July 26, 2019
We’ve all heard of bankruptcy being used as a shield to protect against creditors’ attempts at debt collection. However, in the practice of law especially, the automatic stay is no longer an issue reserved for those who file bankruptcy, nor does it exist solely within the confines of the bankruptcy courts. Sure, the bankruptcy court generally governs matters involving the “stay” but, particularly in our increasingly adversarial society, these issues tend to bleed over into other legal proceedings as well, such that every litigator (and perhaps every litigant) should be apprised of the ways in which the automatic stay could impact them and their claims.
The bankruptcy petition triggers the automatic stay – imaginary armor that then cloaks the debtor (the person who files bankruptcy), halting all collection efforts by creditors (those seeking to collect money from the debtor). Uponfiling bankruptcy, a debtor is immediately protected by the automatic stay which prohibits, among other things, “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor that arose before the commencement of the case. . . .” 11 U.S.C. § 362(a)(6). The automatic stay imposes on creditors an affirmative dutyof compliance. Sternberg v. Johnston, 595 F.3d 937, 943 (9th Cir. 2010).
In other words, once you file bankruptcy, your creditors (whether that be the telephone company merely seeking to collect a past-due bill, or someone intending to sue you on a $1 million tort claim) are no longer allowed to take any steps toward recovering that which they think you owe them, in court or otherwise. They cannot call you, they cannot send you a letter threatening action against you if you refuse to pay, they cannot file a lawsuit against you, and they cannot continue to pursue claims that are already pending against you without explicit relief from the bankruptcy court in which your petition is filed. Violating the automatic stay is a very serious offense that often results in an award of damages and attorney’s fees against the violating party. 11 U.S.C. 362(k).
Perhaps you represent a defendant in a contract case, your client filed for bankruptcy (invoking the stay), and the plaintiff’s attorney then serves you with discovery request asking your client to admit that he owes the money sought in the lawsuit. The automatic stay protects your client. Or, maybe you are a passenger who was injured in a car accident, and you are preparing to sue the at-fault driver (a debtor in bankruptcy) for reimbursement of medical expenses. The automatic stay likely prevents you from doing so.
In a practical sense, the affirmative duty of compliance placed on creditors even goes beyond just monitoring their own conduct to ensure that they are not violating the stay – it imposes a duty to police against others, namely courts, violating the stay, as well. This may seem a harsh result, but the Sixth Circuit has explicitly held that creditors cannot sit idly by and allow stay violations occur. See generally Wohleber v. Skurko, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 653 (6th Cir. March 4, 2019).
In the Wohleber case, the husband-debtor was subjected to a post-petition sentencing hearing arising out of a pre-petition contempt proceeding (i.e., he failed to pay a property settlement previously ordered by a domestic relations court and the hearing was to determine his consequences). At the hearing, the debtor was put in jail until he paid the amount ordered by the domestic relations court (also pre-petition). The husband-debtor later argued that the wife-creditor and her attorney violated the automatic stay by allowing the sentencing to proceed. The bankruptcy court, initially, rejected this argument on the grounds that neither the wife-creditor, nor her attorney took any affirmative action to collect the debt post-petition. However, the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the wife-creditor and her attorney had an affirmative duty to “prevent the use of the sentencing hearing and [subsequent confinement] of the [debtor-husband] to coerce payment of the dischargeable property settlement.” Id., at *44.
In sum, the automatic stay is not a concept reserved for bankruptcy courts and the attorneys who practice primarily within it. Instead, it intersects with nearly every area of the law and, frequently, in litigation. Because the stakes are so high for stay violations and missteps can be costly, it is important that creditors (or potential creditors, or their counsel) are in-tune with what the stay means and the type of conduct it prohibits. It is likewise important for debtors to know their rights so that they can recognize improper conduct if and when it occurs to their detriment.