By Ryan C. Wood
In a Chapter 13 reorganization case there are a number of requirements that a Chapter 13 Plan must meet to be confirmed or approved by the bankruptcy court. Section 1325, Confirmation of Plan, of the Bankruptcy Code provides the requirements that must be met. Section 1325(a)(3) and 1325(a)(7) provide the bankruptcy petition and chapter 13 plan must be proposed in good faith. This issue has been framed as a petition or plan is in bad faith. What you are trying to prove though is lack of “good faith.” Prove that the petition or plan were not filed in good faith. The word bad faith does not appear anywhere. The term “good faith” is not defined by the Bankruptcy Code so case law is all we have to go on.
Good Faith Pursuant to Section 1325 of the Bankruptcy Code
Again, the debtor will argue the petition and plan were filed in good faith. Lack of good faith can be shown by considering: (1) whether the debtor misrepresented facts in his/her petition or plan, unfairly manipulated the Bankruptcy Code, or otherwise filed his/her chapter 13 petition or plan in an inequitable manner; (2) the debtor’s history of filings and dismissals; (3) whether the debtor only intended to defeat state court litigation; and (4) whether egregious behavior is present. See Leavitt v. Soto (In re Leavitt), 171 F.3d 1219, 1224 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Drummond v. Welsh (In re Welsh), 711 F.3d 1120, 1132 (9th Cir. 2013).
Mendez, Appellant v. Harwood, Appellee
In a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel the issue of good faith based upon an objection to confirmation filed by judgment creditor Ronald Mendez. According the court records, Mr. Mendez was a former client of the bankruptcy filer Sterling V. Harwood. Mr. Mendez paid Mr. Harwood a total of $18,000. At some point Mr. Mendez was dissatisfied with Mr. Harwood’s services and requested his money back. Mr. Harwood refused and from prison Mr. Mendez sued Mr. Harwood in Santa Clara Superior Court for breach of contract and fraud. Mr. Harwood did not respond to the lawsuit and a default judgment was entered against him for approximately $26,000. After five months Harwood tried to have the default judgment vacated for improper service of the summons and complaint. The Superior Court of California ruled Harwood’s motion to vacate the default judgment was not timely and that personal service of Harwood was proper. The default judgment stood.
Harwood’s Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Cases
Mr. Harwood filed a skeleton Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition to stop garnishment of his wages to satisfy the state court judgment of Mr. Mendez. A skeleton petition describes the filing of the basic documents to start a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. The rest of the petition must be filed within 14 days or the case will be dismissed. There are almost no successful Chapter 13 reorganizations without the assistance of bankruptcy lawyers. Mr. Harwood’s first case was dismissed.
Harwood’s Second Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Filing
This first case was dismissed for failing to complete the credit counseling course or complete the bankruptcy petition. After retaining a bankruptcy attorney Mr. Harwood filed a second Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. To be fair Mr. Harwood has plenty of reasons to reorganize his debts. In addition to the Mendez judgment for $29,000, Mr. Harwood was behind on this mortgage payments and needs to obtain a loan modification to keep the his home, he is also behind on his property taxes, he has another judgment entered against him in San Mateo Superior Court totaling $5,837.90 owed to another attorney, Donald S. Tasto, Esq. Attorney Tasto unfortunately passed away while Mr. Harwood’s second bankruptcy filing was pending. Mr. Harwood also has $112,219.87 in general unsecured debts. Mr. Harwood listed his income from employment as a professor as $3,336 a month and business income of $25,362 a month in Schedule I (total monthly gross income after deductions is $26,452.84) and monthly expenses of $26,286 in Schedule J. With a gross income of over $26,000 a month there is only $166 to make the Chapter 13 Plan payment. Most of Mr. Harwood’s expenses are business related. Mr. Harwood’s wife does not work or have income.
The first filed Chapter 13 Plan proposed to pay $165 a month for 60 months. The only debt being paid through the Chapter 13 Plan are attorneys’ fees of $7,400 and the trustee fee to administer the plan. No actual creditors received any distribution through the first chapter 13 plan filed. There is authority to support an argument that filing a Chapter 13 Plan that pays nothing to creditors was not filed in good faith. This is a litigated issue though. An argument is how can someone reorganize their debts when they are not paying any of their debts back? What debts are reorganized? A Chapter 13 plan that pays nothing to creditors is more or less a Chapter 7 then, a complete discharge of eligible general unsecured debts. So the argument goes the actual reason a Chapter 13 plan like this is filed must be for some improper purpose or unfair manipulation of the Bankruptcy Code.
The First Amended Chapter 13 Plan proposed to pay $165 for 24 months then $365 for the remaining 36 months of the 60 month plan. Total plan payments would equal approximately $17,100 over the life of the plan. Mr. Harwood’s attorneys also increased their attorney fees to $8,800 or about half of the proposed plan payments. The second filed Chapter 13 Plan also proposed to reject an advertising contract with a radio station, avoid the judgment lien of deceased attorney Donald Tasto, Esq., and provide language about seeking modification of their first mortgage on his primary residence. Mr. Mendez objected to confirmation of this plan arguing it was not filed in good faith.
The Third Amended Chapter 13 Plan filed by Mr. Harwood proposed to reduce the plan payments to $165 for 24 months then $360 for the remaining 36 months. The Second Amended Chapter 13 Plan also included the following special provisions: “By April 30th of each year during the pendency of the case, the debtor shall provide the Trustee with a copy of all Federal income tax returns required to be filed; or, if an extension has been obtained, a copy of the extension and the tax return within ten (10) days of filing the return but no later than ten (10) days after the expiration of the extension date The debtor shall file a declaration on January fifteenth and July fifteenth of each calendar year, beginning July 15, 2014, which states what the status is of his law office in Vietnam and outlines the average monthly income and expenses for the business. The debtor shall file a declaration on January fifteenth and July fifteenth of each calendar year, beginning July 15, 2014, which states what the status is of the malpractice case against his spouse’s former bankruptcy attorney.”
Mr. Mendez’s Argument For Lack of Good Faith
Mr. Mendez argues the petition was not filed in good faith given Harwood misrepresented the nature of the debt owed to Mr. Mendez. Harwoods’s Amended Schedule F describes Mr. Mendez’s judgment claim as: “Incurred: 2013 Consideration: Alleged breach of contract Debtor disputes any liability to this individual. A default was taken based on improper service.” Mr. Mendez argues that the Santa Clara Superior Court ruled that service was proper and there is no alleged debt, Mr. Mendez obtained a valid judgment against Mr. Harwood. Whether true of not the description of the nature of a debt is a minor issue in the big scheme of things and does not really change the treatment of Mr. Mendez’s claim under the Bankruptcy Code. Minor discrepancies in the petition will not rise to the level of not having good faith. While the description of the claim owed to Mr. Mendez in Schedule F is arguably not correct, the bankruptcy court found that the description was adequate under the circumstances and the description is not evidence of trying to mislead the court or manipulate the Bankruptcy Code.
Mr. Mendez next argues the first filed case and Chapter 13 Plan were not filed in good faith given it was filed for the stated purpose of avoiding wage garnishment and frustrate the enforcement of the state court judgment of Mr. Mendez. This argument is not a good one absent some additional facts. A very high percentage of bankruptcy cases filed involve some sort of state court lawsuit. Filing bankruptcy to stop a wage garnishment, bank levy or foreclosure of a home is perfectly normal. If the state court case was at the eve of trial or some other additional circumstance this argument could work.
The bankruptcy court agreed and held that Mr. Harwood was well within his rights to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 13.
Mr. Mendez next argues that Mr. Harwood is seeking to discharge in Chapter 13 his judgment that would not be discharged in Chapter 7 and therefore Mr. Harwood has unclean hands. This is a tough argument given that Mr. Mendez’s judgment for fraud against Mr. Harwood is arguably not dischargeable in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 if proven pursuant to Section 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code. The exceptions to discharge set forth in §523(a)(2), (4) and (6) of the Bankruptcy Code are not self-executing. See Mohsen v. Wu (In re Mohsen), 2010 WL 6259979 at *6 (9th Cir. BAP Dec. 21, 2010). Rather, § 523(c)(1) provides, with exceptions not applicable here, that a creditor must request and receive a judgment that the debt owed is not dischargeable. To have certain types of debts deemed not discharged pursuant to Sections 523(a)(2),(4) and (6) an adversary lawsuit must be filed and a judgment received. Then the debt can be enforced again under state law.
9th Circuit BAP Agrees With Bankruptcy Court
Mr. Mendez lost the appeal given the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel could not find error in the bankruptcy courts overruling of Mr. Mendez’s objection to confirmation of Harwood’s Chapter 13 Plan. Based upon these facts anyway the petition and plan were found to be filed in good faith.