Do-It-Yourself Creditors: Beware of the Claim Redaction Requirements in Bankruptcy Court

After many years of Tennessee Bankruptcy Court practice, I notice trends in litigation. Years ago, there was a flurry of attacks on Deeds of Trust for invalid notaries. Then came the debtors objecting to the documentation filed on “big mortgage lender” mortgage claims.

Right now, the hot issue is adversary proceedings (i.e. bankruptcy lawsuits)  against creditors for failure to redact personal information when they file Proofs of Claim.

When you file a Proof of Claim in Bankruptcy Court, you are obliged to comply with Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9037, which provides in part

…in an electronic or paper filing made with the court that contains an individual’s social-security number, taxpayer-identification number, or birth date, the name of an individual, other than the debtor, known to be and identified as a minor, or a financial-account number, a party or nonparty making the filing may include only:

(1) the last four digits of the social-security number and taxpayer-identification number;

(2) the year of the individual’s birth;

(3) the minor’s initials; and

(4) the last four digits of the financial-account numb

To clarify, “redaction” means that you must cross-out or otherwise remove the information, other than the information expressly allowed above. To keep it simple, I keep a Sharpie pen at my desk and mark up any loan/account documents I file as exhibits to my claims.

Now, debtors are watching all claims filed and, where a claim contains prohibited information, the debtor files a Motion to Redact and that motion seeks also sanctions against the offending creditor. Recovery can include damages, costs of future credit monitoring, and attorney fees.

I know what you’re thinking: your borrower filed bankruptcy on your debt; you’re never going to get paid; you went to the trouble of filing a claim on a debt you’re never going to get paid on; and, now, they can sue you if you do it wrong?

Yes, they can.

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My Thoughts on “What To Do When a Creditor Knocks” from the Wall Street Journal

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal ran a article on how to respond to bill collection efforts, called “When Bill Collectors Knock.”  The article mixes good advice with a little bad advice. Here’s my bounce.

Good advice:

Take the call. It is virtually impossible to resolve a problem without addressing it head on. The best way for borrowers to handle a debt they can’t pay is to talk with the lender as soon as possible. Then they should work out a plan to keep the debt current with a smaller payment or to seek a temporary delay until they can pay something.

This is good advice. I talked about the importance of communicating with creditors in an earlier post. The worst thing a debtor can do is be silent, as that invites collection.

Unrealistic advice:

Keep detailed records. Staying on top of debt can be tough. But keeping records and careful notes can pay benefits if borrowers are sued.

I agree that it helps to keep payment records and copies of old invoices, but how realistic is that, particularly with debts that are years old?

But this is better:

Know the rules. Every state puts a limit on how long a creditor is able to pursue borrowers in court.

Your best focus, however, could be records showing your past payment. In Tennessee, the statute of limitations on debt collections is six years from the date of default. If you can provide that it’s been more than 6 years since your default, you may be able to obtain a dismissal of any action.

Bad advice:

Negotiate. Because debt is bought at a discount, collectors should be willing to bargain, perhaps accepting just a fraction of what is owed. If borrowers can come up with the money, they should be able to negotiate a settlement of 50 cents to 65 cents for each dollar owed…

Earlier, the article suggests that most unpaid debt collectors are collecting debts that they paid a mere four cents on the dollar for. So, the article suggests, you should haggle for payments in the range of 50 cents on the dollar.

While this may be true for some debts, in my experience, it’s not as common as the anecdotal stories suggest. The creditors I represent don’t buy debt and so any talk of ten cents on the dollar is a waste of time. Plus, even if a creditor has paid a small amount for a debt, that doesn’t mean that they will accept a small amount to settle, especially if the creditor perceives the debt can be collected in full.

Don’t get me wrong. I always say “Money Talks,” but if you’re making a low ball offer, you have to back it up with proof that your offer is the best you can do, and that requires proof of a debtor’s finances, other debts, etc.

My take-away this this: Over-communicate; Confirm that the debt isn’t over 6 years old (in Tennessee); and Money Talks (or, at least, proof of that the money you’re offering is the most the creditor will otherwise get).

What I Don’t Like About the New Post-Judgment Interest Rate Statute in Tennessee (Everything)

I am pretty sure that somewhere in the volumes of Creditors Rights 101, I’ve written about the new statute changing the interest rate to be charged on judgments, which went into effect on July 1, 2012. I can’t find it, so here’s a quick primer.

Once upon a time, interest on judgments was simply 10% (here’s a copy of the old statute). The beauty of the old statute was three-fold. One, it was easy math to compute 10% interest. Two, it was a fixed rate and it never changed, making long-term calculations easier. Three, ten percent is a creditor “friendly” rate, so Defendants were motivated to pay off the Judgment or refinance it.

The new statute is Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121.  This statute not only lowers the post-judgment statutory interest rate, but it throws simplicity out the window.

Here’s the relevant text:

…the interest rate on judgments per annum in all courts, including decrees, shall:

(1) For any judgment entered between July 1 and December 31, be equal to two percent (2%) less than the formula rate per annum published by the commissioner of financial institutions, as required by § 47-14-105, for June of the same year; or
(2) For any judgment entered between January 1 and June 30, be equal to two percent (2%) less than the formula rate per annum published by the commissioner of financial institutions, as required by § 47-14-105, for December of the prior year.
Do you see what I mean about the lack of simplicity?Looking at that, can you tell me what the interest rate is?
The legislature must have known that they were going to completely confuse people, because the statute contains a sub-part at Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121 (b) designed to make the math easier:

(b) To assist parties and the courts in determining and applying the interest rate on judgments set forth in subsection (a) for the six-month period in which a judgment is entered, before or at the beginning of each six-month period the administrative office of the courts:

(1) Shall calculate the interest rate on judgments that shall apply for the new six-month period pursuant to subsection (a);
(2) Shall publish that rate on the administrative office of the courts’ website; and
(3) Shall maintain and publish on that website the judgment interest rates for each prior six-month period going back to the rate in effect for the six-month period beginning July 1, 2012.

 

So, rather than requiring parties to do their own math, the administrative office of the courts will do the math for you and will post the the current (and historical) statutory interest rates to its website. That page of the website can be found here. As of today, the rate is 5.25%.

There’s an “opt-out” in the statute, if the “judgment where a judgment is based on a statute, note, contract, or other writing that fixes a rate of interest within the limits provided in § 47-14-103 for particular categories of creditors, lenders or transactions, the judgment shall bear interest at the rate so fixed.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121 (c).
Here are my concerns:
  • The math got a lot more difficult. Instead of the nice, round 10%, we’re now using a variable rate of 5.25% (as of today).
  • There appears to be an obligation to research and modify the rate every six months. Payoffs just got a lot more difficult.
  • By lowering the rate to a very Defendant friendly 5.25%, the legislature removed some incentive to pay off judgments. Frankly, I wonder if you can get a rate better than 5.25% from your bank. I’d rather pay off VISA at 24% than a judgment creditor.
  • Creditors with oppressively high contract rates will now be motivated to stick with those high rates (24%), rather than cut the Defendant a break and let it default to the statutory rate.
My strategy in response will be to always plead my contract rate of interest in my Complaint and ask that the contract (or default) rate be awarded in my Judgment. Invariably, that rate is going to be higher than 5.25%, and that rate will not require modifications every six months.
A final note, keep in mind that the legislature did not modify Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-123, which sets the pre-judgment rate of interest at 10%.