13 legal fees are reasonable.

Empirical evidence shows that Chapter 13 cases are much more likely to succeed when debtors are represented by counsel.  Accordingly, in order to ensure that debtors have access to counsel, they should not be overcharged.

Thus, a reasonable fee must be one which protects the debtor, while being generous enough to encourage lawyers to render the necessary and exacting services that bankruptcy cases often require.

Some districts in other parts of the country have “fee caps” in consumer cases which essentially permit bankruptcy counsel to charge any fee up to the cap without having to obtain court approval.  Our district is not one of them. 

Judge Feller, in the decision, expressly stated that “this Court is not hereby endorsing fee limits in Chapter 13 cases” and “does not intend to establish a fee cap in Chapter 13 cases.”

Looking back to other decisions which addressed Chapter 13 legal fees in this district, in 2010, Judge Robert E. Grossman, sitting in the Central Islip Bankruptcy Court, addressed the propriety of a $15,000 fee charged by an attorney who apparently was less than competent in representing the debtor. 

In that case, Chapter 13 trustee Michael J. Macco objected to the fee and the Judge reduced it to $4,000 stating that “the bankruptcy proceeding was not complicated” and the attorney “performed at an incompetent level.”

In his decision (which is now several years old), Judge Grossman pointed out that experienced counsel charged between $4,000 and $4,500 for cases in the district.  He therefore reduced the fee to $4,000 for this attorney and ordered him to disgorge the rest.  The attorney appealed to the District Court, which affirmed.  In re Arebelo, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37449, 2011 WL 1336676.

The takeaway here is that an experienced Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorney, who does a proper and professional job, can charge as much as $5,000 for a typical Chapter 13 case, and more if unusual or additional legal work is necessary.

In addition, if the trustee or court challenges the legal fee, the bankruptcy attorney bears the burden of demonstrating the reasonableness of the fee.

Incidentally, this relatively high legal fee is indicative of the large amount of work that a bankruptcy attorney must put into a typical Chapter 13 case, which was made somewhat more complex and complicated by the significant changes to the bankruptcy laws in 2005 (BAPCPA).
 
To see a copy of the Mouzakis decision, click this link:   In re: Nicholas Moukazis, (01-12-42200-jf, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.). 
 
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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the December  2012 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream.      Call (516) 496-0800. For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com.  
 
 
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What Happens When a Debtor Forgets to Schedule a Personal Injury Suit

Posted on Tuesday (August 21, 2012) at 3:43 pm to Bankruptcy Practice
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Personal Injury and Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

bankruptcy and personal injury -- make sure causes of action and law suits are scheduled in the bankruptcy petitionWritten by Craig D. Robins, sale Esq.

 
A Consumer Bankruptcy Debtor Can Lose Standing to Litigate if Lawsuits Are Left Out of the Petition
 
There is one question that Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustees like to ask debtors twice at the meeting of creditors: “Are you currently suing anyone or do you have the right to sue anyone?”
 
The reason trustees like to ask this question twice is because many debtors forget to tell their attorneys that they have a cause of action, decease which can be a valuable asset worth administering.
 
Causes of action are considered assets that must be disclosed in the bankruptcy petition.  Because of their unusual nature (they’re intangible, mind unliquidated and contingent), many consumer debtors just don’t think about them like they would a more typical asset like a car or bank account.
 
Consequently, many debtors don’t tell their bankruptcy attorneys about them even when asked.
 
A debtor who neglects to list such an asset can end up in a heap of trouble – sometimes losing the possibility of exempting the asset or seeking recovery, or in extreme cases, losing the ability to obtain a bankruptcy discharge.
 
Judge Alan S. Trust, sitting in the Central Islip Bankruptcy Court, issued a decision a few years ago in which he denied a debtor’s application to re-open a case to pursue a P.I. cause of action.  In this month’s column I will discuss non-disclosed causes of action which can be a P.I. case or any other right to sue.
 
Bankruptcy Code Provides for Duty of Disclosure
 
The debtor’s obligation to disclose a cause of action is based on Code section 521(a) which requires a debtor to schedule “contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature” and provide an estimated value of each one.
 
The trustee has the ability to step into the debtor’s shoes and pursue any litigation claims the debtor has.  It is therefore essential that the debtor disclose all contingent and unliquidated claims so that the trustee can make a determination of whether to pursue those claims for the benefit of the debtor’s estate.  In re: Costello, 255 B.R. 110 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2000).
 
When a debtor inadvertently omits a cause of action or pending suit from the bankruptcy schedules in the petition, and the trustee catches this at the meeting of creditors, the resolution is usually simple.  The trustee directs debtor’s counsel to amend the schedules and the trustee investigates the viability of pursuing the cause of action.
 
However, resolving a non-disclosed cause of action becomes much trickier once the bankruptcy case is closed, and that has a lot to do with the concept of standing.
 
There are Issues with Re-Opening a Bankruptcy Case to Amend Schedules to Include an Omitted Law Suit or Cause of Action
 
Here’s the typical scenario:  Debtor had a cause of action stemming from injuries suffered in an accident.  However, the debtor neglected to tell his or her bankruptcy attorney about it.  Then, for whatever reason, when questioned by the trustee about the right to sue anyone, the debtor testified that he or she did not have the right to sue anyone.  The case then was routinely closed and the debtor received a discharge.
 
Then, a year or two passes during which time the debtor’s personal injury attorney brings suit and is about to settle the case.  However, defense counsel advises P.I. counsel that they did a bankruptcy search and discovered that the plaintiff filed for bankruptcy relief but failed to schedule the cause of action for the accident.  They tell the surprised P.I. attorney, “Sorry, there’s no longer any settlement money on the table because your client lacks standing as a plaintiff in the P.I. case!” 
 
That’s because even after a bankruptcy case is closed, non-disclosed causes of action and litigation remain the property of the bankruptcy estate, unless abandoned by the trustee.  Case law provides that if the trustee never knew about the potential estate property, the trustee could not have abandoned it. 
 
Thus, even though the bankruptcy case was closed, the cause of action is still the sole property of the trustee, and the debtor lacks standing to commence or continue a the suit.  Upon learning of this, P.I. counsel will invariably make a frantic call to debtor’s former bankruptcy counsel.
 
So what can bankruptcy counsel do in this situation after getting the frantic call?  Nationally, there are two schools of thought – estopping the trustee and estopping the debtor.  In the Fifth, Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, the Courts have found that the trustee should not be estopped from commencing or continuing a suit, as the trustee is the real party in interest.
 
These Courts, however, punish the debtor, who they say should be estopped so that any excess proceeds, instead of going to the debtor, instead go back to the defendant.
 
The reasoning here is to protect the integrity of the bankruptcy process while preserving assets of the estate for distribution to creditors.  Doing so deters dishonest debtors who fail to disclose assets, while at the same time, protecting the rights of creditors.
 
However, there does not seem to be any appellate authority in the Second Circuit.  My personal experience with these situations is that the court will permit trustees to reopen a case to administer a non-disclosed asset in most situations, provided that there is no egregious evidence of bad faith on the part of the debtor.
 
Keep in mind that if the asset was not disclosed, then the debtor did not avail him or herself of any applicable exemption, such as the personal injury exemption, now a minimum of $7,500.
 
If debtor’s counsel were to try to re-open the case and amend the schedule of exemptions, the trustee would likely object.  The best case scenario may be to negotiate a disposition with the trustee in which the debtor gets half the exemption.
 
In one case before Judge Trust, the debtor sought to re-open the case to amend schedules to include a non-disclosed P.I suit against the Long Island Rail Road.
 
Even though the debtor had already retained separate P.I. counsel prior to the bankruptcy, the debtor did not tell his bankruptcy attorney about it and did not truthfully answer the trustee’s questions about pending lawsuits.
 
The District Court, where the P.I. case was pending, permitted the suit to be dismissed upon learning of the prior bankruptcy filing, stating that the debtor lacked standing.  When the debtor sought to re-open the bankruptcy case to get standing, Judge Trust refused to permit the debtor to do so, citing the debtor’s lack of good faith.
 
In the March 2010 opinion, Judge Trust, using colorful football terminology, stated that debtor’s motion to re-open appeared to be “an effort to make an end run around the District Court’s dismissal order.”  In re: Carlos Meneses (05-86811-ast,  Bankr.E.D.N.Y.).
 
The practical tip here is to question your client and question again about possible causes of action or potential claims.  Also, if you later discover an omitted asset, amend your schedules immediately.
 
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Life Estates and Remainder Interests Are Exempt in Bankruptcy Cases

Posted on Saturday (June 9, 2012) at 1:00 pm to Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

viagra life estates and remainder interests are exempt” src=”http://longislandbankruptcyblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/home-happy-child-394×500.jpg” alt=”home-happy-child” width=”260″ />United States District Court, In Case of First Impression, Permits Homestead Exemption to be Used to Protect Future Interests in Real Estate Used as a Home 
 
Written by Craig D. Robins, Esq.
 
Many senior citizens, as part of an elder-law planning strategy, transfer title of their homes to their children while retaining a life estate.
 
Doing so, and waiting a requisite period of time, enables the seniors to qualify for certain Medicaid benefits, and further permits the house to pass without probate.
 
However, up until recently, there was a degree of uncertainty by some bankruptcy trustees as to whether the remainder interests were protected in bankruptcy.
 
A Typical New York Family Tries to Exempt a Remainder Interest in their Home
 
In 2009, I was retained by a typical Long Island family, the Rasmussens – a husband and wife – to represent them in what appeared to be a typical Chapter 7 filing involving typical consumer debt.
 
The only fact that was out of the ordinary was that they lived with the husband’s mother, a widow, who had previously deeded a life estate in her house to herself, while granting the remainder interest to her son and daughter-in-law.
 
I assumed that the debtors would be able to protect their remainder interest by asserting the New York homestead exemption which permits debtors who own their homes and reside in them to protect a certain amount of equity.
 
After all, the debtors owned the remainder interest, which is an interest in real estate, and they resided in the house.  They also contributed to the household expenses by paying rent to the husband’s mother pursuant to an oral lease.
 
I filed the Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in March 2009 in the Central Islip Bankruptcy Court here on Long Island, and Chapter 7 Trustee Kenneth Silverman was appointed trustee.  The trustee disagreed with our contention that the remainder interest was exempt as a homestead.
 
The Chapter 7 Trustee Objects to Using Homestead Exemption to Protect Future Interest but Loses
 
The trustee then brought a proceeding challenging the debtors’ claimed exemption, arguing that since the debtors did not have a present right to possession, they did not sufficiently “own” the property as required by the homestead statute.
 
Judge Alan S. Trust, in a decision in July 2010, ruled in favor of the debtors stating that they could exempt their remainder interest as a homestead.  In re Rasmussen, No 09-72069-ast, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y., Jul. 20, 2010).  See the decision here:  Rasmussen Homestead Exemption Decision by Judge Trust.
 
The Judge commented that this was a case of first impression in the Second Circuit, and that there was no federal or New York case law in this jurisdiction addressing whether holders of either a life estate or a remainder interest can claim a homestead exemption under the New York homestead exemption statute, C.P.L.R. § 5206.
 
The Court determined that the debtors’ remainder interest qualified for the exemption because New York’s homestead exemption statute does not specify which types of ownership interests are exemptible, and hence does not preclude it.
 
The Court further concluded that since a future interest in real property is descendible, devisable, and alienable to the same degree as estates in possession, the debtors’ interest is therefore an ownership interest and thus exemptible.
 
Judge Trust further found this outcome was particularly apt in light of the Bankruptcy Court’s duty to construe the homestead exemption in the debtors’ favor to effectuate its purpose of protecting homeowners from seizure of their homes and to protect a debtor’s home in the event of bankruptcy.
 
Appeal to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York Affirms Bankruptcy Court Decision
 
Although the debtors and I were elated by this decision, within days the trustee appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
 
In September 2011, Judge Joanna Seybert affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision, commenting that Judge Trust’s decision was thoughtful and well-reasoned.  In re Rasmussen, No. 10-CV-4173-js (E.D.N.Y., Sept. 14, 2011).  See the decision here:  U.S.D.C. Decision — Rasmussen Homestead Exemption.
 
Judge Seybert focused on the wording of the homestead statute which permits homeowners to exempt their home when it is “owned and occupied as a principal residence.”
 
There was no dispute that the debtors occupied the premises as principal residence.  The only issue was therefore whether the debtors “own” the premises within the meaning of the homestead statute.
 
The District Court held, as did the court below, that a future interest is an ownership interest.
 
The trustee had claimed that the Bankruptcy Court was incorrect in concluding that “neither exclusive possession nor exclusive ownership are, on the face of CPLR § 5206(a), required to establish an exemptible interest.”  
 
To that, the District Court stated, “The trustee is plainly wrong. Section 5206(a), by its terms, does not specify the circumstances of ownership or occupation required to claim a homestead exemption.”
 
Although Judge Seybert applied her reasoning to the actual set of facts, which included the fact that the debtors paid rent to the husband’s mother pursuant to an oral lease, the decision is pretty clear that the debtors would have received the same result, even if they did not pay rent.  The Judge did not address this distinction at all.
 
Thus, there should be no doubt in this jurisdiction – the Eastern District of New York, that absent a higher appellate court case down the road, future interests and remainder interests are exempt as homesteads in bankruptcy proceedings, as long as the debtor resides in the premises.

 

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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the November  2011 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream.      Call (516) 496-0800. For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com.  
 
 
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Two Bankruptcy Attorneys Get Into Serious Trouble Over E.C.F. Filings

Posted on Monday (April 30, 2012) at 9:15 pm to Bankruptcy Practice
Lawyer to Lawyer
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

Attorneys who file bankruptcy petitions and papers by E.C.F. must abide by the court rulesby Craig D. Robins, Esq.

 

Flouting E.C.F. Filing Rules Has Grave Consequences

 

 

“The following is a cautionary tale of what occurs when the uninitiated attempt to practice before the bankruptcy court without a firm grasp of the Bankruptcy Code and Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.” 

 

“Even the most well intentioned practitioners can inadvertently wreak havoc on unsuspecting clients by failing to appreciate the complexity of the bankruptcy process. It is also a prime example of how things can escalate when an attorney is less than candid with the Court about his or her mistakes.” 

 

The preceding words were taken verbatim from a recent Massachusetts decision that severely castigated an attorney for messing up a consumer debtor’s bankruptcy filing and then lying about it to the court.  This month I will discuss that case, and another from one of our own courts here in the Eastern District of New York, both of which lambasted attorneys who utterly failed to abide by the rules.

 

Inexperienced Attorney Makes Mess of Bankruptcy Filing

 

In the Massachusetts case, Bankruptcy attorney Georgia S. Curtis was authorized to use E.C.F., but was grossly unfamiliar with how to do so.  “E.C.F.,” which stands for Electronic Case Filing System, is the computerized court website system through which attorneys file court documents such as bankruptcy petitions  In Re:  Jackquelyn D. Stallworth, 2012 Bankr. LEXIS 740 (Bankr. D. Mass 2/8/12). 

 

Since 2003, every petition and other court document that I’ve filed with the court has been done through my office computer, while logged into the court’s E.C.F. website.  For almost a decade, all bankruptcy attorneys are required to file their bankruptcy petitions, motion papers and other documents by E.C.F.

 

When Curtis filed her client’s petition, which was only the second petition that the attorney had ever filed, her inexperience got the best of her as she neglected to file the Creditor Matrix or the Statement of Social Security Number.  These are mandatory requirements, and failure to abide by them, as Curtis soon learned, is fatal.

 

Nine days later the court dismissed the petition.  Curtis also failed to file the Credit Counseling Certificate and page 3 of the petition, which is one of the petition pages that contains the attorney’s signature. 

 

Curtis then thought she could file a motion to vacate the dismissal by e-mail (which is not the appropriate procedure for filing a motion).  However, she messed this up as well, by attaching the wrong PDF document.  The court ordered her to correct this mistake within two days.

 

Did Curtis do that?  No.  Instead of correcting the deficient filing, two weeks later she filed a second Chapter 7 case without her client’s knowledge.

 

The petition in the second case contained only the debtor’s name, which was spelled incorrectly, the last four digits of her Social Security number, and the county of her residence, omitting her street and mailing addresses, as well as reference to her prior filings.

 

Additionally, the schedules accompanying the Debtor’s petition were blank or were otherwise incomplete, which, if taken literally as pointed out by the judge, reflected that she had neither assets nor any creditors. 

 

The judge then issued a sua sponte order to show cause directing Curtis to show cause why the court should not sanction her and suspend her E.C.F. filing privileges.  Because this petition was basically a blank, it also caught the attention of the United States Trustee who brought a motion against Curtis seeking to have her disgorge the legal fee. 

 

Over several order to show cause hearings, Curtis testified that she did indeed file all necessary documents when that was not true.  She also offered conflicting and contradictory explanations of what had happened. 

 

The judge wasn’t happy.  He suspended Curtis’s E.C.F. privileges, but indicated that Curtis could purge her “civil contempt” by becoming re-certified with E.C.F.  (All attorneys are required to participate in an E.C.F. training course as a prerequisite to obtaining authority to file by E.C.F.).

 

In addition, the judge stated that he had reasonable cause to believe that Curtis violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and referred the matter to the District Court for further disciplinary proceedings.

 

Curtis had a problem adhering to the court’s E.C.F. rules: she violated them.  That led to a suspension of her E.C.F. privileges.  But her problems increased exponentially when she lied to the court.  That led to a most serious referral that might result in her losing her license to practice. For a legal practitioner, not knowing what you’re doing is bad enough; perjuring yourself in court: indefensible.

 

Suspended Attorney Files Petitions in Other Attorney’s Name

 

On March 22, 2012, Judge Carla E. Craig, sitting in the Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court, issued another interesting decision involving attorney ineptitude and impropriety with the E.C.F. system.  In re:  Clyde Flowers, (01-12-40298-cec, Bankr. E.D.N.Y.) 

 

Peter J. Mollo was a Brooklyn bankruptcy attorney who had just been suspended from practicing law in this state in January 2012 by the Appellate Division for several reasons such as endorsing a check without permission.

 

That left him with a bunch of bankruptcy clients whose petitions he had not filed.  What he should have done was transferred the files to another attorney after first consulting with his clients.  Instead, he called another local attorney, Brian K. Payne, and asked him if he would take over representation.  However, no final agreement was reached. 

 

Mollo, nevertheless quite eager to get these four cases filed, revised the petitions to indicate that the debtors’ attorney was now Payne — even though Payne never agreed.  Mollow then filed these four petitions under his own E.C.F. account and forged the electronic signature of Payne on each petition. 

 

When the U.S. Trustee got wind of this after Payne sent a letter to the Chief Judge and others indicating that Mollo had filed petitions without his knowledge, consent, authority or signature, the UST immediately brought a motion to sanction Mollo, revoke his authorization to use the E.C.F. system, disgorge his fees, and compensate replacement counsel. 

 

At the hearing, Mollo admitted that he “made terrible egregious, unbelievable errors.”  The judge determined that Mollo violated Bankruptcy Rule 9011 by filing a forged document, an act that warranted sanctions.

 

Mollo agreed to disgorge all legal fees received, which was complicated by the fact that he kept such poor records that he was not sure how much he actually did receive.  He also agreed to compensate each debtor’s replacement counsel.  He lost his E.C.F. privileges, not that he would have been legally able to use them in light of his suspension. 

 

Finally, the judge thought additional sanctions were warranted given the egregious nature of Mollo’s violations and their similarity to the conduct that got him suspended in the first place (forging signatures).  Judge Craig sanctioned Mollo an additional $3,000, stating that Mollo’s conduct compromised the integrity of the court system and the electronic filing process.

 

 

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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the May  2012 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream.   (516) 496-0800  (516) 496-0800    (516) 496-0800  (516) 496-0800 . For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com.  
 
 
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Bankruptcy Court Revisits Tax Refund of Non-Filing Spouse

Posted on Wednesday (September 28, 2011) at 11:55 pm to Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer
Tax and Bankruptcy Issues

Tax Refunds In BankruptcyWritten by Craig D. Robins, Esq.
 
Recent Long Island Bankruptcy Court Decision Addresses How to Allocate Non-filing Spouse’s Share of the Tax Refund
 
(This post was my monthly column that was published in the September 2011 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer.)
 
April may be tax time for most consumers, but bankruptcy judges seem to address bankruptcy tax issues year round.  That’s because tax refunds have been a constant and significant source of potential funds for trustees, who are often quite willing to litigate the issues involved.
 
However, with the increased bankruptcy exemptions in New York, perhaps there will be fewer tax refund disputes.
 
In the past two years, I devoted many blog posts to issues concerning tax refunds and bankruptcy
 
I also devoted two columns of my monthly articles published in the Suffolk Lawyer to the topic of tax refunds of non-filing spouses.  A recent decision by Central Islip Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Grossman here in the Eastern District of New York now requires that I write monthly third column on the subject.  First, let me provide some background on the other two cases.
 
The 50/50 Rule for Allocating Tax Refunds in Bankruptcy Cases has been the Previous Standard in New York
 
In my May 2009 column, I raised the issue:  Who owns the non-filing spouse’s tax refund in a bankruptcy case, and how do you apportion it?
 
The Marciano case out of the Southern District of New York adopted the 50/50 Rule — a simple and straight-forward approach in which the refund is apportioned equally between the two spouses regardless of the source of income or tax withholding. In re Marciano, 372 B.R. 211 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).  Local bankruptcy practice since that time has adopted that rule.
 
Non-Filing Spouses Do Not Have to Contribute Their Share of the Tax Refund into the Chapter 13 Plan
 
In December 2010, I focused my column on a decision by Judge Grossman which addressed this issue:  What happens when only one spouse files for Chapter 13 relief?  Does the non-filing spouse also have to surrender his or her tax refund to the trustee?
 
At the time, Judge Grossman held that a non-filing spouse is not obligated to devote his or her share of a joint tax refund to plan payments made to the Chapter 13 trustee.
 
In that case, In re Malewicz, No 8-09-74807-reg, 2010 WL 4613119 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y., Nov. 4, 2010), the Court ruled that a non-debtor spouse’s share of a joint tax refund received post-confirmation is not property of the debtor’s estate or part of the “projected disposable income.” 
 
Therefore, unless the non-debtor spouse specifically consents to contribute the refund to the plan, the non-debtor spouse’s share of tax refunds received post-confirmation need not be turned over to the trustee.
 
Thus, the non-debtor spouse in that case was not required to devote his share of tax refunds to the Chapter 13 plan.  The non-filing spouse’s share of the tax refund is not property of the estate and it should not be included in the calculation of Chapter 13 plan payments.
 
At the time, the Malewicz case seemed to be the end of the road on the issue. You had the 50/50 rule, so what else could come up?
 
The Duarte Decision Introduces New Standard for Allocating Tax Refund
 
In October 2010, Carlos Duarte, a typical consumer, filed for Chapter 13 relief individually, without his wife.  Through his attorney, fellow Long Island bankruptcy lawyer Lawrence S. Lefkowitz, he offered 50% of the couple’s joint 2010 tax refund into the plan and asserted that the other 50% belonged to his wife, and was hers to keep.
 
After all, the 50/50 Rule, for determining each spouse’s respective rights to a tax refund, is a test employed by a majority of Bankruptcy Courts in New York.
 
The debtor also pointed out a 2009 decision by Judge Alan S. Trust which held that “spouses filing joint returns who equally share the liability for payment of the taxes, should equally share the benefit of any tax refund.”  In re Spina, 416 B.R. 92 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2009).
 
However, Long Island Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee Michael J. Macco noticed an unusual aspect of the family’s tax situation: only the husband paid withholding tax during the 2010 tax year; the wife did not pay anything.
 
The trustee then objected to confirmation of the plan, arguing that the entire 2010 refund resulted from an overpayment made solely by the debtor-husband.
 
The trustee argued that there was only a presumption that the 50/50 Rule should be used, and that the facts of this case rebutted the presumption. He insisted that the debtor pay 100% of the tax refund into the Chapter 13 plan based on a different rule known as the “Withholding Rule.”
 
Under the Withholding Rule, which is considered the majority approach, the tax refund is divided based upon the extent to which the refund is attributable to the separate withholdings of each spouse.
 
At the confirmation hearing, Judge Grossman granted confirmation, but reserved decision as to whether the non-filing spouse was required to turn over 50% of the tax refund.
 
New “Separate Filings Rule” Now Governs Allocating Spouse’s Tax Refunds in Bankruptcy Cases
 
In a decision issued in July 2011, Judge Grossman ruled that neither the 50/50 Rule should be applied, nor the withholding Rule. Instead, he adopted a totally different formula known as the “Separate Filings Rule,” first enunciated by the Tenth Circuit in the case, In re Crowson, 431 B.R. 484 (10th Cir. BAP 2010).  In re Carlos Duarte, no. 8-10-78606-reg, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. July 12, 2011).
 
The Judge clarified the issue before the Court:  since the debtor consented to turn over his share of the tax refund, the sole issue was determining how to calculate the debtor’s interest in the tax refund.
 
After reviewing in detail the considerations for rejecting the other rules (there are four of them), Judge Grossman held that it was necessary to use a formula based on a calculation of what each spouse’s tax obligation would have been if the spouses had filed separate tax returns.
 
Then, he said there should be a calculation of the contributions each spouse had actually made towards the total tax payment.
 
Unfortunately, this new method will be messy and the Judge even pointed out that this approach “is not a ‘bright-line rule’ and therefore it is not simple to understand or apply.”
 
The Judge stated that “This Court is not ruling that the Trustee, the debtor and the non-debtor spouse in each case must undertake this analysis in order to determine each parties’ interest in a joint income tax refund, but this formula shall be employed where the parties do not agree on the proper allocation.”
 
Judge Grossman’s “Separate Filings Rule” approach will certainly produce the fairest result to all concerned, but if the parties cannot reach a resolution, they’ll certainly have a fair amount of work on their hands and they’ll have to study the formula details set forth in the Duarte and Crowson cases.
 
I recently spoke with the debtor’s attorney who had just prepared the separate tax returns (for bankruptcy calculation purposes only), and he was optimistic that he and the Chapter 13 trustee would work out a resolution as to the actual numbers without the need for further litigation.
 
Future Bankruptcy Court Decisions on Tax Issues Ahead?
 
On a separate note, I anticipate we may see another bankruptcy tax case in the near future. The Court did not address whether the Bankruptcy Code requires a debtor to turn over pre-confirmation tax refunds as opposed to post-confirmation tax refunds. Judge Grossman went so far as to point this out in a footnote.
 
Since I have seen this issue arise several times recently, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this issue come before the Court in a case where the parties cannot reach a resolution on their own.
 
NOTE:  You can review copies of some of the actual decisions I cited in this post by clicking on these links:  In re Carlos Duarte, In re SpinaIn re Malewicz.
 
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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream. (516) 496-0800. For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com
 
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Valuing Houses in Bankruptcy Cram-Down Proceedings

Posted on Thursday (June 30, 2011) at 1:00 pm to Bankruptcy Practice
Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

Using appraisers in bankruptcy cram-down proceedingsWritten by Craig D. Robins, Esq.
 
Court Finds Mortgagee’s Appraiser Lacked Credibility in Chapter 13 Mortgage Cram-Down Proceeding
 
Over the past several years, the judges in the Central Islip Bankruptcy Court here in the Eastern District of New York have done an outstanding job issuing well-reasoned decisions covering a variety of issues.
 
These opinions are great practice tools and I truly look forward to reading new ones as soon as they come out.  These decisions often explain a judge’s thinking, which can give clues as to how the judge may decide other issues down the road.  They may explain a complex issue of law. 
 
They can also provide insight on some of the recent changes to the law and how counsel should interpret these new provisions.  Sometimes the decisions are merely entertaining and an interesting read.
 
The decisions are easily accessible on the court’s website for free.  I’ve found so many of the Court’s recent decisions important and interesting that I’ve devoted many of my columns to discussing them.  This month’s column is no exception.
 
Last month, Judge Robert E. Grossman issued a fascinating decision which basically pointed out many things a real estate appraiser should NOT do.  Joseph Lepage v. Bank of America, no. 8-10-08287-reg, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. May 18, 2011).
 
Appraisals in Cram-Downs
 
Lepage was a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case which involved a routine adversary proceeding in which the debtor sought to cram down the second mortgage.
 
A Cram-down, also known as a “strip-off,” is when a debtor strips off and avoids the secured status of the second mortgage because there is insufficient value in the property to secure any part of it. 
 
Debtors have the ability to cram down second mortgages in Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases pursuant to Bankruptcy Code § 1322(b)(2).  One of our three Central Islip judges, Judge Dorothy T. Eisenberg, also permits Chapter 7 debtors to do this as well, something I’ve addressed in a prior column. 
 
A debtor must bring a cram-down application by adversary proceeding, which is essentially a federal lawsuit brought within the bankruptcy case.
 
In order to cram down a second mortgage, the house must be underwater to the extent that there is no equity whatsoever covering the second mortgage.  In other words, the value of the house must be less than the balance due on the first mortgage.
 
The debtor demonstrates this by supplying the Court with an appraisal.  As such, the only defense that the second mortgagee can generally assert is that the debtor’s appraisal is inaccurate, and that the house is actually worth at least a dollar more than the balance due on the first mortgage.
 
The appraisal is therefore very important and, as you will see, using a highly experienced appraiser, at least in the event there is a trial, can be critical.
 
The Recent Lepage Case – The Only Issue Was Valuing the Property for Purposes of the Cram-Down
 
When a mortgagee challenges the appraisal, which is relatively rare, then the Bankruptcy Court ultimately schedules an evidentiary hearing in which the Court decides what the value of the property is.  That was the sole issue in the Lepage case. 
 
In fact, the parties agreed that the only issue to be litigated was the value of the house.  It was agreed that if the Court determined that the house was worth less then the amount due on the first mortgage, then the debtor would prevail on the cram-down proceeding.
 
In Lepage, the debtor asserted that the house, a 900-square foot ranch located in Brentwood, was worth $175,000, which was less than the balance due on the first mortgage. 
 
The second mortgagee, however, argued the house was worth much more – $205,000.  The balance due on the first mortgage was $181,000. 
 
Thus, as long as the Court determined that the property was worth less than that amount, the debtor would be successful with the cram-down application.
 
The debtor used an appraiser who has been an active appraiser for 31 years, and has been licensed for the past 15 years.  There was evidence that he had testified extensively in Federal and state courts.  He even held a law degree.
 
The mortgagee’s appraiser, on the other hand, had only been appraising for eight years, and had only been licensed for four years.  He testified that he had never testified as an expert in any court.
 
Both appraisers testified that they employed the “direct sales comparison” method of valuation in determining the value of the property. 
 
As the debtor’s appraiser explained, this method involves inspecting the property and reviewing Multiple Listing Service reports for sales comparisons.  The appraiser then takes into consideration a number of factors and adjusts the comparable sales to the property. 
 
The court stated that this approach constitutes the best evidence of market value.
 
The debtor’s appraiser also considered a downward “time adjustment” of two percent per month to account for the decline in sales prices as the Long Island residential real estate market has been in decline since 2007, which was important as  Brentwood has experienced a steeper than average decline in home prices. 
 
He estimated this decline to be 25% per year.  In addition, he stated that Brentwood contains many properties that have been foreclosed, and are now “REO”– real estate owned by the bank.  Since banks typically sell REO properties for less than market value, this has the effect of depressing all sales of homes in the area.
 
Appraiser Made Serious Mistakes in Bankruptcy Court Proceeding
 
During cross-examination, debtor’s counsel was able to demonstrate that the approach taken by the mortgagee’s appraiser contained three significant and ultimately fatal deficiencies.
 
First deficiency:  The mortgagee’s appraisal contained valuations based on the fact that the house did not have a garage.  However, during cross-examination, the mortgagee’s appraiser was caught admitting that he did not know whether the premises had a garage or not – a significant factor that affects valuation.  In fact, the house did have one.  That certainly shot down this appraiser’s credibility.
 
Second deficiency: The mortgagee’s appraiser used some comparable properties that were listings and not sales.  A listing is not an accurate indicator of a property’s value and usually has no place in an appraisal.
 
Third deficiency: The debtor’s appraiser took into consideration the effect of REOs in the neighborhood, whereas the mortgagee’s appraiser neglected to do so.  The Court pointed out that this constraint made his report less accurate.
 
Judge Grossman adopted the debtor’s appraiser’s valuation of the property in its entirety, commenting that his methodology was consistent with industry standards and his testimony was credible. 
 
In stark contrast, the Judge described the mortgagee’s appraiser’s methodology as flawed, and his testimony as less credible.  Indeed, the mortgagee’s appraiser even admitted that his omission of REO sales in his calculations rendered his valuation less accurate.
 
In citing caselaw, Judge Grossman pointed out that valuing assets is not an exact science and that the Court must look to the accuracy, credibility and methodology employed by the appraisers.  Courts are not bound by appraisals submitted by the parties and may form their own opinions as to the value.
 
The burden is on the debtor as the moving party to establish that “there is not even one dollar of value” in the property to support the lien which the debtor seeks to avoid.  Once the debtor has met this burden, it is up to the challenging party to submit evidence to overcome the debtor’s valuation.
 
Accordingly, the debtor prevailed and was successful in cramming down the second mortgage to his house.  Kudos go to bankruptcy attorney Alan C. Stein of Plainview, who represented the debtor, and his appraiser, John Breslin, of Huntington.
 
Practice Pointers for Bringing Mortgage Cram-Down Proceedings in Bankruptcy Cases
 
Most cram-down applications are unopposed.  However, if the mortgagee contests your valuation, hire a highly experienced appraiser who will testify in court. 
 
Also, keep in mind that if you have a hearing on valuation, you will either be totally successful or totally unsuccessful – all depending on how the court weighs the competing valuations.  Therefore, it may be wise to play it safe and negotiate a settlement with the mortgagee, for example, by agreeing to reduce the balance on the mortgage substantially.
 
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About the Author.  Long Island Bankruptcy Attorney Craig D. Robins, Esq., is a regular columnist for the Suffolk Lawyer, the official publication of the Suffolk County Bar Association in New York. This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of the Suffolk Lawyer. Mr. Robins is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented thousands of consumer and business clients during the past twenty years. He has offices in Mastic, Patchogue, Commack, West Babylon, Coram, Woodbury and Valley Stream. (516) 496-0800. For information about filing bankruptcy on Long Island, please visit his Bankruptcy web site: http://www.BankruptcyCanHelp.com
 
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Reaffirmation Agreements — Re-opening a Bankruptcy Case to File the Agreement Late

Posted on Thursday (May 5, 2011) at 8:00 am to Bankruptcy Practice
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Recent Bankruptcy Court Decisions
Suffolk Lawyer

bankruptcy reaffirmation agreementsWritten by Craig D. Robins, link Esq.
 
EDNY Bankruptcy Courts Are Reluctant to Permit Untimely Reaffirmations After Bankruptcy Cases Are Closed
 
(This article originally appeared in the April 2011 Edition of the Suffolk Lawyer.  Since readers of this blog are both consumers as well as fellow attorneys, I will provide some basic info about reaffirmation agreements and then discuss several recent decisions).
 
Here in the Eastern District of New York, we’ve seen a year’s worth of caselaw in the past four months about retaining vehicles after bankruptcy through either reaffirmation or assumption of lease agreements.
 
Yet all of them had to do with one issue – all involved an application made by the debtor’s attorney to reopen a consumer case to reaffirm a vehicle loan (or assume a vehicle lease) which had not been done on a timely basis while the case was open.
 
In this month’s column, I will review this year’s caselaw in our district concerning reaffirmation agreements and briefly touch upon some basics about reaffirmation agreements as they apply to motor vehicles.
 
What is a Reaffirmation Agreement?
 
Filing bankruptcy has the effect of discharging most debts including obligations on car loans and leases.  In a reaffirmation agreement, the debtor voluntarily agrees to remain obligated on a debt that would have otherwise been discharged.  In a lease assumption agreement, the debtor agrees to be obligated on the lease.
 
Under the 2005 Bankruptcy Amendment Act (BAPCPA), car financing companies, after some aggressive lobbying, obtained extra protections that they had not previously enjoyed.
 
Prior to 2005, debtors enjoyed a “ride-through” in which they could ride through the bankruptcy and keep their vehicles without reaffirming them as long as they stayed current on their vehicle loan payments.
 
However, under BAPCPA, if a debtor does not redeem or reaffirm a car loan pursuant to Bankruptcy Code § 524, the lender can eventually repossess the vehicle.
 
That’s because almost all car loan agreements contain boilerplate language that deem bankruptcy as a default under state law, even if the car owner is current with payments.  When there is a default, a lender, under state law, can repossess.
 
Should a Debtor Reaffirm a Car Loan?
 
The general answer is: only when absolutely necessary to enable the client to keep the vehicle.  When BAPCPA went into effect, we bankruptcy attorneys routinely advised our clients to reaffirm all car loans.
 
After all, we did not want our clients’ cars to be repossessed.  However, as the years went by, we learned that most car lenders informally permitted a ride-through.  In other words, they permitted debtors to keep their secured vehicles, even if the debtors did not enter into a reaffirmation agreement.
 
However, a select few, most notably and notoriously Ford Motor Credit, adopted unusually harsh policies in which they actively threatened to repossess vehicles that debtors failed to reaffirm or assume, and sometimes actually went so far as to repossess those vehicles thereafter.
 
The lesson learned was always reaffirm or assume a vehicle financed by Ford Motor Credit.
 
Statutory Obligation for Reaffirming Car Loan
 
The Bankruptcy Code provisions for reaffirming a debt are set forth in § 521(a)(2).
 
This provision requires the debtor to indicate on the Statement of Intention whether he intends to retain or surrender the vehicle, and if the intent is to retain, the debtor must state whether he will redeem (which means to immediately pay the full loan balance, up to the value of the car, in a lump sum payment) or reaffirm pursuant to § 524.
 
In addition, Bankruptcy Code Rule 4008(a) basically requires the debtor to perform his stated intention within 60 days after the date first set for the meeting of creditors.  In other words, a debtor has approximately 90 days from the date of the bankruptcy filing to file a reaffirmation agreement with the court.
 
Here’s the kicker: the Code provides under § 524 (c) that the stay is automatically lifted if these requirements are not timely met, meaning that the car loan lender is then free to exercise its rights to repossess the collateral if there is a default under state law.
 
Judge Grossman Refuses to Permit Late-Filed Reaffirmation Agreement
 
In the case of In re Barry R. Clark, no. 8-10-73746-reg, 2010 WL 5348721, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2010), the debtor and his attorney neglected to reaffirm the car loan with lender Ford Motor Credit.
 
When Ford actually repossessed the vehicle after the bankruptcy case was closed, the debtor’s attorney essentially said to them: “Wait.  I will re-open the case, seek to vacate the discharge as it applies to Ford, and file a reaffirmation agreement.”
 
Debtor’s counsel, who also happens to be a Chapter 7 trustee in our jurisdiction, then brought a motion to do just that, and it was unopposed.  However, Judge Robert E. Grossman refused to grant it, saying that there is no basis in the Code that permits him to do so.
 
Judge Grossman explained that both BAPCPA and caselaw mandate a process for reaffirming debts that requires strict compliance by the debtor.  He stated that we have this process to protect debtors from the pressure that could otherwise be exerted by overly aggressive creditors to force debtors to pay discharged debts.
 
Debtors obtain very powerful protections through bankruptcy such as being able to discharge debts, and they shouldn’t be able to jeopardize those protections at a time when they are most vulnerable.
 
Judge Grossman concluded that permitting a reaffirmation after the case is closed would undermine the integrity of the bankruptcy process – even though it would mean, as in this case, that debtors could lose their vehicles.
 
So despite arguments by the debtor’s attorney that this case involved “special circumstances” because the debtors needed a car to get to work, and couldn’t earn an income without one, Judge Grossman was insistent that he could not grant the requested relief.
 
The decision also pointed out that both the statute and case law make it clear that a reaffirmation agreement will be unenforceable if it is not made before the granting of the discharge.
 
Congress made it clear that once a debt is discharged, the debtor should not be pressured in any way to repay it.
 
However, upon carefully reading the decision, it appears that if the debtor had entered the reaffirmation agreement prior to the date of discharge, even if it was not filed as required, then the debtor might have been successful with the application.
 
Second Decision Distinguishes Car Leases
 
Just one month after In re Clark, Judge Grossman decided a similar case involving a leased car, as opposed to a car with a loan.  In re Linda J. Mortensen, no. 8-10-75234-reg,( Bankr. E.D.N.Y. Jan. 19, 2011).
 
Here, Monster Gorilla Ford Motor Credit was a lessor and threatened to repo the vehicle since the debtor did not assume the lease.
 
Judge Grossman permitted the debtor to re-open the case to enter into a lease assumption agreement.
 
He stated that reaffirmation of a car loan pursuant to § 524(c) is not equivalent to assumption of a lease for personal property owned by a creditor under § 365(p), and each undertaking imposes different steps and confers different rights upon the parties to the respective agreements.
 
The decision did not indicate whether the assumption agreement had been executed before or after the date of discharge. 
 
Unlike In re Clark, the entry of the debtor’s discharge is not an impediment to the debtor’s assumption of the lease pursuant to § 365(p) which is the section that deals with assumptions of lease.
 
Assumptions of lease are not subject to the discharge or the post-discharge injunction granted under § 524.
 
Judge Trust Reaches Same Conclusion
 
Three months after Judge Grossman issued the In re Clark decision, Judge Alan S. Trust reached the same holding in a case that was very similar in fact.  In re Polyner Mardy, no. 8-10-73819-ast, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. March 15, 2011).  By now you can guess who the lender was: Ford Motor Credit, of course.
 
In that case, the debtor and his attorney also failed to reaffirm a vehicle loan, and the court entertained an unopposed application to reopen the case to extend the time to file the reaffirmation agreement.
 
Sometimes when one judge reaches one conclusion on a legal issue, another judge in the same court can reach a different conclusion.  However, that was not the case here.
 
Judge Trust held that the court lacked authority to reopen a closed chapter 7 case in which a debtor has received a discharge to allow the late filing of a reaffirmation agreement.
 
So even though the debtor used the vehicle as a taxi, which was his main source of income, the rule of law prevailed over equity.  “Because these reaffirmation agreements are contrary to the stated goal of a debtor receiving a fresh start, they are subject to intense judicial scrutiny and must comply with all statutory requirements.“
 
The debtor’s attorney, who is a highly-experienced Suffolk County bankruptcy lawyer, didn’t help things much as he failed to show up for the hearing on his own motion, and consequently the court marked the application off the calendar.
 
The attorney re-filed the motion a month later.  Inexplicably, he failed to show for the second hearing, although his clients showed up without him!
 
In addition, the Judge criticized the attorney for submitting a sloppy motion, stating that it was “devoid of factual content and legal authority.”
 
The attorney did not include a copy of the proposed reaffirmation agreement, so the court was unable to ascertain if it had been executed prior to discharge.
 
Judge Trust issued a separate order directing the debtor’s attorney to disgorge any fees that he charged for bringing the motions.  Perhaps more importantly, speaking in terms of future credibility, this attorney may have devalued his currency with the court.
 
Judge Trust further clarified that not only must the reaffirmation agreement be executed prior to discharge, but any hearing to approve the agreement shall be concluded prior to discharge as well, according to § 524(m)(1).
 
“The timing of entering into the agreement and court approval thereof, therefore, are critical. Further, any delay in seeking approval once discharge is granted is fatal, and prevents any enforcement of the agreement.”  
 
Thus, it appears that Judge Trust may address such situations in a stricter sense than Judge Grossman, whose decision left the door open for cases in which the non-filed agreement had been signed before discharge.
 
Practical Tips
 
Ascertain early on if you need to reaffirm a vehicle loan or assume a lease.  If so, calender the deadlines which would be 60 days from date of the meeting of creditors.  Then, make sure the creditor forwards you the proposed agreement.  Those lenders that insist on reaffirmation or assumption agreements will certainly send you one.
 
Do not reaffirm a vehicle if the lender permits a ride-through.  Doing so will not bring any benefit to your client unless the lender is willing to modify the terms of the loan by reducing the interest rate, principal balance, or monthly payment.
 
If you definitely need to reaffirm a car loan and need more time to file it, bring an application to extend the time pursuant to §521(a)(2)(B).
 
If you entered into a reaffirmation agreement and neglected to file it prior to discharge, you might be successful in bringing an application to reopen, to file it late, but only if the agreement was truly signed prior to the date of discharge, and probably only if the Judge is not Judge Trust.
 
If you need to file a lease assumption agreement late, you may be successful, based on the In re Mortensen decision.  Also note that lack of opposition to a motion does not guarantee success.  Finally, if you bring any motion, provide the statutory or caselaw authority for doing so, and definitely show up for your hearing.
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Craig D. Robins, Esq. is a Long Island bankruptcy lawyer, who is focused primarily on helping individuals and families, find solutions to their debt problems. Read more »

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