Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Judge Seeks Creditors' Attention With Discharge Violation Ruling

A Fort Worth bankruptcy judge sent an unmistakable message to Bank of America and a collection agency in a recent opinion on violation of the discharge: clean up your procedures or pay up. McClure v. Bank of America, Adv. No. 08-4000 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 11/23/09).

What Happened

The debtors owned a business named Qualico. Like many entrepreneurs, they obtained financing through credit card accounts, which they personally guaranteed. When the business failed, both the company and its owners ended up in chapter 7. The McClures listed several debts owed to Bank of America in their schedules.

Shortly after the McClures received their personal discharge, Bank of America referred two of their accounts to a collection agency. Bank of America did not dispute knowing about the discharge and the opinion is silent as to any explanation for why discharged debts were referred to a collection agency. To compound the confusion, two different Bank of America debts were referred to two different collectors within the same firm.

Upon receiving the accounts, the collection agency, CFG, sought to do a bankruptcy scrub on the accounts. However, the information received from Bank of America was not very helpful. Placed in the social security number field was the tax ID number for the corporation. A search under this number did not turn up the corporation's bankruptcy and no search was done on the individual.

At the fatal moment before the first collection call was placed, Bank of America knew about the discharge, but the collection agency was blissfully ignorant.

The first collector was merely trying to collect upon the corporate account and was not aware that there was a guaranty. However, that did not stop him from telling the individual debtor that someone was headed to his house and that they would be filing suit against him that day. When the collector stopped to take a breath, the terrified debtor informed him of his bankruptcy, which was duly entered into the system. This stopped collection on account #1. However, it did not provide notice to the collector on account #2. He sent the debtor a letter and made a phone call, which no doubt unnerved the debtor who had already provided the agency with his bankruptcy information.

Who Violated the Discharge?

All of the collection activity which took place violated the discharge. However, to hold a creditor liable for contempt, there must be actual notice of the order being violated. Thus, under these facts, who committed a knowing violation: BOA, CFG, Collector #1 and/or Collector #2? Liability as to BOA was easy. They admitted knowledge of the discharge at the time that they referred the debts out for collection. Collector #1 did not know about the discharge at the time he made his threatening call. Neither did Collector #2. However, the collection agency committed a knowing violation when Collector #2 contacted the debtor even though the actual collector did not.

Here's how the court reached this conclusion. The court did not impute knowledge from the principal to the agent. Additionally, the court did not hold the collection agency liable for negligently performing the bankruptcy scrub. However, once Collector #1 received notice of the discharge, that put the agency on notice. Although Collector #2 could not be held liable for information which never reached him, the agency could be held liable for his unknowing actions. Thus, you have the paradox that neither collector knew about the discharge at the time he undertook the collection actions. However, once the entity knew about the discharge, it could not allow its employee to remain in the dark.

Damages

Damages are always a difficult issue in these cases. While attorney's fees are available, they are poor compensation to the debtor. Mental anguish is hard to prove. In this case, the debtor's doctor testified, but the court found the evidence to be inconclusive. (The court did, however, state that it did not "consider the line between being an aggressive agent and a bully to be so fine that CFG cannot service its clients without resort to such crude scare tactics"). However, the court did not stop there. It stated:

The McClures have, however, expended substantial time and effort in prosecuting this lawsuit. Without the willingness of aggrieved debtors to prosecute violations of the discharge injunction of section 524(a)(2), such violations would go unchecked by the court. The Code has as one of its underlying purposes providing a fresh start to a discharged debtor. (citation omitted). If violations of the discharge injunction go unpunished, creditors will lack the necessary incentive to avoid violating the law, and an underlying purpose of the Code will be undermined. In order to ensure that debtors are not hesitant to prosecute violations of the discharge injunction, they should be awarded actual damages to compensate them for the time and effort they have to expend in the process. In this case, the court awards the McClures $2,500.00 in actual damage for the time and effort they expended in proscuting this adversary proceeding, for which BOA and CFG will be jointly and severally liable.
Memorandum Opinion, pp. 12-13.

(The court also took pains to note that it had not been requested to assess damages under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and that such damages would not have been available in any event, since this was a business debt).

The Court also awarded $79,839.14 in attorney's fees. The defendants complained that the debtor's attorney was piling on. However, the court was quick to justify the large award, stating:

CFG and BOA questioned the high cost of attorney services based on want of harm to the McClures. First, the need to encourage enforcement of the discharge injunction counsels against too great parsimony in assessing fees. Second, the refusal of CFG to acknowledge error--and a pre-trial dispute between CFG and BOA over responsibility for the violation of the injunction--added to the cost of the attorneys. Had the two defendants accepted responsibility for their conduct early in this adversary proceeding, the cost of the McClures' counsel would have no doubt been much lower.
Memorandum Opinion, p. 13, n. 27.

However, the final relief awarded was the most interesting. The court awarded conditional sanctions payable to the registry of the court based on the defendants' apparent lack of concern with the law. The Court stated:

(T)he court finds that the actions of BOA and CFG in violating the discharge injunction were sufficiently egregious to warrant sanctions. By failing to adopt measures sufficient to prevent violations of the discharge injunction and then willfully violating the discharge injunction, BOA and CFG have demonstrated a lack of concern for the law. The injunction of section 524(a)(2) and that provided by section 362(a), which in the McClures' case the former replaced (citation omitted), are at the heart of bankruptcy protection. (citation omitted). It is only by reason of these provisions that the court is able to ensure debtors the interim protection promised by the filing of a petition and the true fresh start that a discharge is supposed to bring. To protect its own authority as well as to give debtors the relief Congress intended, a bankruptcy court must act promptly and firmly to stop conduct violative of section 362(a) or 524(a)(2) and to prevent future breach of those provisions. This is particularly important when, as is true of BOA and CFG, the entity violating the stay deals with millions of consumers, many of whom will be in bankruptcy cases; BOA's and CFG's procedures for ensuring compliance with the law must be seamless.

The court, therefore, concludes that it is both reasonable and necessary to sanction BOA and CFG in order to deter BOA and CFG from violating any discharge injunction in the future. See 11 U.S.C. Sec. 105(a).

The court hereby sanctions BOA in the amount of $100,000.00, payable to the registry of the court, and sanctions CFG in the amount of $50,000, also payable to the registry of the court. Each sanction will be suspended and need not be paid if, within 90 days of the entry of this memorandum opinion, by affidavit either the President or General Counsel of each company submits to the court new procedures his or her company has adopted to prevent future violations of any discharge injunction.
Memorandum Opinion, pp. 14-15.

The court's three-fold remedy addressed three different needs. First, the debtors received a small award to vindicate them for having to seek redress from the court. Debtors' counsel received a large award to compensate him for having to pursue the case. Judge Michael Lynn presides over large cases, such as Pilgrim's Pride, and is no doubt used to seeing large fee requests. When compared to the fees charged in mega-cases, the hard-working debtors attorneys' fees likely seemed quite reasonable. Finally, the court saved the largest award as an incentive to fix the problem. The court did not grant the debtor a windfall, but did not overlook the seriousness of the failure either. By ordering a payment to the registry of the court unless procedures were changed, the court took a stand on behalf of the integrity of the larger bankruptcy process and on behalf of other debtors who might be harmed in the future.

This opinion offers some practical advice to counsel defending parties accused of violating the discharge. If there is a clear-cut violation, as there was here, acknowledge liability promptly. The real battle will be over damages, which are difficult for the debtor to establish. A prompt offer of judgment may avoid a large award and an embarassing written opinion later. Further, when there has been a breakdown of procedures as happened here, the time to address those procedures is immediately. The opinion never answered the question of why Bank of America referred two discharged debts to a collection agency. The failure to answer this question may have informed the urgency of the court's insistence that "procedures for ensuring compliance with the law must be seamless."

6 comments:

Benjamin said...

Great post! Its about time violating the Discharge means something to creditors.

lyechin2002 said...

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The Latest in Criminal Law said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bankruptcy Attorney said...

Great infonmation ! thanks for sharing.

Collection Complaints Hotline said...

Very interesting to see how the court decided here. I was initially surprised that the debtor was not awarded a larger amount, but a message was truly sent to the violating creditors, "Clean up your procedures or else".

Far too many bankruptcy filers are not made sufficiently aware that they are not to be contacted by any creditor in their bankruptcy.

Sadly, most bankruptcy attorneys do not spend much energy pursuing complaints of stay violations and/or discharge violations.

Anonymous said...

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