A volume creditors' practice is facing sanctions after the court rejected its explanation that faulty computer coding caused it to file erroneous pleadings. The opinion illustrates the tension between the requirements of Rule 9011 and the need to rely on automation in a volume practice. While the final sanctions to be awarded have not yet been decided, the court in this case was clearly exasperated.
The Plan and the Original Objection
A debtor filed chapter 13 and included a debt with respect to a property he was leasing to his brother. The debtor's schedules plainly stated that the property was NOT the debtor's principal residence. The debtor's counsel also claimed to have informed the lender's counsel of this fact prior to bankruptcy.
The debtor proposed a plan which sought to pay the lender the value of its collateral plus interest through the plan. The payments to be made to the lender under the plan exceeded the amount of the rents being received by the debtor. The creditor filed a proof of claim in which it adopted the debtor's valuation of the property.
The lender's attorney filed an objection to confirmation which the court characterized as "grossly erroneous, and to anyone familiar with bankruptcy law, the objection is clearly legal nonsense." Among other things, the objection claimed that:
* The debtor's attorney, rather than the debtor had executed the note;
* That the plan did not pay the arrearages in full (despite the fact that the plan proposed a cram-down rather than a cure of arrearages);
* That the plan impermissibly modified a loan on a principal residence;
* That the lender's administrative claim was deferred over 36 months (despite the fact that the lender did not have an administrative claim); and
* That the plan impermissibly proposed to pay interest on the lender's non-dischargeable unsecured claim (despite the fact that the lender did not have a non-dischargeable claim).
The Debtor responded and pointed out the errors in the objection.
The First Hearing
At the first hearing on confirmation on October 3, local counsel for the lender argued that the plan impermissibly modified a loan on a principal residence. When the debtor responded that the property was not the debtor's principal residence, "local counsel replied that he had been instructed by (the lender's counsel) to ask for a continuance if Debtor made that contention."
This choice of tactics was not good. As the court later found, the objection relating to the principal residence violated Rule 9011 because the lender had no evidence that the debtor's statements were wrong. However, it got worse.
"As clear as that violation as, it is even more egregious that Countrywide continued to advocate that position in open court on October 3, notwithstanding Debtor's written response on September 28. Countrywide obviously had considered Debtor's response, knew that the argument had no validity, and was prepared to abandon the argument by asking for a continuance to implement 'Plan B,' which apparently had not yet been devised. . . . (T)he court believes that the request for a continuance was not made in good faith but was intended simply for delay."
Of course, the Court had not made these findings yet on October 3. However, the court did warn the lender's counsel that it should scrutinize its position in light of Rule 9011.
The Lender Withdraws Its Objection But "Discovers" A New One
After the hearing, Debtor's counsel sent the lender's counsel a letter demanding that the lender cure the violation of Rule 9011. In response, the lender filed a withdrawal of its objection. Unfortunately, this pleading violated Rule 9011 as well. The withdrawal stated that the lender was withdrawing its objection because the Debtor had filed an amended plan which proposed to cure the arrearage. Of course, this was just plain wrong. The Debtor had not filed an amended plan and was still seeking to cram-down the value on the rental property.
To further complicate matters, just four business days prior to the re-scheduled hearing, the lender filed a new objection which asserted that it just "discovered" that it held an absolute assignment of rents and that because the rents belonged to Countrywide, the Debtor could not use them in the plan. The absolute assignment of rents theory used to be a standard weapon used by lenders in single asset real estate cases during the 1980s and caused a lot of controversy at that time. However, the theory had major practical difficulties (such as how the rents could be conveyed to the lender without reducing the debt) and has not been seriously advocated for many years.
The First Opinion
At the continued hearing on November 14, lender's counsel abandoned all of its original objections and argued the absolute assignment of rents. Debtor's counsel objected that she had been sand-bagged. This was a legitimate complaint because the local rules required any objections to be filed five business days before confirmation. As a result, the court continued the hearing once again. However, at this point, the court's displeasure took written form. On November 28, the Court wrote the first of three written opinions in the case. Case No. 06-60121, In re James Patrick Allen (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 11/28/06)(Order for Memoranda and for Rule 7016 Conference And Order for Hearing on Sanctions Under Rule 9011). In this opinion, the court required the parties to brief the absolute assignment of rents issue and to advise the court as to the witnesses and exhibits they planned to introduce. The court also stated that it appeared that the lender's counsel had violated Rule 9011. The court required both local counsel and lender's primary counsel to attend the hearing.
The Second Opinion
After the pre-trial conference on the absolute assignment of rents issue, the court concluded that there were not any disputed issues of fact. The court wrote its second opinion which concluded that the assignment of rents was intended for purposes of security rather than as an absolute assignment. No. 06-60121, In re James Patrick Allen (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 12/20/06)(Memorandum Opinion Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law Concerning Order Denying Motion for Turnover & Accounting And Concerning Confirmation of Chapter 13 Plan). As a result, the court confirmed the plan. The court reserved the issue of sanctions for a subsequent opinion.
The Third Opinion
After all of this prologue, the court finally reached the issue of sanctions in a hearing on December 13. No. 06-60121, In re James Patrick Allen (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 1/9/07)(Memorandum Opinion Regarding Sanction of Creditor's Attorneys). Prior to this hearing, the Court was aware of what had happened. The important factual issue was why it happened, and whether this would serve to mitigate or explain away the erroneous pleadings. The testimony received on December 13th provided a window into the internal workings of a volume practice.
The initial attorney who handled the file testified that she recognized that the property was not the debtor's homestead. Based on this determination, none of the pleadings raising homestead-related issues should have been filed. Despite this conclusion, a clerical person apparently coded the file as a homestead case. Under the law firm's computer system, certain codes are entered which are then used to generate pleadings. In this case, a clerical employee apparently entered the wrong codes which then generated the wrong pleadings. Thus, garbage in, garbage out. The Court concluded that no meaningful review was given to the computer generated pleadings.
"There was no testimony that anyone at (lender's counsel) reviews the computer-generated pleadings (with the level of care required by FRBP 9011) before they are filed. It was the Court's sense of the testimony that either there is no review, or else the review is so superficial that it is meaningless."
The firm's response to the Court's initial warning about sanctionable conduct was also dictated by the computer system. When local counsel contacted the initial lawyer about the Court's concerns, she testified that she "could not believe the document that was filed under [her] password." However, because the file was coded as a homestead case, the instruction to withdraw the objection generated a pleading geared to a homestead case. The frightening thing is that the computer generated a pleading which might have been appropriate in a particular type of homestead case. However, the pleading would not be appropriate in all circumstances. Thus, even without the erroneous coding, the pleading could well have been wrong.
The Inconclusive Result
The Court found that the lender's principal law firm should be sanctioned for its conduct in the case. However, the Court did not enter a sanction at this time. The Court noted with frustration that he had previously reprimanded the firm and had ordered it to address quality control issues. Two other judges in the Southern District had published opinions about the firm's conduct, including one case where the firm was required to pay $65,000. The Court noted that sanctions under Rule 9011(c)(2) should be sufficient to deter further repetition of the conduct. The Court went on to state:
"Although the Court has concluded that there is sanctionable conduct, after two warnings and a $65,000 monetary sanction, the Court is at a loss to determine the appropriate sanction in this case. If the prior warnings and sanction have not worked, what will?"
The Court ordered the managing attorney of the firm's Houston office to appear at a hearing to be held and to "report to the Court what sanctions would deter further repetitions of this conduct."
This Order places the firm in an unusual position. It is being asked to recommend its own punishment. If the firm suggests too light of a sanction, it may invite severe penalties for failure to appreciate the gravity of its actions. But what is sufficient?
While the Court may well consider monetary sanctions, and will likely award attorney's fees to debtor's counsel, the Court appears to be looking for more of a structural solution. The problem here appears to be a law firm subservient to its computer system. In an atmosphere where codes entered by clerical employees can generate nonsensical pleadings, it is difficult to comply with the responsibilities of a professional. In this case, even the attempt to withdraw an erroneous pleading generated another factually defective document. Perhaps Judge Steen, like another judge before him, will sanction the computer. However, it seems more likely that he will order the humans to take control of the computer. Failing that, he may require that all future pleadings be written with a quill pen and bear the cursive penmanship of the attorney submitting the pleading.
Post-script: Local counsel, who had the unenviable task of presenting the flawed pleadings to the court, escaped sanctions. Although Local Rule 11.2 required local counsel to be fully informed and prepared, the court noted that this rule had not been strictly enforced in the past. Based on the hope that local counsel had "a much greater appreciation of his responsibilities to the Court," the Court declined to assess sanctions against him.