$10,000 Book of Mormon Properly Exempted

Posted by NCBRC - February 8, 2016

The Seventh Circuit found that Illinois’ personal property exemption statute, which provides an exemption for a bible, extended to the debtor’s first edition Book of Mormon notwithstanding its unusually high monetary value. In re Robinson, 14-3585 (7th Cir. Feb. 4, 2016).

Ms. Robinson owned an 1830, first edition, Book of Mormon which, being one of only 5,000 editions in Joseph Smith’s first printing, was valued at $10,000.00. Because Ms. Robinson owned several digital and print versions of the Book of Mormon that were not unusually valuable, the chapter 7 trustee argued that she could exempt one of her less valuable versions and turn over the first edition for sale by the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court, finding that the intent of the state statute, 735 ILCS 5/12-1001(a), was to preserve a debtor’s ability to worship rather than to protect valuable assets, agreed. The district court reversed.

On appeal, it was undisputed that, on its face, the statute permits exemption of one bible regardless of value. The trustee argued, however, that the context of the exemption statute generated ambiguity in a case like this where the debtor was choosing to exempt a valuable bible instead of one of negligible value.

Noting that other sections of the statute included monetary limits, the court found that absence of such limitation with respect to a bible suggested that the legislature did not intend for any such limit to apply. Moreover, the exemption statute, which must be interpreted favorably to the debtor, permits exemptions for personal items of value even though they are not “bare necessities.” The trustee’s reliance on In re Barker, 768 F.2d 191 (7th Cir. 1985), in her argument that the court should look beyond the plain language of the statute, was misplaced as that case turned to legislative intent to determine whether a debtor could stack exemptions, an issue not addressed by the text of the statute. Nor did the debtor’s statement in her schedules that there was a question as to the exemptibility of the bible render the statute ambiguous. The court disagreed that this case represented an instance in which the debtor’s interpretation of the statute would actually “negate” the intent of the legislature. The cases the trustee cited in support of this proposition were all instances in which the debtor sought to extend the exemption beyond the plain language of the statute. Furthermore, the absence of ambiguity made it inappropriate to examine the future consequences of the court’s decision.

In short, the court found that there was no need to turn to legislative history or intent to interpret the statute which clearly permitted an exemption for one bible of unspecified value.

Robinson 7th Cir. opinion



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