Nice Win for Debtors on Means Test Expense Issue

Posted by NCBRC - January 4, 2017

Section 707(b)(2) permits a debtor to take the full National and Local Standard amounts for expenses even though the debtor’s actual expenses are less. Lynch v. Jackson, No. 16-1358 (4th Cir. Jan. 4, 2017).

When above-median debtors, Gabriel and Monte Jackson, filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy they complied with Form 22A’s instructions to list their expenses using the IRS National and Local Standard amounts rather than their actual expenses which were less. The bankruptcy administrator moved to dismiss their case as abusive under section 707(b)(2)(A)(i). The bankruptcy court denied the motion to dismiss. In re Jackson, 537 B.R. 238 (Bankr. E.D. N.C. 2015), and the Fourth Circuit accepted direct appeal.

The administrator argued that Form 22A’s instructions are erroneous and that the expense deduction amounts listed in the IRS Standards represent a cap on how high an expense amount may be claimed for certain expenses, but that if the actual amount is less, the debtor must use the lesser amount.

In Ransom v. FIA Card Servs., 562 U.S. 61 (2011), the Court addressed application of the IRS Standard expense deductions in the context of abuse under section 707(b). That Court held that, in order to take the IRS Standard expense deduction, a debtor must actually incur the type of expense designated, i.e. the “vehicle ownership” expense requires that the debtor have lease or loan payments on the vehicle. But that Court left open the question of whether, once the expense is found to be “applicable,” the debtor may take the full IRS Standard amount regardless of actual expenses.

The Fourth Circuit found the answer in the plain language of the statute: “[t]he debtor’s monthly expenses shall be the debtor’s applicable monthly expense amounts specified under the National Standards and Local Standards. 11 U.S.C. § 707(b)(2)(A)(ii)(I).” The fact that Congress used the word “actual” elsewhere in the same statute indicates that it made a distinction between applicable and actual. The court also recognized the absurdity of punishing a frugal debtor should the bankruptcy administrator’s interpretation of the statute be accepted.

As a procedural matter, the court held that the time to file a petition for direct appeal in section 158(d)(2)(A) is not a jurisdictional constraint and, therefore, the parties’ late filing did not deprive the court of jurisdiction over the appeal where other substantive factors favored direct appeal.

Congratulations to Lee Roland who represented the Jacksons, and to Erik Heath who authored NACBA’s amicus brief in support of the debtors.

Jackson 4th Cir. amended opinion Jan 2017

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