Friday, November 25, 2011

In Memoriam: John Worthy Alvis, 1945-2011

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On Wednesday November 23, 2011, friends, colleagues and family members gathered at First Baptist Church in San Marcos, Texas to remember the life of John Worthy Alvis who passed away on November 19 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. John practiced bankruptcy law in Austin for thirty-six years and left behind a legacy of profound respect. This post, taken largely from the eulogies given by James Hoeffner, brothers James and Thomas Alvis, and son, John Reagan Alvis, will remember a few stories about John. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Early Years

John was born on August 22, 1945 in Austin, Texas. His son read from an autobiography an autobiography that John wrote at age ten entitled “The Amazing Adventures of Atomic Age Alvis” in which he said that he didn’t know whether he or the atom bomb made the biggest bang, but that he had been “popping off ever since.” He also revealed that he always wanted to be a garbage man when he grew up.

John also had a bit of Tom Sawyer in him. Their family owned a lot which was covered in vegetation. His father offered his two older boys $11 to clear off the land. This should have required the use of a scythe and a lot of hard work and sweat. However, John found a farmer with a tractor mower who would do the job for $6 and he pocketed the difference without lifting a finger (until his father found out).

John once told younger brother Tom that he would buy him a Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief if he could run a mile. When Tom, who loved Lionel electric trains, easily completed the mile, John was faced with honoring the bet. Since he didn’t have the cash, he offered to go double or nothing if Tom could run a four minute mile. Since Tom didn’t know that no youth had ever run a four minute mile (that mark was broken by Jim Ryun shortly thereafter), he gamely tried his best. He didn’t run a four minute mile and John narrowly escaped having to pay off.

FBI Career

After completing law school at the University of Texas in 1970, John surprised his family by joining the FBI. His fellow agents nicknamed him Special Agent McGoo because of his glasses. He once shot out the tires of a hijacked 727 as he dodged gunfire coming from the cockpit. John received a commendation from the FBI for his heroics. However, much to the astonishment of his law partners, he never displayed it. In another case of bravery, John stood guard alone at a bank with his snub-nosed .357 after he was told that robbers were en route.

One of the less glamorous aspects of being a G man was picking up draft dodgers. One time John and a particularly obnoxious partner were dispatched to the poor side of town to look for a man at his parent’s house. When the boy’s mother answered the door, the aggressive agent went into his Barney Fife routine demanding to know where he was. Pointing to a closet beneath the stairs, he demanded to know what was in there. The following exchange took place:

“Oh sir, you don’t want to go in there.”

“Why, you hiding something?”

“You don’t want to go into that closet.”

The agent smugly replied, “Because your son is in there” and forced his way past. When he opened the door and pulled the light switch on, he found more cockroaches than in an Indiana Jones movie. As roaches began to cover the startled agent, the mother said, “I told you you didn’t want to go in there.” John said that it took all of his self-control not to burst out laughing.

According to Jim Hoeffner, “John was a lover of justice whether it was federal court justice or cockroach justice.”

Law Practice in Austin

In 1975, John’s father died. John took a sabbatical from the FBI to return to Austin to clean up his father’s files. John never returned to the FBI and instead took up his place in his father’s firm Alvis & Carssow (later Alvis, Carssow & von Kreisler and Alvis, Carssow & Ingalls). Jim Hoeffner remembered “We always had fun at Alvis, Carssow & von Kreisler practicing law and visiting in general. John was always the first to laugh and always had a pleasant disposition.” He also said, “Unlike Marcellus in Pulp Fiction, if you did something wrong to him, he did not go medieval on you.”

According to James Alvis, “The practice of law was his passion in life. . . . He genuinely liked to help people, to give the ordinary person an even break.”

However, John was not without his faults. His one shortcoming was sending out monthly bills and billing for what he did. When Jim Hoeffner joined the firm, he was told, “You get John to bill on a monthly basis and I will immediately make you an equity partner.”

On another occasion, when John was president of the Travis County Bankruptcy Bar and the names of the nominees for director positions were being read, a woman lawyer demanded to know “is there any reason why there are no females on the ballot.” Without batting an eye, John replied, “Because our bylaws prohibit that.” While this answer was not politically correct and also not true (our bar has had many female council members and several female presidents), it showed a mischievous side to his personality.

Final Days

John’s battle with pancreatic cancer was brief but intense. His brother James noted that John had a few minor stomach pains on Labor Day and was gone before Thanksgiving. He said that John’s passing was a “reminder of our own mortality” and that, “all we really have is the life we make today.”

However, in his illness, he continued his interests. John was a huge nature lover. When told that a fox had been seen in their yard, he wanted to know “red or gray?”

When his colleagues insisted that he sign a Durable Medical Power of Attorney, he was asked, “John, do you know what a Durable Medical Power of Attorney is?” In response, he started making choking motions around his throat, indicating the indignity of having to read another legal document. Nevertheless, through the fog of the pain medication, he read through line by line. He checked off the box for no heroic actions to sustain his life, but when it came to terminating food and water if he was in a coma, “being the independent, ever hopeful, did not approve of this provision.”

John passed away on November 19 at 10:45 a.m. in his own bed in the arms of his wife. His breath became more shallow until it was gone. According to Mr. Hoeffner, “He died in peace, the same way he lived.”

Comments from Colleagues

Since John’s untimely passing, many of his colleagues have remarked about his life. Here are some of their comments. Please feel free to share your own.

I very much remember John and consider him one of the very best. He had a great disposition, was always courteous and respectful to all participants and their legal counsel, was well informed on the facts and the law and I considered it a privilege to be able to work with lawyers when they were of that caliber.

I know he will be missed by all of his friends and family and I will miss him also.

--Former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Larry Kelly

John was a superb attorney with a first-rate temperament. I remember dealing with him during my first week of practicing law, and my first impression was that John was one smart and stellar guy. Needless to say, my positive impression never changed; indeed, my respect and admiration for him grew each time I dealt with him (and he and I were almost always on adverse sides). To say that his passing is a loss is a woeful understatement; and it is no overstatement to say that his departure leaves a huge void in the Central Texas bankruptcy bar in particular and the Central Texas community in general.

--U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jeff Bohm

As the many e-mails have indicated, the Austin Bankruptcy community has lost a true gentleman and friend. He will be sorely missed.

--Yvonne Knesek, President, Austin Bankruptcy Bar

I had the privilege of being a law clerk for John while still in law school and before passing the bar exam. He was one of the kindest and most honorable men I have ever met. I am glad to have known him and sad at his passing.

--Craig Smith

He was the most professional attorney I ever met. God love him.

--Steve Turner

I practiced law with John from 1986 to 1992. We ceased to be business partners at that time, but remained partners in spirit. And I am not the Lone Ranger in that regard.

--Jim Hoeffner

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Pro Se Problem

A report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts highlights a disturbing trend: since the adoption of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2005, pro se filings have grown dramatically. You can read the report here. In the past five years, filings by attorneys have increased by 98%, while pro se filings increased by 187% over the same period. During the twelve months ending June 30, 2011, there were 130,086 pro se cases filed accounting for 9% of the total filings in bankruptcy. During 2011, pro se filings accounted for 8% of chapter 7 cases and 10% of chapter 13 filings.

Pro se filings were most common in the Western United States, Florida and Georgia. In the Central District of California, pro se cases made up a staggering 27.1% of the total filings. Pro se filings were more modest in Texas. The Northern, Eastern and Western Districts of Texas had pro se filing levels in the range of 2.1% to 4.0% while the Southern District fell in the range of 4.1% to 8.0%.

The surge in pro se filings has two important consequences for the court system. One is that pro se filings are much less likely to succeed than filings by represented debtors. According to data presented by Professors Katie Porter and Jay Westbrook at the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, nearly 90% of pro se chapter 13 debtors had their cases dismissed prior to confirmation of a plan and only 4% still had a case pending after four years. Among pro se chapter 7 debtors, a 2001 sample showed that 100% received a discharge. A 2007 sample showed that 17.6% of pro se chapter 7 debtors had their cases dismissed for technical problems as compared to just 1.9% of represented debtors.

When people file for bankruptcy but are unable to obtain relief from the court system, they are likely to become angry, frustrated and cynical. It would not be surprising to see unhappy pro se debtors manning the barricades of the Occupy movement or acting out their frustrations in court.

Another problem identified by the Administrative Office is that pro se filings are frequently accompanied by filing fee waivers. According to the report:
Filing fees supply a significant amount of revenue to the courts, so a decline in bankruptcy fees collected will affect the resources available to the Judiciary at a time when they are needed to address an increase in workload.
While the Administrative Office report did not specifically identify the cause of the rise in pro se filings (other than noting a rise in districts where the foreclosure crisis is acute), one answer seems to be that BAPCPA has created a class of debtors who are too broke to file bankruptcy. By increasing the complexity of bankruptcy, Congress both increased the cost to file and made it more difficult to file pro se. This is a cause for concern.