“STAYING” AWAY FROM CONTEMPT SANCTIONS
Suppose you find yourself in this situation. You’ve been involved in litigation for months against a party you believe defrauded you out of thousands of dollars. After protracted legal proceedings, your judge finally sets a trial date. You are finally going to have your day in court against this person.
But shortly before you go to trial, you receive a tip that your defendant has filed for bankruptcy. And not only that, but you also find out that this person filed for bankruptcy a couple of years ago, in the middle of your case, and did not tell you or your judge. And not only that, but you also find out that the person received a discharge (cancellation of all pre-bankruptcy unsecured debt), and that the trustee determined that the person had no assets. The bankruptcy case is CLOSED.
No problem. You think that, because you have a trial date, all you have to do is go before your state court judge and plead your case for fraud. Surely, your state court judge can grant you relief, and force this fraudulent, thieving defendant to pay you your damages.
What could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, a lot.
Because the case has closed, there is no more “automatic stay” of 11 USC Sec. 362. There is, however, a “discharge injunction” 11 USC Sec. 524(a), which means that creditors are barred from attempting to collect discharged debts.
Furthermore, the Bankruptcy Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the question of whether these discharged debts are related to fraud. 11 USC Sec. 524 (a)(2), (4) & (6); Grogan v. Garner, 498 U.S. 279, 284 n. 10, 111 S.Ct. 654, 112 L.Ed.2d 755 (1991); Aldrich v. Imbrogno (In re Aldrich), 34 B.R. 776, 779 (9th Cir. B.A.P.1983), cited in Ackerman v. Eber (In re Eber) 687 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir. 2012).
Based on these authorities, you will likely seek to file a dischargeability complaint under 11 USC Sec. 524 (a)(2), (4) or (6), in the Bankruptcy Court; or an action to revoke the discharge under 11 USC Sec. 727 (d), for example, if there are multiple false statements or multiple examples of deception in the defendant/debtor’s bankruptcy papers, such that it appears that the discharge itself was obtained through fraud.
Additionally, the US Supreme Court has ruled that if the Plaintiff or Plaintiff’s attorney is well-versed in bankruptcy law, the failure to observe the discharge injunction (in this case, failure to seek a ruling on fraud in the bankruptcy court) is considered much more knowing and culpable. Taggart v. Lorenzen, 139 S. Ct. 1795 (2019) [Slip Opinion, p. 7]. In other words, to paraphrase a line from Michael Mann’s film, The Insider, “The more you know, the worse (the contempt sanction) gets.”
The point is that you want your client to have the maximum ability to seek a ruling on the defendant’s alleged fraud in State Court. This, however, must await a ruling from the Bankruptcy Court in this regard, and any attempt to circumvent the Bankruptcy Court could easily backfire and be very costly.
Dischargeability, Criminal Behavior, & FTX Trading, Ltd.
A debtor in bankruptcy, whether individual, joint, or corporate, is/are looking to end his/her/its responsibility for pre-petition, unsecured debts. Those are debts that have no collateral. 11 USC Sec. 727, 1228 & 1328.
In bankruptcy parlance, the concept of ending a debt is a “discharge.” However, not all unsecured debts are “dischargeable.”
In other words, a discharge is not a discharge when the US Code says, “No.”
For example, the “discharge” and “dischargeability” will be front and center in the FTX Trading Ltd. bankruptcy proceedings in Delaware, Case No. 22-11068-JTD, in which the former CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, will be a focus, not only as the brains behind the operation (he went to MIT), but also for his alleged criminal activity. There will likely be allegations that FTX itself was connected to Bankman-Fried’s alleged crimes.
The basic concepts of the discharge are described as follows:
The court’s determination that the debtor no longer owes the debt. The official cancellation or termination of the debt. In re Ybarra, 424 F.3d 1018, 1022 (9th Cir. 2005); see, US Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey, “Glossary of Terms.”
The eligibility for the debt to be discharged. Typically, these consist of credit cards, hospital bills, and other unsecured promises to pay debts, which are considered dischargeable, with some notable exceptions. 11 U.S.C. §§ 727(b), 523(a).
There are certain categories of debts which cannot be discharged. That is because the debts are incurred for the benefit of another person, or are the result of other court proceedings, such as a verdict of fraud, certain criminal convictions, or other indications of fraudulent conduct. For example, debts which are attributed to fraudulent or malicious criminal conduct are not dischargeable. 11 U.S.C. §727(a), (b), and e.g., §523(a)(4) [fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny], (6) [willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity], (19), (20); In re Zelis, 66 F.3d 205, 209 (1995).
Additionally, for individuals, spousal support and child support are not dischargeable, for obvious reasons. The bankruptcy court does not want to end the parental or spousal support duties of the debtor. 11 USC Sec. 523 (a)(5).
As to FTX, Bankman-Fried was initially arrested in Nassau by the Royal Bahamas Police, and charged with wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering, and other crimes. He was released on a $250 MM bond, and extradited to the United States. Additional criminal charges were levied against him in the US. CNN, “FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried indicted on new criminal charges, including campaign finance violations,” February 23, 2023.
Consequently, the “exceptions to discharge” will be especially important in the FTX bankruptcy. For example, it seems likely that the US Government or multiple creditors will challenge the dischargeability of some or all of FTX’s debts through dischargeability complaints, based on 11 U.S.C. Sec. 727(a), (b), and the exceptions to discharge stated in 11 USC Sec. 523(a)(4), (6), (19), (20). In re Albert-Sheridan, 960 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2020). The government and creditors will likely contend that FTX seeks a discharge connected to fraudulent or bad-faith criminal conduct.
The FTX bankruptcy, because the sum of money involved, (over $8 billion), will garner a lot of attention. Additionally, it should also generate opportunities for the Bankruptcy Court and the Court of Appeal to further explain how alleged criminal conduct will deny a discharge to an individual or corporate debtor.
Although it is not alone in its financial woes, the bankruptcy filing of cryptocurrency giant FTX Trading, Ltd., has probably gotten the most attention of the cryptocurrency firms that are in deep financial distress (“the Crypto Winter”).
This article discusses the basic structure of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, as well as some interesting questions that will arise in the administration of this case. This article is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, nor an exhaustive recitation of everything that is going to happen in this FTX proceeding. There are likely to be many twists and turns, in bankruptcy court as well as criminal court.
FTX was founded in 2019 by Sam Bankman-Fried, who earlier founded a firm called Alameda Research. FTX was described in its Forbes magazine profile as follows:
One of the largest crypto trading exchanges in the world, it handles some 11% of the $2.4 trillion in derivatives traded each month. (It) raised $1.5 billion in private funding last year (2022), jolting its valuation from $1.2 billion to $25 billion.
However, as its obligations grew, and the cryptocurrency market began to contract, contracted, Bankman-Fried continue to live a lavish lifestyle, and FTX continued to recruit celebrity evangelists. Unfortunately, it appeared to more and more observers that FTX was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme. Fortune, December 3, 2022; The Guardian, December 17, 2022.
On November 11, 2011, FTX filed for bankruptcy protection in Delaware. Meanwhile, Bahamian authorities sought to exercise jurisdiction on that island and in New York. The Bahamian and US authorities have now agreed to have the case heard in the Delaware District of the United States Bankruptcy Court. FTX Trading Ltd., Case No. 22-11068 (JTD)
Additionally, in December 2022, Mr. Bankman-Fried was arrested in Nassau by the Royal Bahamas Police Force, and charged with wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering, and other crimes. He was released on a $250 MM bond, and extradited to the United States.
One commentator compared Bankman-Fried to Bernie Madoff. Financial Historian Diana Henriques, quoted in The Guardian, 12/17/2022.
In late February 2023, a superseding indictment in the US charged Bankman-Fried with bank fraud, operating an unlicensed money transmitter, modified campaign-finance law violations, and conspiracy to make unlawful political contributions. Coindesk, February 23, 2023.
FTX and its founder face significant legal jeopardy.
Now back to bankruptcy. A chapter 11 bankruptcy differs from a chapter 7 business liquidation, in the sense that the Chapter 11 debtor is not going out of business. It is reorganizing its debts. For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers General Motors, and Delta Airlines, all went through Chapter 11, to reorganize their debts.
The purpose of the chapter 11 bankruptcy is to allow the management of the debtor company to continue to manage and operate the company, pursuant to strict supervision by the United States Trustee. Quarterly reports are generated to show revenue and expenses. The goal is to maximize assets available for the plan of reorganization. The company, now known as a “debtor in possession,” is not allowed to waste, or misuse assets.
Eventually, the company will propose a plan of reorganization to its creditors, the largest of which organize themselves into a creditor’s committee. The creditors committee and the debtor in possession will haggle over the details of the plan, for example, to cut the debt by 20-, 30-, or 40%, or to stretch the debt out over an additional number of years, or some combination of both debt reduction and new repayment terms. Elizabeth Warren & Jay L. Westbrook, “The Success of Chapter 11: A Challenge to the Critics,” 107 Mich. Law Review 603 (2009).
If the parties cannot agree on a plan of reorganization, then the court has to decide whether it will force the debtor in possession and creditors to come up with another plan, or whether it will cram the debtor plan down the throat of the creditors (known as a “cram down hearing”).
Additionally, the Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession, with certain important exceptions, is entitled to the cancellation (“discharge”) of certain debts after the plan of reorganization is approved. 11 USC Sec. 1141(d)(1)
The Bankman-Fried criminal charges, however, throw in a different wrinkle: if for example FTX was operating as an alter ego of its founder, and not following all corporate formalities, some creditors may argue that FTX was a fraudulent enterprise, and is not entitled to bankruptcy relief. 11 USC Sec. 523(a)(2)(4) & (a)(4) [debts involving fraud not dischargeable]; 523(a)(6) [debts related to malicious conduct not dischargeable]; 11 USC Sec. 523 (c). Or, in the alternative, certain types of claims may be brought against the company, such as those dealing with fraud, which are not resolved as part of the plan of reorganization. The recent conviction of the Trump Organization on fraud charges in New York City provides an example of a prosecution that could result in a non-dischargeable debt, and could saddle FTX with significant fines and penalties.
In other words, the criminal charges against Bankman-Fried, and the eventual evidence showing the relationship between him and the company, may have a lot to do with what type of relief FTX eventually receives from the bankruptcy court, even assuming a very business friendly Delaware bankruptcy judge.
WARNING: THIS POST DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE!! PLEASE CONSULT AN ATTORNEY!!
In Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) 504 US 555, 575-578, a very conservative jurist, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote the following:
“To permit Congress to convert the undifferentiated public interest in executive officers’ compliance with the law into an “individual right” vindicable in the courts is to permit Congress to transfer from the President to the courts the Chief Executive’s most important constitutional duty, to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” Art. II, § 3. It would enable the courts, with the permission of Congress, “to assume a position of authority over the governmental acts of another and co-equal department,” Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U. S., at 489, and to become” ‘virtually continuing monitors of the wisdom and soundness of Executive action.’ “
This was another way of saying that there are cases in which the court should not get involved, such as those involving the specific statutory actions of a co-equal branch of government (i.e., “non-justiciable” cases).
Consequently, even when Congress passes a law that has a public benefit, it does not automatically grant citizens a “private right of action” to block that law. Any citizen who disliked any law could ask the courts to prevent it from going into effect, which would lead to chaos.
The student loan forgiveness program announced by President Biden is on hold. And it may be an example of what Justice Scalia warned of in Lujan. The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments regarding the loan forgiveness program in a few weeks. (“Supreme Court Agrees to Decide on Biden’s Stalled Student Loan Forgiveness Plan, “Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2022). The arguments against the program, based on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal decision, and another decision in Texas, raise the specter of placing the Supreme Court in the position of deciding on the appropriateness of day to day, or administrative actions by both Congress and the President.
In other words, the current student loan case invites the courts to get involved in non-justiciable cases. Albert, Lee A., “Justiciability and Theories of Judicial Review: A Remote Relationship,” 50 So. Cal. Law Review 1139, 1165-1166 (1977)
Pres. Biden and Education Sec’y Cardona base the program on the 2003 HEROES Act, which authorizes the Secretary to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs” if the Secretary “deems” such waivers or modifications “necessary to ensure” at least one of several enumerated purposes, including that borrowers are “not placed in a worse position financially” because of a national emergency. 20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1), (2)(A).”
The “national emergency” cited by Pres. Biden and Sec’y Cardona was the COVID pandemic, which began in 2020, and is far from over. “Tripledemic Update: RSV, Covid And Flu,” Forbes, December 13, 2022.
In the 8th circuit case, the state of Missouri claimed that it would be harmed by receiving less repayment revenue, should be loan forgiveness program go into effect. State of Nebraska, et al. v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., et al., Case No. Case No. 22-3179.
This reasoning is problematic because: 1) No loans have been forgiven, so no money has been lost; 2) research shows that when borrowers are released from paycheck to paycheck jobs as a result of debt relief, those borrowers find better paying jobs, which would cause them to pay more in taxes to the state (Harvard Business School/Working Knowledge, “Forgiving Student Loan Debt Leads to Better Jobs, Stronger Consumers,” May 22, 2019); 3) the government has several different laws upon which they can rely for student loan relief [e.g., Higher Education Act (“HEA”), beginning at 20 US Code Sec. 1082; the Federal Family Education Loan Program, beginning at 20 USC 1071; the Federal Claims Collection Act, found beginning at 31 USC Sec. 3701, the Direct Loan Program of Title IV of the HEA, and federal regulations, such as 31 CFR 30.70 and 31 CFR 902.1 (a); see Open Letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, September 14, 2020]. For example, the HEA states that the Secretary of Education has the power “enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption.” 20 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(6) p. 3 (emphasis added);
And 4) striking down the program is exactly the type of mischief that Justice Scalia warned against in Lujan, as stated above.
Finally, if the quibble is with the HEROES Act as a basis for the program, shouldn’t the Supreme Court defer to the Executive, based on this undisputed alternative authority? Or, simply require the President to resubmit the program, citing to his alternative statutory authority rather than the HEROES Act, instead of gutting the program?
We may have an answer in June 2023.
THIS POST DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE; PLEASE CONSULT AN ATTORNEY
Where trustee failed to file the adversary proceeding within the time required by law, he could not undo the error by claiming that he had timely filed an adversary complaint in the wrong case. The facts of the InterWorks bankruptcy had nothing to do with the improper file, and thus there was no “relation back” effect based on the late-filed adversary proceeding in the Interworks case. Additionally, the fact that the trustee dismissed the adversary proceedings that he started in the improper case nullified any application of the relation back doctrine; when he dismissed the improper case, there was nothing for the new pleading to “relate back” to.
Furthermore, there was no equitable tolling, so the adversary action was barred. FRCP 15(c)(1)(B); 11 USC 108(a) & 546 (a).
In re Interworks (Chapter 7) CC-22-1027-STL [Unpublished decision of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the 9th Circuit, filed 8/19/2022]