SCOTUS Hears Arguments on Discharge Violation Sanctions

Posted by NCBRC - April 27, 2019

Addressing the reach of a bankruptcy court’s contempt powers in the context of a violation of the discharge injunction, the Supreme Court heard arguments on April 24, in the case of Taggart v. Lorenzen, No. 18-489.

Daniel Geyser appeared for the debtor, Bradley Taggart. Nicole Saharsky represented the creditor, Shelley Lorenzen, executor. Sopan Joshi, from the office of the Solicitor General, argued as amicus not in support of either party. NACBA submitted an amicus brief in support of reversal.

The controversy hinged on a state court finding that Mr. Taggart’s creditor could seek contractual attorney fees in the litigation before it, even though those fees would have been subject to the discharge order injunction had Mr. Taggart not “returned to the fray.” The bankruptcy court found that the “returned to the fray” doctrine did not apply and that the litigation violated the discharge injunction. It awarded sanctions, at least in part representing the debtor’s attorney’s fees. The Ninth Circuit ultimately reversed the sanctions stating broadly that a creditor acting in good faith cannot be held liable for discharge injunction violation even if that belief is unreasonable. Lorenzen v. Taggart (In re Taggart), 888 F.3d 438 (9th Cir. 2018).

At the outset, all the parties agreed that the Ninth Circuit rule was incorrect. The parties agreed that in the case of a discharge violation, even one made in good faith, the bankruptcy court may order the creditor to cease the violation and restore any property taken.

Where there was disagreement between parties was in the application of the bankruptcy court’s contempt powers. Calling contempt a severe remedy, several of the Justices appeared concerned at its application in the context of discharge injunction where the creditor’s conduct was based on a “fair ground of doubt.”

The debtor advocated for the bankruptcy court’s discretion under section 105(a) to make the determination as to the nature of the creditor’s conduct and whether it merits sanctions, including attorney’s fees. The creditor has a “safe harbor” in Rule 4007 which allows it to seek guidance on the question of dischargeability from the bankruptcy court.

The government advocated for a purely objective test as to the reasonableness of the creditor’s belief that the discharge injunction did not apply. In Justice Gorsuch’s questioning, it appeared that an objective reasonableness would prevail even in the absence of the creditor’s subjective reasonableness (i.e. where there existed good reason to believe the conduct non-violative but the creditor was unaware of that good reason and went forward nonetheless.)

The creditor advocated a similar “reasonable good faith belief,” test as the government (though with the subjective element intact) emphasizing the “chilling effect” of requiring a creditor to jump through the Rule 4007 hoop to have dischargeability determined in an action before the bankruptcy court.

One concern expressed by several Justices was the establishment of a strict liability standard which put the creditor in a position of being permitted to seek a ruling on dischargeability from the state court but not be able to rely on that ruling as a defense to discharge injunction violation if the state court was in error.

The question of who should bear the burden of harm echoed throughout the questioning. Justice Kavanaugh noted to Mr. Geyser that under tradition rules of injunction good faith is a defense. Mr. Geyser disagreed stating that traditionally, the burden of uncertainty falls on the person subject to the decree. In a similar vein, Justice Kagan asked Ms. Saharsky: “As between the victim of the violation and the person who, with all the good faith in the world, perpetrated the violation, why shouldn’t we look to the person who perpetrated the violation?”

Justice Roberts, while noting the long history of the American Rule against fee-shifting, posited the possibility that a bankruptcy court could award sanctions for contempt using the debtor’s attorney’s fees as a reasonable number for that award.

See SCOTUS blog for further discussion of the argument here.

Taggart SCt transcript April 2019

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