Debtor/Plaintiffs Overcome Hurdle to Class Certification

Posted by NCBRC - May 24, 2017

Denying the creditor’s motion to dismiss, the bankruptcy court in the Southern District of Texas found that it could exercise jurisdiction over a nationwide class and that the claims, based on abuse of process, satisfied the “core proceeding” requirements of subject matter jurisdiction. Jones v. Atlas Acquisitions, LLC, No. 15-34818, Adv. Proc. No. 16-3235 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. May 19, 2017).

Atlas Acquisitions filed a proof of claim in Katrina Jones’s chapter 13 bankruptcy. It later withdrew the claim. Ms. Jones then filed an adversary complaint on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, alleging “abuse of the bankruptcy system by [Atlas’s] willful and intentional disregard for the requirements for filing legitimate claims in many Chapter 13 cases throughout the country.” Specifically, the complaint alleged that, in accordance with its business model, Atlas routinely filed deficient proofs of claim only to withdraw them when challenged. The First Amended Complaint added Natasha Hill, a chapter 13 debtor in the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Louisiana (case no. 15-3166) as a named plaintiff and sought certification as a class action.

Atlas moved to dismiss the class action claims arguing: 1) that a bankruptcy court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1334 to certify a nationwide class; 2) that the plaintiffs are not adequate class representatives, and, 3) that the class cannot be certified as a matter of law under the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3).

The court began with section 1334, which confers jurisdiction on the district courts over cases arising under Title 11, and section 157(a) and Texas District Court General Order 2012-6 which provide for referral of such cases to bankruptcy judges.

Relying on Bolin v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 231, F.3d 970 (5th Cir. 2000), the court rejected Atlas’s initial argument that, while a bankruptcy court may exercise class-wide jurisdiction within its district, it cannot exercise jurisdiction over a nationwide class. In Bolin, the Fifth Circuit, upon finding that the Rule 23(b)(2) requirements for nationwide class certification were not established, did not question the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction over the proposed class and, in fact, remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Where the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction is coextensive with the district court and where the district court has jurisdiction over a nationwide class of plaintiffs, the bankruptcy court does as well.

The court turned to the strictures on bankruptcy court jurisdiction under which the case must be a “core” proceeding either “arising under,” “arising in,” or “related to” a case under Title 11.

Atlas argued that the abuse of process claims here arose not out of a bankruptcy proceeding but under the court’s inherent authority under section 105(a) and Bankruptcy Rule 3001, and that the plaintiffs’ claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are found in Title 28 rather than Title 11.

The court found that the claims both arose under, and arose in, a case under Title 11. To “arise under” Title 11, the action must involve a substantive right created by the Code or by the Bankruptcy Rules. While section 105(a) does not create substantive rights, it empowers a court to enforce rights created elsewhere in the Code or Rules. Atlas argued that neither Rule 3001 nor injunctive and declaratory relief offered under Title 28, constitute substantive rights under Title 11. The court disagreed, finding that, while many of the Bankruptcy Rules do not create substantive rights, Rule 3001 is not one of them. Rather, Rule 3001(c)(2)(D)(iii) provides that a plaintiff may obtain “appropriate relief,” expenses and attorney’s fees upon a finding that the defendant has failed to attach supporting documentation to a proof of claim. This provision for relief, the court found, is a substantive right under the Bankruptcy Rules. Therefore, the action “arose under” Title 11.

The court also found that it had “arising in” jurisdiction because, on their face, the claims were based on improper filing of a proof of claim under sections 501 and 502 and would “have no existence outside of the bankruptcy.”

Having established its jurisdiction, the court turned to the pleading requirements of Rule 23(a)(4) and (b)(3) to determine whether the complaint stated a claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6). Atlas argued that Ms. Jones could not be a class representative because she had an inherent conflict of interest between the other class members and her creditors in her personal bankruptcy. In support of this and other propositions, Atlas asked the court to take judicial notice of certain statements included in the record.

The court declined to do so, stating that, where Atlas failed to satisfy the two-pronged test for judicial notice required by Fed. R. Evid. 201(a), it would be premature to make factual findings on Atlas’s arguments without an evidentiary hearing on class certification.

Finally, the court rejected Atlas’s argument that individual issues predominate in this case and that it was therefore inappropriate to certify a class under Rule 23(b)(3). Again, the court found the face of the complaint stated a claim and that the issue of class certification was appropriately dealt with in an evidentiary hearing.

Jones Bankr SD Tex opinion May 2017

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