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A Dishonorable Discharge – Debt Collection, Contempt, and Efforts to Loosen the Bankruptcy Discharge

Posted on: May 23rd, 2019

By: Matthew Weiss

On April 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held oral argument in Taggart v. Lorenzen (In re Taggart), 888 F.3d 438 (9th Cir. 2018), cert. granted, 139 S. Ct. 782 (2019), a case addressing the standard for contempt where a creditor attempts to collect against a debtor whose pre-petition bankruptcy debts have been discharged. At issue is whether a creditor who violates a bankruptcy discharge injunction can avoid contempt where it had a good faith belief that the discharge was inapplicable to it. While the facts in that case are narrow, the Supreme Court’s decision in Taggart could have far-reaching implications for creditors who attempt to collect on debts following a bankruptcy.

The case began when real estate developer Bradley Taggart transferred his 25% interest in Sherwood Park Business Center, LLC (SPBC) to his attorney John Berman. Terry Emmert and Keith Jehnke, who also owned 25% of SPBC, filed suit against Taggart and Berman in Oregon state court asserting that the transfer breached SPBC’s operating agreement because Taggart failed to provide the required notice to Emmert and Jehnke so that they could exercise their right of first refusal. The lawsuit sought attorneys’ fees as permitted under the operating agreement.

Taggart subsequently filed a chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, staying the state court action. Following Taggart’s discharge, the state court action proceeded during which time Taggart was deposed.  The state court ultimately entered a judgment against Taggart and Berman and unwound the transfer of Taggert’s interest. Emmert and Jehnke then filed an application for attorneys’ fees against both Berman and Taggart, specifically seeking fees from Taggart arising after the date of Taggart’s bankruptcy discharge. In response, Taggart moved for the bankruptcy court to reopen his case and then filed a motion seeking to hold Jehnke, Emmert, and SPBC (collectively “Taggart’s creditors”) in contempt.

The bankruptcy court held Taggert’s creditors in contempt after finding that they had knowingly violated the discharge injunction by seeking attorneys’ fees even though they had a subjective good faith belief that the injunction did not apply to them. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the bankruptcy court, noting that “the creditor’s good faith belief that the discharge injunction does not apply to the creditor’s claim,” because Taggert had “returned to the fray,” precluded a finding of contempt “even if the creditor’s belief is unreasonable.”  Therefore, the bankruptcy court abused its discretion when it found that Taggart’s creditors knowingly violated the discharge injunction. Taggert’s petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court was granted in January, and oral argument was held last month.

Taggart is significant because, if the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit, creditors will have significantly more leeway to pursue debts following a bankruptcy discharge without fear of being held in contempt so long as they have a “good faith” belief that the injunction does not apply to them, even when their sincerely held belief is unreasonable. While watering down the protections of the Bankruptcy Code’s discharge injunction may provide relief to creditors, it will surely create headaches for discharged bankruptcy debtors who may see increased efforts at collection activity.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Matthew Weiss at [email protected].

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