“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.

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