Res Judicata Part 2: What about Bankruptcy Court?

Remember a few months ago, when I talked about the concept of res judicata in Tennessee and how, in some situations, a smart plaintiff will include all relevant causes of action in its initial action? That way, the plaintiff may be able to avoid re-litigating similar issues later.

In that post, I noted that it can be a critical issue in bankruptcy cases, where a state court judgment for fraud can potentially fast-track a non-dischargeability finding under 11 U.S.C. Sec. 523.

Specifically, to do that, the plaintiff needs to plead specific facts and causes of action that would satisfy the elements of 11 U.S.C. Sec. 523 (but in the state court proceeding). In order to convince the bankruptcy courts, however, to apply issue preclusion, the plaintiff generally also has to actually litigate the matter, i.e. the judgment can’t have been based on a default judgment.

As a quick recap, here’s the typical checklist that a bankruptcy court may consider. Were the issues in the prior proceeding:

  • identical with those in the subsequent proceeding;
  • actually litigated;
  • necessarily decided in a final judgment on the merits; and
  • asserted against the same party or someone in privity.

The question that comes up, then, is whether a default judgment has issue preclusive effect? As you can guess from the above, in most cases, a default judgment (i.e. one that is entered solely because the defendant doesn’t respond) is not deemed to be “actually litigated.”

But, two pending cases from August 2019 suggest that courts are looking at these issues.

They are: Creech v. Viruet (In re Creech), 18-12584 (11th Cir. Aug. 7, 2019) (full copy here); the Draka v. Andrea (In re Andrea), 18-96014 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 6, 2019) (full copy here).

These are really interesting cases, and they are worth a reivew, if only to see the heightened standards that a bankruptcy court will apply in 523 actions. Which, by itself, is the primary reason so many creditors want courts to grant issue preclusive effect to default judgments.

In the end, it’s a short-circuit to avoid the relief that the Bankruptcy Code provides to debtors, so it’s a disfavored move. I’d be surprised if a default judgment will satisfy that burden.

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

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 poop, 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?

The general thought is, if you want to discharge the debt, you have to list and send notice that creditor. Most Debtor Bankruptcy attorneys err on the side of listing any and everybody: paid debts, unpaid debts, potential debts, everything.

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? If it’s not listed, it’s not discharged, 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. Subpart (A) above never came into play, because no Proof of Claim was ever set. Heck, the Court reasoned, the creditor could file a Claim today and still be technically “timely.”

“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.