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Supreme Court holds that creditor may be held in civil contempt for violation of bankruptcy discharge injunction
On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a creditor may be held in civil contempt for violating a bankruptcy court’s discharge order “if there is no fair ground of doubt as to whether the order barred the creditor’s conduct.” At issue was Section 524(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code, which specifies that a discharge order triggers an automatic injunction against any creditor that attempts to collect a pre-bankruptcy discharged debt. In the case before the Court, a defendant to a lawsuit proceeding in state court filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy during the course of that litigation. After the bankruptcy court entered a discharge order, the state court ordered the debtor to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. While the monetary judgment would have ordinarily violated the discharge, the state court concluded that it was permissible under a lower-court doctrine holding that the discharge no longer applies when a debtor “return[s] to the fray” of litigation after filing for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court appellate panel vacated the bankruptcy court’s decision and the 9th Circuit affirmed, concluding that a creditor may not be held in contempt for violating a discharge order if the creditor held a subjective good faith belief—even if “unreasonable”—that its actions did not violate the injunction.
Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s opinion, noting that the standard for civil contempt “is generally an objective one,” and nothing about a bankruptcy court discharge order should modify that principle. The Supreme Court emphasized that “a party’s subjective belief that [the party] was complying with an order ordinarily will not insulate [the party] from civil contempt if that belief was objectively unreasonable,” and that civil contempt “may be appropriate when the creditor violates a discharge order based on an objectively unreasonable understanding of the discharge order or the statutes that govern its scope.” The -debtor’s argument for a standard that would operate like a “strict-liability” standard—where creditors who are unsure of whether a debt has been discharged can obtain an advance determination from the bankruptcy court prior to attempting to collect the debt—was also rejected. The Supreme Court stated that because “there will often be at least some doubt as to the scope of such orders,” a preclearance requirement may “lead to frequent use of the advance determination procedure,” as well as additional costs and delays.
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overruled its own precedent, holding that the plain language of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes modification of undersecured homestead mortgage claims—not just the payment schedule for such claims—including through bifurcation and cram down. According to the opinion, a creditor initiated a foreclosure action against a mortgage debtor alleging that the debtor failed to repay approximately $136,000 due under the mortgage. The debtor filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy and valued the mortgaged property at $40,000 in his petition. The debtor proposed a bankruptcy plan that would bifurcate the creditor’s claim into a secured component commensurate with the value of the mortgaged property, and an unsecured component for the remainder. The bankruptcy court rejected the debtor’s proposal on the grounds that the 4th Circuit’s 1997 holding in Witt v. United Cos. Lending Corp (In re Wiit) barred any modification or bifurcation of the creditor’s claim, and thus entitled her to a secured claim in the full amount due under the mortgage, plus interest. The district court and a 4th Circuit panel affirmed.
Following an en banc rehearing, the 4th Circuit reversed, overruling its decision in Witt. The en banc appellate court concluded that the plain text of Section 1322(c)(2) authorizes modification of covered homestead mortgage payments and claims, and allows for the bifurcation of undersecured homestead mortgages into secured and unsecured components. The appellate court noted that its initial interpretation in Witt had been “universally” criticized by courts and commentators, including for running “contrary to accepted canons of statutory construction.” Therefore, the appellate court reversed the district court’s judgment relying on Witt and remanded the case.
In dissent, three circuit judges stated that the majority went too far in its interpretation of Section 1322, and that Section 1322(c)(2) allows debtors to repay their mortgages over the full duration of their plan. The dissent’s view was that the majority’s decision essentially overturns the Supreme Court’s holding in Nobelman v. American Savings Bank without “any clear desire by Congress to do so.” Moreover, the dissent argued that, while it agreed that “Congress meant for [Section] 1322(c)(2) to create an exception to Nobelman’s prohibition against modifying the timing of loan repayments,” Congress did not intend to “eviscerate Nobelman altogether.”
On March 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed dismissal of five plaintiffs’ allegations against two credit reporting agencies, concluding the plaintiffs failed to show they suffered or will suffer concrete injury from alleged information inaccuracies. According to the opinion, the court reviewed five related cases of individual plaintiffs who alleged that the credit reporting agencies violated the FCRA and the California Consumer Credit Report Agencies Act (CCRAA), by not properly reflecting their Chapter 13 bankruptcy plans across their affected accounts after they requested that the information be updated. The lower court dismissed the action, holding that the information in their credit reports was not inaccurate under the FCRA. On appeal, the 9th Circuit, citing to U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Spokeo v. Robins (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show how the alleged misstatements in their credit reports would affect any current or future financial transaction, stating “it is not obvious that they would, given that Plaintiffs’ bankruptcies themselves cause them to have lower credit scores with or without the alleged misstatements.” Because the plaintiffs failed to allege a concrete injury, the court affirmed the dismissal for lack of standing, but vacated the lower court’s dismissal with prejudice, noting that the information may indeed have been inaccurate and leaving the door open for the plaintiffs to refile the action.
On March 14, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina issued an order certifying a settlement class of individuals who alleged that, while they were subject to Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, a national bank imposed “no-application loan modifications” (NAMs) to their mortgages without consent. The class members claimed that the bank filed payment change notices in their bankruptcy proceedings around the time it sent out the NAM solicitations, which asserted that the mortgage payments had been adjusted to the amount of the proposed NAM payment, even though borrowers had not requested or accepted the changes. As a result, class members’ mortgage loans went into contractual default. According to the class, the bank has since ended the alleged practice. Under the terms of the settlement approved by the court, the bank has agreed to pay approximately $13.8 million into a common fund that will go to class members, account remediation, and attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as to injunctive relief.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied a debt buyer’s motion to dismiss a consumer action alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) by requesting a credit reporting agency account review after the alleged debt had been discharged in bankruptcy. According to the opinion, the consumer’s debts were discharged in November 2017 after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and in December 2017, the company requested an account review through a credit reporting agency for collection purposes. The consumer alleges the company violated the FDCPA and the OCSPA because the company could not legally collect on a debt that had already been discharged in bankruptcy. The company moved to dismiss the action arguing it was not a debt collector under the FDCPA nor was it a “supplier” under the OCSPA, but rather is merely a “passive debt purchaser” and only reviewed the report but took no further action, which does not qualify as collection conduct. The court disagreed, noting that it must accept the consumer’s allegations as true at this stage, and determined the allegations plausibly support her claim that the company is a debt collector under the FDCPA. Moreover, the court acknowledged that while the company only sought to receive information from the credit reporting agency, it did convey that the contact was for the purposes of collection. Therefore, the allegations by the consumer that the company violated the FDCPA for representing a debt was for collection when it was previously discharged were sufficient to survive the motion. As for the OCSPA, the court found that the company’s activities may effect consumer transactions, which makes it plausible that the company is a “supplier” under the statute.
On February 1, the FTC announced that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that the operator of a computer-financing scheme cannot use his bankruptcy to discharge a $13.4 million judgment entered in 2016 for violating a 2008 FTC order. The FTC alleged that the defendant and his affiliated companies collected more than $14 million from consumers based on promises that they would finance the purchase of new computers but failed to actually deliver the computers. The court determined that the contempt judgment issued in 2016 could not be discharged because it resulted from the defendant’s fraudulent conduct “based on both misrepresentation and concealment.” In a press release describing the ruling, the FTC stated that the defendant’s attempt to shield himself from complying with the order by filing for bankruptcy was an attempt to “avoid justice.”
On November 8, a federal jury for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota awarded the ResCap Liquidating Trust, the post-bankruptcy successor-in-interest to Residential Funding Company, LLC (RFC), a $27.8 million verdict in an indemnity case against a correspondent lender. Shortly after RFC’s bankruptcy plan was confirmed in 2013, the ResCap Liquidating Trust filed indemnity and breach of contract lawsuits against more than 80 correspondent lenders, alleging that the loans RFC purchased from the lenders did not comply with applicable representations and warranties, thereby causing RFC to incur liabilities in the form of bankruptcy-allowed claims.
Before trial, the court excluded certain of the lender’s expert witnesses and concluded that under the relevant contracts, the ResCap Liquidating Trust had sole discretion to determine whether a loan was in breach. Thus, the issues for the jury largely were limited to determining the applicability of certain contracts to the loans and assessing damages for the alleged breaches.
Court orders judgement in favor of defendants in FCRA action based on limitations of Wisconsin “alternative-to-bankruptcy” statute
On October 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and instead entered judgement in favor of two creditors and two consumer reporting agencies (collectively, “defendants”), holding that the debtor failed to show a factual inaccuracy in the credit reporting of a debt. According to the opinion, the debtor successfully completed an amortization plan under Section 128.21 of the Wisconsin Statues, an “alternative to bankruptcy” law that allows debtors to file an action that establishes “a personal receivership wherein, much like in a federal Chapter 13 ‘wage earners’ bankruptcy, a person may amortize problem debts through a deliberate and scheduled repayment plan.” Subsequently, the debtor submitted disputes to two consumer reporting agencies that still showed balances due on the credit lines for both creditors. In response, the creditors argued that the debtor understated the balances owed to them during the Section 128.21 proceeding and as a result, a balance still existed. The debtor filed suit against the defendants alleging multiple violations of the FCRA. In response, the defendants argued that the state court order dismissing the debtor’s Section 128.21 action only covers the amount of the debt submitted by the debtor in the Section 128.21 proceeding and does not cover the interest and late charges the debtor failed to include in the claim. The district court agreed and dismissed the action, determining that the Wisconsin statute applies only to claims included in the plan and does not dismiss debts in their entirety. The court concluded, “as a result, unless and until a proper tribunal concludes the [Section 128.21] proceeding eliminated the debts in their entirety or that the plan precludes the accrual of post-filing interest and other penalties, [debtor] cannot establish the reported information is factually inaccurate,” and therefore, the debtor’s FCRA claims failed as a matter of law.
It has been reported that during a hearing on October 29, a judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York approved Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.’s motion to amend and extend indemnification claims brought against mortgage sellers, allowing Lehman to include an additional $2.45 billion in residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) allowed claims from settlements reached earlier this year. As previously reported by InfoBytes, these claims had not yet accrued when the original order was entered pursuant to Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9024. Lehman’s prior claims addressed indemnification claims held against roughly 3,000 counterparties involving more than 11,000 mortgage loans related to litigation settlements reached with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
According to the report, the judge stated her decision to allow the amendments will not delay litigation, nor abridge defendants’ rights, as discovery has not yet commenced. The judge’s decision further requires the parties to reach an agreement concerning an alternative dispute resolution regarding the claims.
On October 1, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the firm’s plan administrator, and certain subsidiaries moved to increase the indemnification claims brought against mortgage sellers, seeking to include obligations resulting from more than $2.45 billion in residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trust claims. Lehman’s prior claims addressed indemnification claims held against roughly 3,000 counterparties involving more than 11,000 mortgage loans related to litigation settlements reached with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lehman now seeks to increase the indemnification claims to include claims from additional settlements reached earlier this year for an additional $2.45 billion in RMBS allowed claims. The proposed amended order does not seek to materially change existing procedures, but only seeks to add claims which had not accrued when the original order was entered pursuant to Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9024. Lehman asserts the amendment is appropriate under Bankruptcy Rule 7015 and would benefit the creditors by “expediting the resolution and recovery on account of such claims and by increasing distributions to creditors.”
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