Right to Dismiss Despite Bad Faith or 109(e) Ineligibility

Posted by NCBRC - January 31, 2023

A chapter 13 debtor’s statutory right to dismiss his bankruptcy is not precluded by bad faith or ineligibility under section 109(e). Powell v. TICO Construction Co. Inc., No. 22-1014 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. Oct. 21, 2022).

TICO Construction, a judgment creditor in the debtor’s chapter 13 case, opposed the debtor’s motion to voluntarily dismiss his bankruptcy under section 1307(b). TICO alleged both that the debtor’s unsecured debts exceeded the debt limit set forth in section 109(e), and that the debtor abused by the bankruptcy process by transferring non-exempt assets to his ex-wife in “sham” divorce proceedings. TICO requested that, instead of granting the debtor’s motion to dismiss, the court should convert the case to chapter 7 or 11.

The bankruptcy court found that with one statutory exception that was inapplicable, the debtor had an absolute right to dismiss his case and granted the debtor’s motion. TICO appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Ninth Circuit.

The panel began with section 1307(b), which provides: “On request of the debtor at any time, if the case has not been converted under section 706, 1112, or 1208 of this title, the court shall dismiss a case under this chapter. Any waiver of the right to dismiss under this subsection is unenforceable.”

The question before the panel was whether the debtor’s right to dismiss his chapter 13 bankruptcy was circumscribed either by bad faith or by his ineligibility to be in chapter 13. In Jacobsen v. Moser (In re Jacobsen), 609 F.3d 647, 660 (5th Cir. 2010), the court held that a debtor’s bad faith precludes voluntary dismissal of his chapter 13 case. While the Ninth Circuit at one time agreed with that conclusion, it changed its view in Nichols v. Marana Stockyard & Livestock Market, Inc. (In re Nichols), 10 F.4th 956 (9th Cir. 2021), where it found the debtor’s right to dismiss was subject only to the exception included in the statute itself. The panel noted that Nichols was based on the decision in Law v. Siegel, 571 U.S. 415 (2014), where the Court held that the bankruptcy court could not override explicit mandates of the Code.

Because bad faith was not included in the statutory exceptions to the debtor’s right to dismiss, the panel found the bankruptcy court did not err in that finding.

TICO next argued that the debtor exceeded the debt limit for chapter 13 and therefore his case should have been treated as if it were chapter 7 with the court considering his motion to dismiss in terms of the best interests of creditors. The panel disagreed, finding that if it did as TICO requested it would create a new exception to the debtor’s right to dismiss under section 1307(b) and that would go directly against the holding in Law.

The panel noted that in FDIC v. Wenberg (In re Wenberg), 94 B.R. 631 (9th Cir. BAP 1988), aff’d, 902 F.2d 768 (9th Cir. 1990), it held that the debt limit in section 109(e) is not jurisdictional, and a bankruptcy court is not required to dismiss a chapter 13 case when the debtor is found ineligible under section 109(e), but may allow the debtor to convert to chapter 7. The court reasoned that if an ineligible chapter 13 debtor retains his right to convert, his right to dismiss also remains intact.

In response to TICO’s argument that the debtor should not be allowed to get away with his bad faith conduct, the panel pointed to other methods for addressing bad faith including denying the debtor’s right to refile, or to apply other sanctions under section 105(b).

The case is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 22-60052.

Powell BAP 9th Oct 2022

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