Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wife's Homestead Claim Remains in Limbo With No Answer From Fifth Circuit

The plight of the non-filing spouse who stands to lose an interest in the homestead is a trap that is easy to overlook.   Under 11 U.S.C. Sec. 541(a)(2), when one spouse files bankruptcy, all joint management community property enters the bankruptcy estate.    This means that if the filing spouse elects not to claim the homestead as exempt in favor of selecting other property or is subject to a cap, the non-filing spouse may lose her interest in the property without having any say in the matter.     

I have previously written about the Odes Ho Kim case here.   In the Kim case, an involuntary petition was filed against Mr. Kim.    The creditors then sought to impose a cap upon his homestead exemption.  Mrs. Kim intervened asserting that she had an independent interest in the homestead.   The Bankruptcy Court and the District Court ruled that Mr. Kim was subject to a cap on the homestead exemption and that Mrs. Kim had no separate interest in the property.    If both spouses had filed, they would have been entitled to two times the amount of the cap.   However, with Mrs. Kim sitting outside of bankruptcy, her interest in the homestead was completely divested by the bankruptcy filing.

Up until this point, the result of the case illustrated an unfair result for the non-filing spouse, but one which was based on an arguable reading of the code.    However, things got interesting after the case was appealed to the Fifth Circuit.    On September 10, 2010, Pronske & Patel and Andrews & Kurth appealed the District Court ruling on behalf of the Kims.    The case was argued to Judges Higginbotham, Owens and Haynes on July 8, 2011.   Now, almost two years have passed since oral argument without a ruling.   According to the Bar Association for the Fifth Circuit, the case is the oldest bankruptcy case still under advisement and is the second oldest case of any kind under advisement.    

While speculation about the reason for the long gestation of the opinion is not worth much, I will engage in some anyway.   Both Judges Owens and Haynes sat on Texas state benches before being named to the Fifth Circuit.   (Indeed, Judge Owens was on the Texas Supreme Court).   Texas has a long tradition of protecting homestead rights.   Additionally, according to a recent book on the history of the Texas Supreme Court (Haley,The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History 1836-1986, University of Texas Press 2013),  Texas also was also the first state to recognize property rights for married women.    It may be that the judges are struggling with how to reconcile these strong Texas state law protections with the Bankruptcy law applicable here.   It will be interesting to see how the case is finally resolved.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Meet Judge Tony Davis

From 1989 to 2007, Judges Larry Kelly and Frank Monroe occupied the bankruptcy bench in Austin, providing a period of judicial continuity rivaled only by their colleagues in San Antonio (Judges Leif Clark and Ronald King served at the same time from 1988 to 2012).   Effective today on April 1, the Austin bar will be welcoming its third new judge in six years as Judge Craig Gargotta moves to San Antonio and Judge Tony Davis takes the bench.   Here is an introduction to the newest jurist to oversee Austin insolvency proceedings.

Judge Tony Davis spent his time as a student and a young practitioner in three very different locales.    He received a B.A. in economics and mathematics from the University of Minnesota at Morris in 1980, was awarded a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1983 and then was admitted to the Oklahoma bar.   He spent his early years as an associate with Conner & Winters in Tulsa before making his move to Baker Botts, LLP.    Immediately prior to taking the bench, Judge Davis was a partner in the Houston office of Baker Botts.  

 One of the most challenging cases that he worked on was the Asarco case, which involved nearly $6.5 billion (with a B) in environmental claims.    According to the Judge on that case:

Debtors' counsel, lead  by Tony Davis with Baker Botts, initiated and ultimately set in place a procedure for pre-trial, discovery, mediation and trial schedule for the estimation of the environmental claims that would have resulted in Court orders or settlements in months instead of years even if all such claims had to be estimated to a final judgment. This incredible process required Debtors' counsel to prepare for multiple-tracked sites teams of environmental and bankruptcy lawyers toward mediation, trial or settlement of each site, yet coordinated such that overlapping legal issues, overlapping facts and experts, could be efficiently implemented.

In re ASARCO, LLC, 2011 Bankr. LEXIS 2880 at *26-27 (Bankr. S. D. Tex. 2011).

Some of his other noteworthy cases include representing Ralph S. Janvey, the court appointed receiver in the Stanford International Bank, Ltd. case and representing the Russian Federation in the short-lived bankruptcy of Yukos Oil Company.  (The Yukos case involved a Russian company which moved its offices to the home of its CFO in Houston and paid a retainer to Fulbright & Jaworski to qualify for bankruptcy in the United States.   The case was dismissed after about three months).    Thus, he has experience chasing fraudsters and oligarchs and cleaning up the financial fallout from environmental claims.   

Bill Stutts, who worked with Judge Davis at Baker Botts, described his former colleague as “measured and thoughtful,” stating:

He started practice in bankruptcy in Oklahoma during the oil-patch bankruptcies of the 1980's.   He is known to be measured and thoughtful, and rarely (if ever) rash.  Responsibility and an expectation that others will be responsible can be hallmarks of his approach to the practice.  He is pretty well organized (I don't want to over-sell his work habits too soon), having even found some time during practice to write published law review articles.  I believe that he really and honestly views his upcoming service on the bench to be just that-- service. 

Mr. Stutts also characterized Judge Davis as a voracious learner and said that by the time he handles his first chapter 13 hearing, he will have studied until he knows as much as or more than anyone else in the room.

In a 2009 interview, Judge Davis stated that the Bankruptcy Code had already seen “excessive reform.”   He said:
If anything, bankruptcy law has seen excessive reform. The Bankruptcy Code, as originally enacted in 1978, has been and continues to be such a remarkably flexible and efficient way to conduct a financial restructuring under court supervision that it is the envy of the commercial world.  

Since it was enacted, however, a number of special interest groups have succeeded in carving out special interest legislation to address or protect unique issues that apply to specific industries. These numerous amendments have somewhat increased the complexity of the Bankruptcy Code but, fortunately, have not materially impaired the Bankruptcy Code’s overall effectiveness.

Law 360, Q & A with Baker Botts’ Tony Davis, which can be found here.

            When asked what advice he would give a young lawyer, he said:

Seek and take on responsibility — responsibility for understanding the facts and issues involved in the case, responsibility for advising clients, and responsibility for preparing for and conducting in-court hearings and out-of-court negotiations. Accepting and discharging responsibility is the surest way to develop the professional growth you need to be an accomplished and successful lawyer.

This is good advice for lawyers of any age.