By Ryan C. Wood
This issue comes up all the time. What I always hope is the creditor or plaintiff just dismisses the state court lawsuit without prejudice upon the filing of the bankruptcy petition. The automatic stay goes into effect stopping any and all collection activity including lawsuits. It just saves time and money for all parties. Of course it is not that simple and I will discuss this issue in more detail below. The important part is continuing status conferences or just maintaining the status quo and not dismissing the state court lawsuit once the defendant files for bankruptcy protection is not a willful violation of the bankruptcy automatic stay. A recent Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel decision addressed this issue. See Jerome E. Perryman v. Karen Dal Pogetto, BAP No. NC-21-1036-BFS, Bk. No. 19-10253 (9th Cir. BAP 2021)
“Continuances like these keep the matter against the debtor ‘on hold’ consistent with the stay; they do not advance the matter in the creditor’s favor.”
See In re Welsch, 602 B.R. 682, 686 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2019) (holding that continuances in a prepetition domestic relations proceeding did not violate the automatic stay)
See In re Cobb, 88 B.R119, 120 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. 1988) (holding that a status hearing does not violate the automatic stay because it does not move the case forward to a judicial determination).
Just Maintaining The Status Quo In The State Court Lawsuit Not Willful Violation of The Automatic Stay
I really do not see the utility in continuing to have status conferences in a state court case that is dead or soon to be dead. Each status conference requires a pre-conference statement be filed and then only thing to be communicated is the state court lawsuit is stayed until further notice. It would make sense to then order the plaintiff to only schedule a status conference in the event there is no longer a stay in the bankruptcy case. For some reason this does not always happen. The only reason I can come up with is the plaintiff’s attorney wants to incur the time and bill their client. The thing is more often not an attorney for the plaintiff has no interest in saving time and money. The state court attorney that filed the lawsuit just got the rug pulled out from under them. They may very well want to continue to appear for status conferences and have to file preconference statements before every conference. They want to bill their client for that so …….
It Does Unnecessarily Increase Expenses
It is difficult enough for most bankruptcy attorneys to get paid for their time without complications. So anything that increases the time I have to spend to get the job done is not good. This is one of those issues. I quote a client a fee for their case with the hope certain things play out as I plan and the amount I quoted is an amount I can make money on. That is the deal. When a creditor and/or their attorney choose to not dismiss the pre-bankruptcy state court lawsuit I have to spend additional time dealing with and explaining to my client what is going on and why, why a status conference statement continues to be filed in the state court case or why there continue to be status conferences. It is just so much simpler and cheaper for the plaintiff to dismiss the state court lawsuit without prejudice. If the defendant bankruptcy filer does not receive a discharge in their bankruptcy case the plaintiff/creditor can file the lawsuit again. Or even better file a notice of stay of proceedings. In California this is judicial council form CM-180. If a defendant/debtor has made an appearance in the state court litigation under California law the defendant/debtor has the duty to file the notice of stay of proceeding. Plaintiffs rarely if ever file a notice of stay of proceedings in the state court case.
So in the Chapter 7 case upon entry of the order of discharge the state court lawsuit must be timely dismissed given the underlying claim is in fact legally discharged.
In a Chapter 13 case things get more complicated given a discharge is not received until after completion of the Chapter 13 Plan. That could be as long as five years after the case is filed. So in theory for five years a plaintiff could request the state court keep scheduling status conferences until the Chapter 13 Plan is complete and a discharged entered. This is a common practice for foreclosure sale dates. Upon the filing of a bankruptcy case a pending foreclosure sale of real property is stayed or stopped.
Chapter 7 Case Versus Chapter 13 Case
As I began to discuss above there are differences whether the bankruptcy case filed is Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy the debtor will most likely receive their discharge in 3 to 4 months after the petition is filed. So the state court case can only be an issue for this short period of time even if not dismissed. So one status conference is held or continued while the Chapter 7 case is still pending. No big deal and this does not substantially increase bankruptcy attorneys time and expenses. If the state court law is not dismissed upon entry of the debtor/defendant’s discharge then at some point it has to be a willful violation of the automatic stay. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing the Chapter 13 Plan is usually either 36 months or the maximum 60 months. There can be five years for status conferences and status conference statements to deal with? Potentially yes when the state court lawsuit is not dismissed. Even of the notice of stay of proceeding is filed the state court could still choose to have periodic status conferences. The entire point is to be ready to go in state court if for some reason the Chapter 13 case is dismissed. Some Chapter 13 cases are filed to stop foreclosures or state court lawsuits temporarily with no intent to actually confirm a Chapter 13 Plan of Reorganization. These case usually use the minimum documents, or a skeletal petition, to get the case started. If a skeletal petition is filed then it is unclear whether the case will continue and the petition completed. In this case it is perfectly reasonable to not dismiss the state court lawsuit unless the petition is completed and then a Chapter 13 Plan is confirmed or approved by the Court. In a Chapter 13 case the end of the rode for creditors should be when a Chapter 13 Plan is confirmed or approved. After that the debtor/defendant need only complete the plan to receive their discharge so why not dismiss the state court lawsuit at this point? Well, the debtor/defendant has not completed the Chapter 13 Plan and received their discharge. This is the, “So you say’ in I got a chance” syndrome. At the off chance that the Chapter 13 case is dismissed the state court lawsuit is still there to be continued.