Thursday, May 28, 2015

Fifth Circuit Narrows Fraud Dischargeability Claims

Rejecting a Seventh Circuit precedent, the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a non-dischargeability claim under section 523(a)(2)(A) must be based upon a false representation.    While bad conduct that does not involve a misrepresentation may be actionable under other sections of the Code, it will not constitute actual fraud under Sec. 523(a)(2)(A).   Husky International Electronics, Incorporated v. Ritz (Matter of Ritz), No. 14-20526 (5th Cir. 5/22/15).  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wellness Case Brings Healing for Bankruptcy Court Authority

Resolving an issue left open by two prior decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to entry of a final judgment by an Article III court, like the right to trial by jury, is a personal right which can be waived or consented away (subject to supervision by an Article III Court).    The decision left Chief Justice Roberts, whose broad language in Stern v. Marshall spawned a plethora law review articles, in the minority, while Justice Sotomayor wrote for the six justices in the majority.   Wellness International Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, No. 13-935 (5/26/15).    

The Stern Problem

Article III of the Constitution states that the judicial power is vested in courts created under that Article, which is to say, judges appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate and enjoying life tenure.    Over the years, Congress created many other judges, such as U.S. Magistrate Judges, Administrative Law Judges and Bankruptcy Judges, to help with the workload of the federal courts.   These judges were not appointed by the President or confirmed by the Senate and did not enjoy life tenure.    While they were under the supervision of Article III Judges, some of these legislatively created judges enjoyed great levels of independence.   

In Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 2594 (2011), the Court said that Congress did not have unlimited power to create adjuncts to assist the Article III judges.   Specifically, the Court said that the Bankruptcy Court did not have the power to enter a final judgment on a state law counterclaim brought by a debtor against a creditor.    Judges, practitioners and academics alike wondered whether the system of independent Article I Bankruptcy Judges could survive this ruling.    This uncertainty was engendered by the narrow scope of the actual issue decided and the sweeping language used by Chief Justice Roberts to support it.   Taken to its fullest extent as suggested by the dissenting justices in that case, it could have meant that Bankruptcy Court's lacked the power to decide anything that could have been decided by courts of law in 1789 and parties lacked the authority to consent to a different result.   

 Life After Stern

The sky did not fall following Stern and the Bankruptcy Courts continued to operate.   However, there was a split of authority as to whether parties could consent to entry of a final judgment by a Bankruptcy Court in a Stern case.    Last year, in Executive Benefits Ins. Agency v. Arkison, 134 S.Ct. 2165 (2014), the Court ducked the consent issue.   Instead, it found that regardless of the Bankruptcy Court's authority to enter a final judgment, it could hear cases within its jurisdiction and submit a report and recommendation to the District Court which could review it on a de novo basis. This was important because the Bankruptcy Court decision was a summary judgment which the District Court was bound to review on a de novo basis in any event.   As a result, even if the Bankruptcy Court lacked authority to enter a final judgment, the District Court's ruling on appeal was the functional equivalent of entry of a final judgment by that court.  

This ruling preserved the ability of Bankruptcy Courts to hear disputes in the first instance.   However, it left open the question of whether Bankruptcy Courts could issue final orders in all matters with consent or by waiver.   The consent issue had enormous practical significance.    If parties could not give valid consent, they could have an advisory trial in the Bankruptcy Court and then request a do-over in the District Court if they didn't like the result.    There was also the possibility (although I am not aware of this actually happening) of a party agreeing to litigate in Bankruptcy Court and ignoring the result on the basis that it had never been approved by the District Court.    

The issue split the circuit courts.   The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Circuits nixed consent while the Ninth Circuit permitted it.   Today's decision resolved that split and established that parties can consent to entry of a final judgment by a Bankruptcy Judge.   The decision also acknowledges the practical reality that without legislatively created courts, "the work of the federal court system would grind nearly to a halt."   Opinion, p. 2.   In a footnote, the Court noted that the 349 Bankruptcy Judges hear twice as many cases as all of the District and Circuit judges combined.    

What Happened

Sharif was a distributor for Wellness International Network, a manufacturer of health and nutrition products.    Sharif sued Wellness but wound up owing $650,000 in attorneys' fees after he failed to comply with discovery and other litigation obligations.    When Sharif filed bankruptcy, Wellness wanted to know about the $5 million in assets he had listed on a loan application in 2002.   Sharif glibly admitted that he had lied about owning the assets and said that they really belonged to a trust which he administered for his mother and sister.    

Wellness filed an adversary proceeding against Sharif seeking to deny his discharge and establish that the trust was an alter ego.   Sharif answered and conceded that these claims were core proceedings.   Once again, Sharif failed to provide responsive discovery answers.   As a result, the Bankruptcy Court entered default judgment against him and denied his discharge.   The Bankruptcy Court also found that the trust was his alter ego because the Debtor "treats [the Trust's] assets as his own property."    

Sharif appealed to the District Court.   While his case was pending, the Stern decision came out.   He asked to supplement his briefing to assert that the District Court should treat the Bankruptcy Court's ruling as a report and recommendation.   The District Court denied the request for additional briefing as untimely and affirmed the Bankruptcy Court.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.  It upheld denial of the discharge as something that the Bankruptcy Court had the authority to grant.   However, it reversed the ruling on the alter ego claim.   It held that not only did the Bankruptcy Court lack authority to enter a final judgment, but that it might have lacked authority to even hear the case in the first place.   (The latter ruling was based on the fact that 28 U.S.C. Sec. 157 did not authorize Bankruptcy Courts to issue reports and recommendations in core proceedings.   In Executive Benefits, the Supreme Court clarified that Bankruptcy Courts could issue a report and recommendation in any case in which it could not issue a final judgment, thereby eliminating the so-called statutory gap).

The Majority Ruling

Justice Sotomayor began her discussion of consent by stating, "(a)djudication by consent is nothing new."    Opinion, p. 8.    After discussing cases, the Court held that the right to an Article III tribunal is both a personal one which may be waived and a structural one that must be respected.  Justice Sotomayor wrote:
The entitlement to an Article III adjudicator is “a personal right” and thus ordinarily “subject to waiver,” (citation omitted). Article III also serves a structural purpose, “barring congressional attempts ‘to transfer jurisdiction [to non-Article III tribunals] for the purpose of emasculating’ constitutional courts and thereby prevent[ing] ‘the encroachment or aggrandizement of one branch at the expense of the other.’” Id., at 850 (citations omitted). But allowing Article I adjudicators to decide claims submitted to them by consent does not offend the separation of powers so long as Article III courts retain supervisory authority over the process.
Opinion, pp. 11-12.    In reaching this formulation, Justice Sotomayor resolved a question which had been dividing commentators for years:   was the right to an Article III Court personal and thus waivable or was it structural and therefore immutable?   Although the Court answered "both," it did so in a way that set a low bar for satisfying the structural concerns of the Constitution.   So long as the Article III judiciary retained "supervisory authority" over the legislatively created courts, separation of powers was not violated.    Stated another way, Congress can create judicial helpers for the Article III Courts but cannot create an entire independent system out of whole cloth.

Under this standard, it is clear that Bankruptcy Courts are under the supervisory authority of the Article III Courts.   Bankruptcy Judges are appointed by Article III judges and may be removed by them.   They are a unit of the District Court and enjoy their authority by virtue of an order of reference from the District Courts.   The District Courts also have the power to withdraw that reference.   Indeed, if a District Court wished to do so, it could revoke the order of reference completely and decide all bankruptcy matters.    Decisions of Bankruptcy Courts are reviewed by either the District Courts or by Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (with consent).   However, Bankruptcy Appellate Panels only exist if created by the Court of Appeals.   

The Court further noted that the Bankruptcy Courts do not possess "free-floating authority to decide claims traditionally heard by the Article III Courts" but instead may hear "a narrow class of common law claims" which are incidental to their primary bankruptcy powers.   Finally, the Court noted that Bankruptcy Courts were not created by Congress "to aggrandize itself or humble the Judiciary."   Instead, the Court noted the practical benefit to the Article III Judiciary from having Bankruptcy Courts:
Congress could choose to rest the full share of the Judiciary’s labor on the shoulders of Article III judges. But doing so would require a substantial increase in the number of district judgeships. Instead, Congress has supplemented the capacity of district courts through the able  assistance of bankruptcy judges. So long as those judges are subject to control by the Article III courts, their work poses no threat to the separation of powers.
Opinion, pp. 14-15.    

Having ruled that consent was possible, the Court ruled that it need not be express. 
Nothing in the Constitution requires that consent to adjudication by a bankruptcy court be express. Nor does the relevant statute . . . mandate express consent; it states only that a bankruptcy court must obtain“the consent”—consent simpliciter—“of all parties to the proceeding” before hearing and determining a non-core claim.
Opinion, p. 18.    

Thus, the Court remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit to decide the question of whether consent had indeed been given.    

The majority opinion was joined in by Justices Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer and Kagan. Justice Alito concurred in the judgment with the demurrer that he would not have reached the issue of whether consent could be implied.   

The Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.

The Dissents

At thirty-nine pages, the dissents are nearly twice as long as the majority opinion.    The dissenting justices (each of whom was in the majority in Stern) did not agree that supervisory authority satisfied separation of powers.   The Chief Justice expressed his preference that the Court would have once more avoided deciding the consent issue.   He warned that by deciding the larger issue, the Court was descending a slippery slope.
By reserving the judicial power to judges with life tenure and salary protection, Article III constitutes “an inseparable element of the constitutional system of checks and balances”—a structural safeguard that must “be jealously guarded.”(citation omitted).

Today the Court lets down its guard. Despite our precedent directing that “parties cannot by consent cure” an Article III violation implicating the structural separation of powers, (citation omitted), the majority authorizes litigants to do just that. The Court justifies its decision largely on pragmatic grounds. I would not yield so fully to functionalism. The Framers adopted the formal protections of Article III for good reasons, and “the fact that a given law or procedure is efficient, convenient, and useful in facilitating functions of government, standing alone,will not save it if it is contrary to the Constitution.” (citation omitted).

The impact of today’s decision may seem limited, but the Court’s acceptance of an Article III violation is not likely to go unnoticed. The next time Congress takes judicial power from Article III courts, the encroachment may not be so modest—and we will no longer hold the high ground of principle. The majority’s acquiescence in the erosion of our constitutional power sets a precedent that I fear we will regret. I respectfully dissent.
Roberts, C.J., Dissenting, pp. 1-2.    The Chief went on to quote significant amounts of his opinion from Stern.  He effectively established that despite his protestations to the contrary, he never intended for Stern to be a narrow ruling.   Instead, he sought to interpose the Article III Judiciary as a bulwark against Congressional interference in the bankruptcy arena no matter how difficult or impractical this might be.   His dire sermon concluded with an allusion to the Bible.
Ultimately, however, the structural protections of Article III are only as strong as this Court’s will to enforce them. In Madison’s words, the “great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.”The Federalist No. 51, at 321–322 (J. Madison). The Court today declines to resist encroachment by the Legislature.  Instead it holds that a single federal judge, for reasons adequate to him, may assign away our hard-won constitutional birthright so long as two private parties agree. I hope I will be wrong about the consequences of this decision for the independence of the Judicial Branch. But for now, another literary passage comes to mind: It profits the Court nothing to give its soul for the whole world . . . but to avoid Stern claims?
 Roberts, C.J., Dissenting, p. 20.    

Justice Thomas complained that both the majority and the Chief Justice had failed to answer the question of "whether a violation of the Constitution has actually occurred."    Justice Thomas does not appear to answer this question either.   Instead, he appears to conclude that the parties did not brief the proper issues and that those issues "merit closer attention by this Court."   As a result, Justice Thomas would have decided the case on the narrow ground of whether an alter ego claim is in fact a Stern claim.  

What It Means

This case has two main impacts:  the practical and the political.    

On a practical level, Wellness has brought healing to the uncertainty wreaked by Stern.   We now have a pretty solid flow chart for knowing what Bankruptcy Courts should do with matters brought before them.
  1. Is there jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1334?   If yes, proceed to #2.   If no, stop.
  2. Has the District Court withdrawn the reference?  If yes, stop.  If no, proceed to #3.
  3. Must or should the Court abstain?  If yes, stop.   If no, proceed to hear the matter.
  4.  Is the claim one which could have been heard by the courts of law in England in 1789?  If no, proceed to enter a final judgment.  If yes, proceed to #5.
  5. Have the parties consented to entry of a final judgment, either expressly or implicitly?  If yes, proceed to enter a final judgment.   If no, enter a report and recommendation
While I may be oversimplifying this, I think it captures the general idea of where we are today.

On a political level, Justices Breyer, Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan have made the journey from  the dissent in Stern to the majority in Wellness.   They were able to make this transition because Justices Alito and Kennedy changed positions.  While this is rank speculation, it is entirely possible that Justices Alito and Kennedy could see the harm in giving the Bankruptcy Courts unlimited power to rule on state law counterclaims and therefore joined the majority in Stern, but did not want to jeopardize the authority of U.S. Magistrates or other consent-based mechanisms.   If the Chief  had gotten his way, the magistrate system, which operates on referral and consent, could well have fallen.

An older definition of conservative is to conserve, to observe respect for existing institutions.    In his desire to assert the dignity of the Article III Judiciary, the Chief Justice could have torn down decades of smoothly functioning institutions, jeopardizing not only Bankruptcy Judges but Magistrate Judges and possibly arbitrators as well.    Thus, Justices Alito and Kennedy could have joined both majorities out of a sense of conservatism.     

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Supreme Court Rules Debtor Entitled to Funds Remaining Upon Conversion of Chapter 13 Case

Acknowledging that the statutory language "does not say expressly" what should happen, the Supreme Court nevertheless ruled that undistributed funds held by the Chapter 13 trustee should be returned to the debtor following a conversion.   The Court described its result as "the most sensible reading of what Congress did provide."   Justice Ginsberg wrote the opinion for an unanimous Court.   Harris v. Viegelahn, No. 14-400 (5/18/15).

What Happened

Charles Harris, III began his trip to the Supreme Court when he filed a chapter 13 petition in San Antonio, Texas in February 2010.   He was trying to save his home after defaulting upon his mortgage.    However, by November 2010, the Court had lifted the stay to allow the lender to foreclose.   A year later, he converted his case to chapter 7.   At that time, the Chapter 13 Trustee had over $5,500 on hand.  Rather than returning these funds to the debtor or paying them to the Chapter 7 trustee, she paid them to debtor's counsel and the unsecured creditors.   The Debtor filed a motion for return of the funds.   The Bankruptcy Court granted this motion and the trustee appealed.   The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the Bankruptcy Court's order would allow the Debtor to receive a "windfall."    In re Harris, 757 F.3d 468 (5th Cir. 2014).   The Supreme Court granted cert to reconcile a conflict with the Third Circuit.

The Ruling

The Court noted that prior to 1994, there was a split of authority over whether the debtor's post-petition earnings vested in the chapter 7 estate upon conversion.    This problem was solved when section 348(f) was added to the Code.   It provides that absent bad faith, property of the chapter 7 estate following conversion from chapter 13 consists of property which was originally part of the chapter 13 estate which remained "in the possession . . . or control" of the debtor on the date of conversion.  Thus, the funds held by the chapter 13 trustee would not become property of the chapter 7 estate.   

However, this did not answer the question of what the chapter 13 trustee could do with the funds upon conversion.   The court noted that under section 348(e), the chapter 13 trustee's "services" are terminated upon conversion.   The Court concluded that paying money to creditors was one of the "services" provided by the trustee and therefore something that could not be done after conversion.   The Court also concluded that paying money to creditors was not part of the trustee's duty to "wind up" the chapter 13 estate and that a chapter 13 plan did not vest funds in creditors until they were paid out.

The Court rejected the policy arguments that were relied upon by the Fifth Circuit.  It was not a "windfall" for the debtor to receive the undistributed funds for the reason that those funds would have belonged to the debtor if he had initially filed under chapter 7.    The Supreme Court agreed that it was a fortuity that some trustees had lots of money on hand when a case converted and others didn't.   However, the Court suggested that creditors "seek() to include in a Chapter 13 plan a schedule for regular disbursement of funds the trustee collects."   Opinion, p. 11.  The fact that creditors could protect themselves showed that the Court did not need to bend the statute to arrive at a reasonable result.

What Does It Mean?

In this case, the Supreme Court followed the text and structure of the statute rather than relying on easily manipulated policy arguments like the Fifth Circuit did.    The Supreme Court showed that it was willing to look at how the Bankruptcy Code functions to resolve a question that was not completely obvious.   While no statute expressly said that the debtor gets to keep funds in the hands of the chapter 13 trustee, the Court noted that other provisions, such as those revesting post-petition property in the debtor and terminating the services of the trustee, pointed to the correct answer.   This is a functional, pragmatic approach toward interpreting the law and will be useful to practicing lawyers.

The case will likely also encourage Chapter 13 trustees to seek authority to make interim distributions.   The ruling only applies to funds held by the Chapter 13 trustee on the date of conversion.   Had the Trustee received permission for interim distributions, there would have been a much smaller amount on hand and the Trustee would have received commissions on the funds which were distributed.   As the Court pointed out, there is nothing wrong with encouraging Trustees to make distributions early and often.    

Because Trustees will likely modify their procedures to address the ruling, the practical effect of the opinion will likely be minimal.   However, any time that the Supreme Court interprets the Bankruptcy Code, it provides valuable guidance as to how they might rule in other cases.    That will be the lasting impact of this case beyond the relatively small sum that Trustee Viegelahn will be required to pay.

Note:  The Bankruptcy Court order was entered by then-Bankruptcy Judge Leif M. Clark.   Over the years, Judge Clark has been a fertile source of material for this blog.   Congratulations to Judge Clark on being affirmed by the Supreme Court.    Congratulations also to local attorney Steven Cenammo who filed the motion which set this in motion.  

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Supreme Court Says Denial of Confirmation Not Automatically Appealable

In a surprisingly casual opinion, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts, has ruled that denial of confirmation of a chapter 13 plan does not give rise to a final order which can be appealed as a matter of right.    Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank, No. 14-116 (5/4/15).     The opinion can be found here.    The Chief's opinion compares the appellate process to the children's game of chutes and ladders, refers to insignificant matters as "small beer issues" and even includes a sentence fragment.   Notwithstanding the relaxed approach to writing, the Court offers clear guidance.   When the court denies a plan with leave to appeal, the debtor may refuse to amend and appeal the ultimate dismissal or may seek to follow the interlocutory appeal route, a process which must be renewed at each stage of the appeal.    However, the debtor may not appeal the denial as a matter of right.   

What Happened

Bullard owned a multifamily property which was worth much less than was owed upon it.   Because the property was apparently not the debtor's residence (or perhaps only part of the property constituted the debtor's residence), the debtor was able to propose a plan which modified the debt.   Chapter 13 allows a debtor to cure and maintain payments on a long term debt or to pay a secured debt over the life of the plan.   Bullard creatively sought to continue making the regular monthly payments on the secured portion of the debt, while paying disposable income with regard to the unsecured portion.    This would give Bullard the ability to complete payments on the secured debt many years after the plan was completed while paying only 5% on unsecured claims.    According to the Chief Justice, it was "no surprise" that the bank objected.   The Bankruptcy Court sustained the objection even though there was contrary authority within the circuit.

 The debtor appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel which granted leave for an interlocutory appeal.    The BAP agreed with the Bankruptcy Court and affirmed denial of the plan.   The debtor then appealed to the First Circuit which did not permit an interlocutory appeal and dismissed the appeal.    Both the debtor and the bank agreed that the Supreme Court should grant cert to determine whether denial of a plan constituted a final order appealable as a matter of right.   The Solicitor General sided with the debtor and argued that denial of a plan should be appealable as a matter of right.   In an opinion both forceful and whimsical by turns, the Court rejected the arguments of the debtor and the Solicitor General.

The Court's Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled just thirty-three days after oral argument.    The Court noted that determining finality for purposes of appeal was "different in bankruptcy" than from a typical civil case.    
A bankruptcy case involves “an aggregation of individual controversies,” many of which would exist as stand-alone lawsuits but for the bankrupt status of the debtor. (citation omitted). Accordingly, “Congress has long provided that orders in bankruptcy cases may be immediately appealed if they finally dispose of discrete disputes within the larger case.”
 Slip Opinion, p. 4.   So when does a ruling finally dispose of a discrete dispute within the larger case?    The Court agreed with the Bank that confirming a plan would meet this standard but denying confirmation would not.
The relevant proceeding is the process of attempting to arrive at an approved plan that would allow the bankruptcy to move forward. This is so, first and foremost, because only plan confirmation—or case dismissal—alters the status quo and fixes the rights and obligations of the parties. When the bankruptcy court confirms a plan, its terms become binding on debtor and creditor alike. (citation omitted). Confirmation has preclusive effect, foreclosing relitigation of “any issue actually litigated by the parties and any issue necessarily determined by the confirmation order.” (citations omitted). . . .
When confirmation is denied and the case is dismissed as a result, the consequences are similarly significant.Dismissal of course dooms the possibility of a discharge and the other benefits available to a debtor under Chapter 13. Dismissal lifts the automatic stay entered at the start of bankruptcy, exposing the debtor to creditors’ legal actions and collection efforts. §362(c)(2). And it can limit the availability of an automatic stay in a subsequent bankruptcy case. §362(c)(3).

Denial of confirmation with leave to amend, by contrast,changes little. The automatic stay persists. The parties’ rights and obligations remain unsettled. The trustee continues to collect funds from the debtor in anticipation of a different plan’s eventual confirmation. The possibility of discharge lives on. “Final” does not describe this state of affairs. An order denying confirmation does rule out the specific arrangement of relief embodied in a particular plan. But that alone does not make the denial final any more than, say, a car buyer’s declining to pay the sticker price is viewed as a “final” purchasing decision by either the buyer or seller. “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
 Slip Op., pp. 5-6.  

 The language quoted above captures the essence of the opinion.   However, the Court went on to offer several practical reasons for its ruling.
  • Appeals take a long time.   "As Bullard's case shows, each climb up the appellate ladder and slide down the chute can take a year."    A more narrow construction on finality avoid delays and inefficiencies.
  • While debtors probably would not appeal over "small beer issues," the prospect of an appeal could be used for tactical reasons in negotiating with creditors.   Besides Chapter 11 lawyers might have the money to spend on appealing insignificant issues.
  • The Court also stated that lack of a guaranteed appeal would "encourage the debtor to work with creditors and the trustee to develop a confirmable plan as promptly as possible.
 The Court took the time to reject several arguments from the debtor and the Solicitor General.   The SG argued that any order which resolved a contested matter should be considered final for purposes of appeal.    In a firm putdown, the Court stated:
That version of the argument has the virtue of resting on a general principle—but the vice of being implausible. As a leading treatise notes, the list of contested matters is “endless” and covers all sorts of minor disagreements. (citation omitted). The concept of finality cannot stretch to cover, for example, an order resolving a disputed request for an extension of time.
 Slip Op., pp. 8-9.     The Court also suggested that arguing that all orders resolving contested matters should be appealable begged the question.
At other points, the Solicitor General appears to argue that because one possible resolution of this particular contested matter (confirmation) is final, the other (denial) must be as well. But this argument begs the question. It simply assumes that confirmation is appealable because it resolves a contested matter, and that therefore anything else that resolves the contested matter must also be appealable.  But one can just as easily contend that confirmation is appealable because it resolves the entire plan consideration process, and that therefore the entire process is the “proceeding.” A decision that does not resolve the entire plan consideration process—denial—is therefore not appealable.
Slip Op., p. 9.  

The Court was more sympathetic to the debtor's argument that denying the right to appeal would leave the debtor with no effective means of obtaining appellate review. The debtor would be given the Hobson's Choice to either refuse to amend and appeal the dismissal order, which would result in loss of the automatic stay and probably the debtor's property, or to move forward with a plan the debtor did not want.    In a terse statement, the Chief commented "All good points" before noting that:
our litigation system has long accepted that certain burdensome rulings will be “only  imperfectly reparable” by the appellate process. (citation omitted). This prospect is made tolerable in part by our confidence that bankruptcy courts, like trial courts in ordinary litigation, rule correctly most of the time. And even when they slip, many of their errors—wrongly concluding, say, that a debtor should pay unsecured creditors $400 a month rather than $300—will not be of a sort that justifies the costs entailed by a system of universal immediate
 Slip Op., pp. 10-11.   Perhaps acknowledging that "life is unfair" was a less than satisfactory answer, the Court went on to note that important issues could be appealed through the interlocutory appeal process.   Indeed, in this case, the BAP allowed an interlocutory appeal although the Court of Appeals did not.  
While discretionary review mechanisms such as these “do not provide relief in every case, they serve as useful safety valves for promptly correcting serious errors” and addressing important legal questions.
 Slip Op., pp. 11-12.
What Does It Mean?

This short opinion contains several layers of meaning.    The most basic lesson is that orders denying relief which do not change the status quo cannot be appealed as a matter of right.   It does not matter whether it is an order denying confirmation of a plan, an order refusing to lift the automatic stay or an order declining to dismiss a case.    Any order which leaves the parties free to return to the field of battle another day is not subject to an automatic appeal.   In most cases, the only option will be to request an interlocutory appeal, a process which requires the aggrieved party to be persuasive on the front end of the appeal process.   The option of refusing to propose another plan and allowing the case to be dismissed probably will only apply in the plan confirmation process.   For example, if the court refuses to lift the automatic stay, the creditor cannot create a final order through inaction.  Instead, the debtor or trustee will be allowed to retain the property until some future action changes the status quo.

On a more philosophical note, the opinion shows that the Supreme Court trusts Bankruptcy Judges to make good decisions and does not want the higher courts to be troubled with appeals of many minor matters.    This vote of confidence could bode well for Bankruptcy Courts in the continuing tension between the boundaries of Article I and Article III authority.

There are also two points applicable to appellate argument to be noted here.   When in doubt, cite Collier on Bankruptcy.   This opinion relied on the Collier treatise three different times in a twelve page opinion.   This could lead to a surge in bankruptcy lawyers adding Collier's to their legal research plans.    Finally, just because the Chief Justice used a sentence fragment (which would have meant an automatic F in my high school English class) and used such mixed metaphors as chutes and ladders and small beer, does not mean that practitioners should.   While a well-chosen metaphor or an intentional grammatical error could add force to a brief, a poorly chosen one or too many discordant examples could prejudice the court.   The Chief Justice has life tenure and no one above him reviewing his decisions.   He can engage in written flights of fancy such as those observed here without any negative consequences.   Practitioners cannot.