Good Faith in Failure to Disclose Lawsuit

Posted by NCBRC - February 27, 2023

Where the debtor failed to amend her schedules before her case was closed, she forfeited the right to do so as a matter of course, but based on the facts and circumstances in this case, the debtor’s neglect was excusable. The court allowed her to reopen her case to claim an exemption in a personal injury settlement. In re Wantz, No. 18-2851 (Bankr. W.D. Mich. Jan. 5, 2023).

Prior to filing her chapter 7 petition, the debtor contacted a personal injury attorney who was representing other women suing the manufacturer of an implanted medical device to explore the possibility of filing a lawsuit. The attorney told the debtor via email that because she had not had the device removed, she would be unlikely to prevail in a lawsuit. When she filed for bankruptcy, the debtor did not disclose this potential cause of action in her bankruptcy. Shortly before receiving her discharge, she signed an Attorney Employment Contract with the personal injury attorney. That agreement stated only that the attorney would investigate her potential claim.

She received her discharge in October, 2018, and her case was closed in November, 2018. In 2020, the debtor received two emails from her personal injury attorney suggesting, but not directly stating, that a case had been filed on her behalf. In March, 2021, the debtor sought medical advice with respect to the device and, upon learning that it was the cause of her pain, had it removed. Her medical expenses were $7,000. At around the same time, the debtor learned that her personal injury case had settled and that she would net $6,500.

Three weeks later, the debtor moved to reopen her bankruptcy to add the settlement to her schedules and claim it as exempt. The trustee objected to the exemption arguing that it was untimely.

Rule 1009(a) provides that a debtor may amend a bankruptcy schedule as a matter of course any time before the case is closed. The question here was whether that automatic right to amend is reignited when a closed case is reopened. The debtor lobbied for the court to find that once a case is reopened the debtor’s right to amend her schedules is “as a matter of course,” as it would be under Rule 1009(a) and that any other conclusion would violate the holding in Law v. Siegel, 571 U.S. 415 (2014).

The court found the debtor’s interpretation of that case was overbroad. Law prohibited a court from surcharging a debtor’s exemptions based on equitable considerations and in contravention of Code provisions. Law did not deal with timeliness of an amendment to the schedule of exemptions. The court here found that because Rule 1009(a) specifically applies to a debtor’s right to amend prior to her case being closed, the obverse is not true. A debtor may not amend her schedules as a matter of course after the case is closed even if it is later reopened.

The court turned next to the impact of Rule 9006, which provides that, with certain specified exceptions, a court may extend a deadline after that deadline has expired upon a showing of excusable neglect. The debtor argued that Rule 9006 was inapplicable because that rule applies only when the act in question “is required or allowed to be done at or within a specified period by these rules.” The debtor argued that because the time for amending schedules is not circumscribed by a specific period but is tied to the non-specific point at which the case is closed, amendments are not subject to Rule 9006’s requirement of a finding of excusable neglect.

The court disagreed with the debtor and with the cases, such as Mendoza v. Montoya (In re Mendoza), 595 B.R. 849 (B.A.P. 10th Cir. 2019), supporting her position. It found that Rule 1009(a)’s requirement that an amendment be filed before the case is closed is sufficiently specific to bring it under the auspices of Rule 9006.

The court turned to whether the debtor had shown excusable neglect, finding that the inquiry was equitable in nature and involved consideration of all relevant circumstances.

The court agreed with the trustee that the debtor’s failure to disclose the lawsuit during her bankruptcy deprived the trustee of the opportunity to litigate the claim for the benefit of the estate. But the court found that prejudice to the trustee and creditors was not significant in light of the fact that the debtor could have claimed an exemption under 522(c) for the settlement at any time during her bankruptcy. The court was unwilling to agree that the trustee would likely have obtained a better outcome from the litigation had she been involved.

As to the length of the delay—three years between filing her petition and reopening her case—the court found the debtor was unaware of several salient facts that would have alerted her to the necessity of disclosing the claim. First, the debtor did not know the cause of her pain was due to the device; second she did not know her attorney had moved past the investigation stage and filed a claim on her behalf; and third, the debtor lacked the sophistication to untangle the conflicting information she had received from her personal injury lawyer. The court noted that the debtor’s personal injury case involved many plaintiffs and that the debtor did not have a relationship with her attorney, but dealt with him from a distance. The court concluded that the debtor acted in good faith.

With the final observation that the debtor’s ultimate recovery did not even meet her medical bills based on the injury, the court found the debtor was entitled to amend her schedules to claim the exemption.

Wantz Bankr. WD Mich Jan 2023


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