Highlights from the Creditors Practice Annual Forum 2018: Stay Relief Violations

Last month, I taught a session at the Tennessee Bar Association’s Creditors Practice Annual Forum 2018.  My section was called “Litigating Stay Violations.”

The CLE was on September 26, 2018, so, sorry, you missed it. But, to get more mileage out of the materials I prepared, I’m going to post some of the info here.

First off, the automatic stay at 11 U.S.C. § 362 operates as a stay of most collection activity against the debtor in bankruptcy.

When the stay is violated, 11 U.S.C. § 362(k) comes into play, which provides in part that “an individual injured by any willful violation of a stay provided by this section shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.”

And, no, a violation doesn’t have to mean that the creditor had bad intent.

Actually, a willful violation of the automatic stay requires only that: (i) the creditor knew of the stay and (ii) acted intentionally in violation of the stay. TranSouth Financial Corp. v. Sharon (In re  Sharon), 234 B.R. 676, 687 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 1999). “[P]roof of a specific intent to violate the stay” is not required, but instead only “an intentional violation by a party aware of the bankruptcy filing.” Id.

Basically, the debtor has to prove that the creditor had notice of the Bankruptcy and took intentional action that violated the stay. Long story short, it’s not a high bar to prove those factors.

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Will an Adversary Proceeding Survive the Dismissal of the Bankruptcy Case? Maybe.

Eight years ago (8 years! You are reading a law blog that has lasted for 8 years!), I talked about the difference between a bankruptcy discharge and a dismissal.

The tl;dr version for creditors? Discharge is bad; dismissal is good.

But, what if you’re a creditor and the debtor has filed an adversary proceeding against you, but then the bankruptcy case is dismissed?

The tl;dr version? It depends.

Generally, the dismissal of the underlying bankruptcy case results in the dismissal of related adversary proceedings because federal jurisdiction is “premised upon the nexus between the underlying bankruptcy case and the related proceedings.” But, there are exceptions.

One such exception is for proceedings to enforce sanctions and contempt for violation of the automatic stay. A Bankruptcy Court will retain jurisdiction “for the purpose of vindicating the court’s own authority and to enforce its own orders.” See In re Bankston, 1:12-BK-14022-SDR, 2015 WL 6126440, at *2 (Bankr. E.D. Tenn. Oct. 15, 2015)

Basically, the reasoning goes, an action for contempt of court resulting from a party’s blatant disregard of the Bankruptcy Code and the authority of the Bankruptcy Court is something that the Bankruptcy Court takes very seriously and will enforce, independent of whether the underlying case still exists.

The reasoning is different for other types of proceedings that are dependent on the underlying case, like actions to recover avoidance preferences.