Leases Can be Assigned in Bankruptcy Court, No Matter What the Lease Says

If you’re a smart commercial landlord (or you have smart drafting counsel), you’ll include a provision in your commercial lease agreement that prohibits transfers or assignments of the lease without the landlord’s consent.

The reasoning is obvious: Not all tenants are created equal, and it should be the landlord who gets to pick the tenants, not the tenants.

Despite an otherwise valid “anti-assignment” provision in a lease, a lease can be assigned by a bankruptcy debtor-in-possession or trustee under the Bankruptcy Code.

Specifically, 11 U.S.C. § 365(f) provides that:

(1) Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c) of this section, notwithstanding a provision in an executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor, or in applicable law, that prohibits, restricts, or conditions the assignment of such contract or lease, the trustee may assign such contract or lease under paragraph (2) of this subsection.

(2) The trustee may assign an executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor only if–

(A) the trustee assumes such contract or lease in accordance with the provisions of this section; and

(B) adequate assurance of future performance by the assignee of such contract or lease is provided, whether or not there has been a default in such contract or lease.

This will most likely come up in an Section 363 sale of the assets of the debtor, where a buyer gets the assets, along with certain court ordered benefits and protections (this subsection included).

No matter how well crafted certain documents are (whether it’s a note, deed of trust, or lease), there are certain situations in which a Bankruptcy Court will pre-empt state law. This is one of them.

 

Holding a Car Pursuant to a Mechanic’s Lien Doesn’t Violate the Automatic Stay

Generally, if you’re a creditor and you have possession of a bankrupt debtor’s possessions, you have to give it back when they file bankruptcy. But not always.

Today, I’m talking about mechanic’s liens.

As you’ll remember in Tennessee, Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-19-101 allows a mechanic to assert a lien for repairs performed on a vehicle, and, in order to preserve the super-priority perfection in the vehicle, the mechanic has to retain actual, physical possession of the car.

But, what about when the customer files bankruptcy, and the demand to turnover the vehicle comes from a Bankruptcy Attorney, alleging a violation of the automatic stay?

Bankruptcy Courts say that the mechanic can still hold on to the car.

Certain actions are excepted from the automatic stay, including “any act to perfect, or to maintain or continue the perfection of an interest in property to the extent that the trustee’s rights and powers are subject to such perfection under section 546(b)”  11 U.S.C.A. § 362(b)(3). Section 546(b) limits a trustee’s avoidance powers under 11 U.S.C.A. § 549 with respect to “the maintenance or continuation of perfection of an interest in property … [i]f a law … requires seizure of such property … to accomplish such perfection, or maintenance or continuation of perfection of an interest in property[.]” 11 U.S.C.A. § 546(b). Statutory liens such as mechanics liens fall within the scope of this exception.

That’s a lot of legal citations, so here’s the take away: if the repairman holds a statutory mechanics lien upon the vehicle for the repairs done, then the retention of the vehicle–even after the Bankruptcy Case is filed–does not violate the automatic stay.

In that case, the Debtor must either propose to pay the lien, fight it,  or give up the car. Good news for mechanics.

Auto Masters files Large Bankruptcy Case in Middle District

Bankruptcy filings are down in the Middle District of Tennessee Bankruptcy Courts. In the busy years, this district could expect anywhere from 13,000 to 15,000 cases to be filed annually under Chapter 7, 11, and 13. So far for 2017, only 7,000 cases have been filed. It’s a slow time for Bankruptcy, both because the economy in middle Tennessee continues to hum along strong–and because most people who were going to file Bankruptcy did over the last 4-5 years.

Our case filings got a big boost last night, as local car dealer and financier, Auto Masters, LLC,  filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, along with 7 of their related entities.  This includes: Auto Masters of Franklin, LLC; Auto Masters of Clarksville, LLC; Auto Masters of Hermitage, LLC; Auto Masters of Madison, LLC; Auto Masters of Nashville, LLC; Auto Masters of Smyrna, LLC; and Auto Masters of West Nashville, LLC.

This is one of the largest debtor cases filed this year, and it’s no surprise to see the debtor is represented by Griffin Dunham, of Dunham Hildebrand, PLLC, one of Nashville’s more sophisticated (and litigious) debtor/creditor attorneys.

These filings closely follow the filing of a receivership lawsuit filed on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, by Capital One, NA, alleging default and requesting court review of Auto Masters’ business operations.

Expect a flurry of activity on these cases, since this case involves so many financial lenders, creditors, and impacted customers. This will be a big one.

 

 

Exceptions to the Automatic Stay Exist to Allow Enforcement of Some Materialmen’s Liens

When a borrower files bankruptcy, a good rule of thumb is that the automatic stay of 11 U.S.C. § 362 applies to stay any and all acts against the borrower or his property related to pre-petition causes of action and debts.

But, 11 U.S.C. § 362(b) provides some exceptions, include the exception found at § 362(b)(3), which provides that the automatic stay does not stay

…any act to perfect, or to maintain or continue the perfection of, an interest in property to the extent that the trustee’s rights and powers are subject to such perfection under section 546(b) of this title or to the extent that such act is accomplished within the period provided under section 547(e)(2)(A) of this title…
This section is most important to creditors who hold some lien interest in the debtor’s property, but the bankruptcy was filed during the time that the creditor was allowed to perfect them (or maintain them).
A Bankruptcy Court  in North Carolina recently issued an opinion that clearly shows how this exception should apply in Branch Banking & Trust Co. v. Construction Supervision Services, Inc. (In re Construction Supervision Services, Inc).
In that case, a subcontractor held valid but unperfected materialman’s lien rights on a property, which remained valid and enforceable, but for the bankruptcy filing. Because of the 362(b)(3) exception (i.e. the rights were valid and timely, except for the fact that a bankruptcy was filed), the contractor was able to assert those rights post-petition.
Again, the general rule is that a bankruptcy operates to stay all activity, but there are exceptions.

Multiple Bankruptcy Filings: Debtors are Ineligible for New Discharges for 8 Years Between Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Cases

How quickly can an individual who has received a Chapter 7 discharge obtain a new Chapter 7 discharge?

The answer is in 11 U.S.C.A. § 727(a)(8), which provides that the Bankruptcy Court shall grant a discharge, unless:

(8) the debtor has been granted a discharge under this section, under section 1141 of this title, or under section 14, 371, or 476 of the Bankruptcy Act, in a case commenced within 8 years before the date of the filing of the petition;

So, the quick answer is that you count out 8 years from the date that the individual filed the first case in which he or she received a Discharge. Note: You don’t count the 8 years from the last discharge, but, instead, from the date that the earlier case was filed.

This is why you see what some people refer to as “Chapter 20” bankruptcy cases, in which a debtor receives a discharge in Chapter 7 and then immediately (or soon thereafter) files a subsequent Chapter 13 case. The debtor doesn’t get a discharge in the Chapter 13, but can get the other benefits of Chapter 13, like stretching out the amortization of a debt that was reaffirmed in Chapter 7 or obtaining a stay from collection on liens or reaffirmed debts.

This is a change from earlier law, which set the time period between discharges using a 6 year period.

 

Another side issue to consider: under 11 U.S.C.A. § 1328(f)(1), the debtor in a subsequent Chapter 13 will not receive a discharge in that Chapter 13 if he or she received a discharge under 7 or 11 in a case filed under 7 or 11 during the 4 year period preceding the Chapter 13 filing.

If a Debt Isn’t Scheduled in a Chapter 7, Is it Discharged? (Probably)

Growing up, my dad liked the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make noise?” (Actually, he used the alternate version, involving a bear, bear excrement, and the resulting odors).

But, let’s get back to creditor rights talk: “If a Debt isn’t Scheduled in a Chapter 7, Is it Discharged?

I get this question all the time, from a creditor who–for whatever reason–isn’t listed as a creditor in the Bankruptcy Schedules and who may not get notice of the Bankruptcy Case.

The general thought is, if you want to discharge the debt, you have to list and send notice that creditor. This comes from 11 U.S.C. § 523 (a)(3), which says that all debts are discharged under § 727, unless those debts that are:

“…neither listed nor scheduled under section 521(a)(1) of this title, with the name, if known to the debtor, of the creditor to whom such debt is owed, in time to permit–

(A) if such debt is not of a kind specified in paragraph (2), (4), or (6) of this subsection, timely filing of a proof of claim, unless such creditor had notice or actual knowledge of the case in time for such timely filing; or

(B) if such debt is of a kind specified in paragraph (2), (4), or (6) of this subsection, timely filing of a proof of claim and timely request for a determination of dischargeability of such debt under one of such paragraphs, unless such creditor had notice or actual knowledge of the case in time for such timely filing and request…”

Based on the text above, it’s pretty clear, right?

Well, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has very convincingly ruled otherwise, in In re Madaj, 149 F.3d 467 (6th Cir. 1998). In that case, the debtor intentionally hid the bankruptcy from the creditors (who, coincidentally, were his foster parents). They weren’t listed, weren’t warned, and, in fact, the debtors actively kept the case a secret from mom and dad.

But, nevertheless, the Bankruptcy Court noted that the case was a no-asset case, meaning no Proof of Claim deadline was ever set, such that the § 523 (a)(3) timelines and deadlines were never implicated. The Court said that, because no claim deadline was ever set in this no asset case, then it didn’t matter when the creditors learned of the Bankruptcy Case: the instant they learned about the Bankruptcy, the debt was discharged.

“Their learning of the bankruptcy after the entry of the discharge order did not transmogrify the debt into one that is excepted from discharge under some provision of the Code other than § 523(a)(3)(A).”

Once upon a time, when a creditor wasn’t listed, the debtor would file a Motion to reopen the closed bankruptcy case and then amend their Schedule F to include the debt. The Court expressly rejected that practice. Instead of imposing administrative hassle on the Clerks and counsel, the Court found that such debts–listed or unlisted–are discharged. In a no asset case, “the fact that the debts were not listed becomes irrelevant.”

So, in these situations, that sound you hear is the debt getting discharged.

Presenting for NACM on Buying and Selling Claims in Bankruptcy

If you’ve ever been a creditor in a large Bankruptcy Case, you’ve probably received some calls or letters, offering to buy your Bankruptcy Proof of Claim from you. Sounds like a great deal, right? Somebody is going to pay you money for a bad debt. What can go wrong?

On Friday, July 17, 2015, I am presenting an education session on “The Value of Selling Claims in Bankruptcy” for National Association of Credit Management. This is part of their National Communications Credit Group Annual Meeting, taking place in Nashville this year.

In my presentation, I’ll be talking about the issues surrounding claim buying and selling, and also all the reasons why somebody would want to pay you for a bankruptcy claim.

But, if you’re not attending, don’t worry. After the seminar, I’ll be posting some of the highlights from my materials.