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.

 

Judicial Estoppel Prevents Litigants from Contradicting Themselves

When I’m involved in litigation, I always look for recent cases involving my opposing party, to mine those cases for similar issues, useful facts, and relevant admissions to use in my case.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a recent opinion, at Polly Spann Kershaw v. Jeffrey Levy  (Tenn. Ct. Apps, Mar. 28, 2018, No. M2017-01129-COA-R3-CV), that reminds me that this is a good idea.

In that case, a former client sued her lawyer, alleging that, as a result of his alleged bad advice and malpractice, she entered into an unfair and generally bad divorce settlement after he withdrew from the case.

But, as part of her divorce settlement, she signed a sworn Marital Dissolution Agreement, which included the affirmation that “the Agreement is fair and equitable and that it is being entered into voluntarily…”

In response to the client’s claims that she was forced into an “unfair” divorce settlement, the lawyer filed for summary judgment, citing those sworn statements in the divorce pleadings and arguing, under the concept of “judicial estoppel,” that she can’t change her position.

The Court of Appeals agreed, saying that “[t]he sworn statement is not merely evidence against the litigant, but (unless explained) precludes him from denying its truth. It is not merely an admission but an absolute bar.” Further, judicial estoppel “seeks to ensure that parties do not ‘play fast and loose with the courts’ by contradicting a previous sworn statement or testimony.”

A litigant may have different incentives in front of different courts, and this is certainly useful when an opposing party has filed Bankruptcy or divorce–both settings where it may be beneficial to understate their income or the value of their assets.  I’ve specifically used it where a litigant affirms a debt or lien in Bankruptcy Schedules, which are signed under oath, and then, later in state court, tries to contest my bank’s claims.

All Those Great Recession Judgments May be Expiring Soon

Depending on who you ask, the “Great Recession” resulting from the subprime mortgage crisis began in December 2007 and lasted about two years. So, about ten years ago, I was spending most of my work days working on loan documents for third, fourth, and sometimes fifth mortgages for a local bank who was really, really late to the mortgage boom.

Of course, the impact of this past recession was felt for years afterwards, meaning my spring 2007 HELOCS didn’t go bad until 2010 or 2012. As a result, just a few years later, I was suing and taking judgments against those same borrowers. From 2008 to 2014, I estimate that I obtained at least 500 judgments, ranging in amounts from $2,500 to $5,000,000.

As I like to say, if you were hearing from me, it was bad news.

So, with a drawer full of judgments, this is what keeps me up at night: Those judgments are only valid for ten years, and, if I haven’t collected on them, they expire.

I’m taking about Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110(a)(2), which provides that actions on judgments are only valid for ten years.

So, a good rule of thumb is that, if you received a judgment against someone you haven’t been able to collect in the last ten years, go back and confirm when you were awarded that judgment. If you’re getting close to the ten year mark, you might be running out of time.

(But, not to be too dramatic, I’m going to talk about how to extend that time period soon.)

 

 

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.

Speaking at Landlord-Tenant Law Seminar on April 28, 2011

On April 28, 2011, I’ll be speaking at the 8th Annual Landlord-Tenant Law-With a View from the Bench on Litigation Seminar in Nashville, presented by Sterling Education Services.

I’ll be teaching the afternoon session, on topics covering Collections, Enforcement of Judgment, Dealing with Tenant Bankruptcy, and Legal Ethics in Landlord-Tenant law.

Here’s the full agenda. This seminar gets lawyers continuing legal education credits, but it’s also designed for rental agents, landlords, and other non-lawyers who want to learn the legal process.

How to Get a Chapter 7 Trustee’s Attention: Show Off Your Stuff on TV

In most cases, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Trustees have far more cases than they have time to focus on each case. It’s common that there are 30-40 cases on each 2 hour docket.

But, a sure-fire way to stand out and really get the Trustee’s attention is show off your wealth on reality TV. That’s what one cast member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey did, and, now, in her individual Chapter 7, the Trustee’s scrutiny of her disclosures revealed that the debtor failed to disclose all her assets, which may allow the Trustee to contest the discharge under 11 U.S.C. 727.

A bankruptcy discharge wipes out all debt, but the price to be paid for that benefit is that a debtor must disclose everything–both debts and assets. From a creditor’s perspective, a well-informed Trustee can be the last hope for any recovery.

Things to Consider Before a Bankruptcy Preference Lawsuit

It only takes one lawsuit from a Bankruptcy Trustee to prove that, despite all the talk about fairness and equality, an avoidable preference lawsuit is one of the most unfair creations of the Bankruptcy Code. For those lucky few without first-hand experience, here’s the summary: A bankruptcy trustee may be able to sue creditors to recover payments received within the 90 days preceding the bankruptcy case filing. Lenders who have no collateral for their loans are particularly at risk for such actions.

Faced with account payments from customers who may be on the verge of bankruptcy, make sure to document all payments received during that 90-day period­ and how they were applied. These payment records will be critical to an “ordinary course of business” defense if you are sued. For material suppliers, be sure to advance new funds or sell goods after payment (thus triggering the “new value” defense) or upon cash terms (triggering the “contemporaneous exchange” defense).