The AG’s Verdict: No Escape from New York

The AG’s Verdict: No Escape from New York

Much is being made of whether or not a bankruptcy will be filed, with regard to the recent large judgment issued by the Supreme Court of New York, the Hon. Arthur Engoron, against the former president and his company.

Much has also been made as to whether this will cause a certain amount of delay in the collection of the judgment.

The Complaint filed by Attorney General Letitia James against Donald Trump, his children and associates, and various corporate organizations associated with him, consisted of various allegations of fraud: Count 1- persistent and repeated fraud; Count 2- falsifying business records; Count 3- conspiracy to falsify business records; Count 4 – illegally issuing false financial statements;  Count 5 – conspiracy to falsify false financial statements; Count 6 – insurance fraud; Count 7 – conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.

In other words, the Attorney General’s complaint, and the verdict rendered thereunder, are explicitly and overwhelmingly devoted to fraudulent actions against the defendants. Fraud is the gravamen of the case.

Furthermore, the Bankruptcy Code, 11 USC Section 523(a)(2)(A), explicitly states that there is no bankruptcy discharge for “money, property, services, or an extension, renewal, or refinancing credit, to the extent obtained by false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud . . . “

Because the New York Supreme Court has adjudicated the statements made by the defendants to be fraudulent, they would appear to be no question but that the discharge in bankruptcy would not apply to the attorney general’s judgment made against Trump and his co-defendants. The judgment would remain collectible after the bankruptcy proceedings conclude.

Therefore, a Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed by Trump or any of his co-defendants would appear doomed to ultimate failure: there would be no discharge for debts connected to fraud, and all of the debts in this case are connected to fraud.

Of course, the Bankruptcy Court is a federal court, and a separate jurisdiction. Theoretically, there could be a delay in enforcement of the judgment, while the Attorney General files and prosecutes what is known as an “adversary proceeding,” in the bankruptcy court, to seek a holding that the debts in question are based upon fraud, and non-dischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code.

The ultimate result would not appear in question, although no one can ever predict the outcome of litigation. However, given the factual and legal findings of the New York Supreme Court, it seems exceedingly unlikely that a bankruptcy court would find that the Attorney General’s judgment, and this collectible debt, is not connected to fraud.

Additionally, as Mr. Giuliani has found out in his bankruptcy proceedings, the debtor is required to submit truthful information regarding his/her/its holdings, and this has been something that Mr. Trump and his associates have found very difficult to do. Statements regarding assets are under penalty of perjury, and failure to make truthful statements could only further endanger the declarant with the Federal authorities.

Thus, even though there may be an upside for anyone filing bankruptcy related to this judgment, in causing a small amount of delay, the downside would be that any debtor who files bankruptcy with regard to debts that are already adjudicated as fraudulent will risk further prejudicing himself, herself, or itself, if any statements made to the bankruptcy court are anything but 100% true and accurate.

 

THIS ANALYSIS IS A COMMENTARY AND NOT LEGAL ADVICE

 

THE LIMITS OF CALIFORNIA LAW IN THE MORTGAGE REFINANCE CONTEXT

THE LIMITS OF CALIFORNIA LAW IN THE MORTGAGE REFINANCE CONTEXT

A recent decision by no less than the California Supreme Court points once again to the difficulty of trying to sue National Banks under California law.

In Sheen v. Wells Fargo Bank (2002) 12 Cal.5th 905, 290 Cal. Rptr. 3d 834, Plaintiff Borrower refinanced his home, using the equity to acquire 2 loans from Wells Fargo. A few years later, borrower experienced financial problems, and sought to refinance. He asked the bank to renegotiate the loan.

Borrower sent in an application, to which Wells Fargo responded, without specifically addressing the modification question. Plaintiff understood the response to mean that Wells Fargo would not foreclose. Eventually, Wells Fargo sold the loan to a secondary lender, who foreclosed.

The California Supreme Court framed the basic question as follows:

“In this case, we address the issue dividing the lower courts: Does a lender owe the borrower a tort duty sounding in general negligence principles to (in plaintiff’s words) “process, review and respond carefully and completely to [a borrower’s] loan  modification application,” such that upon a breach of this duty the lender may be liable for the borrower’s economic losses — i.e., pecuniary losses unaccompanied by property damage or personal injury? (See, e.g., Southern California Gas Leak Cases (2019) 7 Cal.5th 391, 398, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 632, 441 P.3d 881 (Gas Leak Cases).) We conclude that there is no such duty, and thus Wells Fargo’s demurrer to plaintiff’s negligence claim was properly sustained.” 12 Cal.5th at 915.

The California Supreme Court, by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, pointed out that there was no contract to renegotiate, and thus no breach of contract. Wells Fargo had no duty, either under contract  or under common law, to grant the loan modification. Because there was no duty, failure to modify the loan meant that there was no negligence.

Furthermore, the Court held that plaintiff could only recover “economic damages,” i.e., no pain and suffering. Because there was no breach of a common law duty, Plaintiff’s damages would appear limited to the value of the home at the time of foreclosure.

The California Supreme Court did suggest that other causes of action, such as promissory estoppel or negligent misrepresentation, might proceed past demurrer, given sufficient allegations. But those causes of action were not part of Sheen’s complaint. 12 Cal.5th at 916.

Plaintiffs might consider looking to federal law, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”), or the Truth in Lending laws, for greater protection with a national bank. Of course, the facts alleged must be adequate for such a complaint, which could also include state law claims. See, for example, 15 USC Sec. 1691; Taylor v. Accredited Home Lenders, Inc., 580 F.Supp.2d 1062, (D.C.S.D.CA, 2008) [each monthly mortgage payment constituted a continuing violation of Plaintiff’s rights under ECOA]; Schlegel v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 720 F.3d 1204 (2013) [ECOA applies to mortgage loans]; Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Examiner’s Handbook: Fair Lending, (2010); Schwemm & Taren, “Discretionary Pricing, Mortgage Discrimination, and the Fair Housing Act,” 45 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 375, 417 (2010); Peterson, “Predatory Structured Finance,” 28 Cardozo Law Review 2185; Totten, “The Enforcers and the Great Recession,” 36 Cardozo Law Review 1611 (2015).

STUDENT DEBT PROGRAM: Where’s the Relief?

STUDENT DEBT PROGRAM: Where’s the Relief?

​On August 24, 2022, President Joe Biden announced a proposed plan, through the Department of Education, to forgive a portion of student loan debt owed by millions of Americans. The plan proposed to allow cancellation of up to $10,000 for certain loan recipients, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. This forgiveness would be given only to holders of federal loans, and would not guarantee full cancellation of all debt owed by every borrower, such as those who owe more than $20,000 in Pell grants. The program also does not apply to those whose loans come from private lenders, such as Sallie Mae.  
As of this writing, over 26 million borrowers have applied for relief, and the Biden Administration has approved certain applicants for relief. But no loan relief has been granted.
No relief has been granted because several Republican Attorneys General, from Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, and South Carolina, sued to stop the program (Eastern District of Missouri, Case No. 4:22CV1040, filed 9/29/2022). Briefly, the States claimed that the loan relief would harm them financially, based on lost loan repayments (the States apparently did not discuss how they might benefit from increased tax payments if the borrowers were not tied to low-wage jobs to make their current payments; nor did the States discuss how much more money they would receive through the federal infrastructure bill).
Eastern District of Missouri Judge Autrey threw the case out, based on lack of “standing” (i.e., lack of an actual harm that the States had suffered), but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees several Midwestern states, placed this loan relief program on hold, pursuant to an injunction. State of Missouri, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, etc., et al., Case No. 22-3179, published 11/14/22
Unfortunately, the 8th Circuit’s logic, particularly on the issue of immediate, actual harm (“standing”) appears disingenuous, and suggests a political motive behind the decision. For example, the 8th Circuit ruled that the state of Missouri has standing, because a loan fund created by the state of Missouri would potentially lose money if some of the loans granted through that fund were reduced or forgiven. That no relief has yet been granted means that no funds have yet been lost. And thus the state of Missouri has no standing. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) 504 US 555, 575-578 [opinion of Scalia, J].
Even more worrisome is the court’s assertion that because a federal decision causes a state to lose money, the state can sue to stop that program. Taken to its logical extreme, if the federal government decides from year to year to spend less money on highway repair for roads in Ohio than in Kansas, Ohio can sue and stop the program. Or if, year to year, the federal government decides to grant more funds for cancer research to universities in Minnesota than in California, California can sue to stop the program. This is the sort of chaos that Scalia warned against; the courts would assume day to day authority over the acts of a co-equal branch of government. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) 504 US at 577.
In other words, the 8th Circuit Court’s reasoning leads to chaos, and no federal spending program could ever be approved, because by definition, some agency, state, or individual will receive less money than another.
Additionally, how these States might benefit eventually from the improved financial health of borrowers apparently played no role in the 8th Circuit’s decision.
The Biden Administration has asked the US Supreme Court to intervene and overturn the 8th Circuit. (SCOTUS Blog, 11/18/2022) However, given the Court’s extreme conservative nature, as well as its willingness to disregard long-established precedent, a favorable ruling is not assured.

HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION: California Increases Protection

HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION: California Increases Protection

As of January 2021, California’s Homestead Exemption increases from a minimum of $300,000, to a maximum of $600,000. This means that many more homeowners in liquidation, Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings can keep their homes.
The California Civil Code will be amended as follows:
Sec. 704.730. (a) The amount of the homestead exemption is the greater of the following:
(1) The countywide median sale price for a single-family home in the calendar year prior to the calendar year in which the judgment debtor claims the exemption, not to exceed six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000).
(2) Three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000).
(b) The amounts specified in this section shall adjust annually for inflation, beginning on January 1, 2022, based on the change in the annual California Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers for the prior fiscal year, published by the Department of Industrial Relations.
The statute does not say whether this will apply in bankruptcy as the “automatic homestead,” or whether the debtor must file a Declaration of Homestead. Based thereon, the debtor should strongly consider filing the Declaration with the County Recorder.

SCOTUS: Violating Bankruptcy Discharge Serves Up Creditor for Contempt

SCOTUS: Violating Bankruptcy Discharge Serves Up Creditor for Contempt

The primary purpose of the bankruptcy stay [11 USC Sec. 362] is to protect the debtor. (In re Fuel Oil Supply and Terminaling, Inc., 30 BR 360, 362 (Bankr.N.D.Tex.1983), cited in In re Globe Investment & Loan Co., Inc., 867 F.2d 556 (1989)). By stopping all collection actions against the debtor, the bankruptcy stay acts 1) as an injunction to preserve the estate, and 2) to prevent the creditors from trying to go around the bankruptcy process to collect.
Once the debtor receive the discharge (11 USC Sec. 727), creditors are no longer able to collect the discharged debts. A creditor who, despite the discharge, seeks to collect a pre-bankruptcy debt, runs the risk of a contempt citation and punishment by the federal court.
And so it was held recently by the US Supreme Court which held that a business dispute with the debtor, that had begun prior to the debtor’s filing for bankruptcy, was discharged by the bankruptcy, and no further collection activity would be allowed.
Writing for a unanimous US Supreme Court, Associate Justice Breyer opined that the business creditors, who had initiated the lawsuit against the debtor (Mr. Taggart) had no reasonable basis to believe that the bankruptcy stay, and the subsequent discharge would not act to bar the continued litigation against the debtor. The debt was considered wiped away, and the creditors actions, seen objectively, were not only impermissible, but gave rise to contempt sanctions:
“Under the fair ground of doubt standard, civil contempt therefore may be appropriate when the creditor violates a discharge order based on an objectively unreasonable understanding of the discharge order or the statutes that govern its scope.”
Taggart v. Lorenzen, ___ U.S. ___, 139 S.Ct. 1795, 1801, 204 L.Ed.2d 129 (2019).
The facts showed that the creditors had a working knowledge of the effects of bankruptcy law, and objectively should have realized that the pre-bankruptcy debt was no longer collectible. Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the matter back to the 9th Circuit, to impose appropriate sanctions:
“We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in applying a subjective standard for civil contempt. Based on the traditional principles that govern civil contempt, the proper standard is an objective one. A court may hold a creditor in civil contempt for violating a discharge order where there is not a “fair ground of doubt” as to whether the creditor’s conduct might be lawful under the discharge order.”
The Takeaway: Creditors Who Know that a Debtor has Filed for Bankruptcy Should Take No Action Against the Discharged Debtor, without First Having a Very Detailed, Careful Conversation with an Attorney, Lest Those Creditors End Up Held in Contempt!!

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