Trustee Entitled to Attorney’s Fees for Exemption Dispute

Posted by NCBRC - March 14, 2023

Where the debtor’s original exemption claim was for bodily injury, the trustee had a reasonable argument that the actual post-petition settlements of her personal injury case, which specified that they were for non-bodily-injury damages, did not fall under that exemption. Because the trustee’s objection related to the post-settlement exemption claim, it was timely. Biondo v. Gold, Lange, Majoros & Smalarz, P.C., No. 22-1666 (6th Cir. Feb. 8, 2023).

Prior to filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy, the debtor was in a car accident. In her bankruptcy filings she listed the personal injury claim with an unknown value. She claimed an exemption in potential recovery, tracking the text of section 522(d)(11)(D), for “payment[s]” she received “on account of personal bodily injury, not including pain and suffering or compensation for actual pecuniary loss.”

The trustee did not object to the exemption. He hired a law firm to litigate the debtor’s claims against the driver of the other vehicle and the debtor’s insurance company. The insurance company settled for $48,500 specifically covering “medical expenses, attorney’s fees, ‘lost wages,’ and all ‘other forms of economic or non-economic loss.’” The driver of the other car settled for $70,000, covering “pain and suffering.”

The debtor moved to compel the trustee to turn over $23,675 from the settlement recovery arguing that the funds were exempt under section 522(d)(11)(D). She and the trustee settled the exemption claim, and the trustee moved to recover $2,880 in attorney’s fees he incurred in litigating the motion to compel. The debtor objected, arguing that the attorney’s services did not fulfill the requirement under section 330(a)(1)(A) that they be either reasonably likely to benefit the estate, or necessary to the administration of the case. The bankruptcy court granted the trustee’s request for fees, and the district dismissed the appeal as equitably moot.

The debtor appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The court began with the parameters of section 522(d)(11)(D)’s exemption, finding that while funds resulting from personal bodily injury are exempt, the exemption does not include “payments for pain and suffering and for pecuniary losses.” The exemption is also typically interpreted to exclude payments for medical bills. Here, the two settlements specified that they were for damages other than personal bodily injury. For that reason, the circuit court found the trustee’s objection to the exemption was reasonable and for the benefit of the estate.

The debtor argued that the trustee forfeited his opportunity to object to the exemption because he failed to do so when she filed the exemption claim in her original bankruptcy schedules.

Under section 522(l), in the absence of a timely objection, an exemption is automatically allowed. Citing Mercer v. Monzack, 53 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 1995), the court found that “exemptions should be unambiguous and should be read to conform with the law.” The debtor must therefore unambiguously identify particular property as exempt before the clock begins to run.

Here, the debtor’s claimed exemption related only to recovery for bodily injury, as contemplated by section 522(d)(11)(D). It was not until the actual settlements were reached that the debtor at least arguably attempted to apply the exemption to non-bodily injury recovery. The trustee’s post-settlement objection was related to the debtor’s recovery based on medical expenses and other pecuniary losses, as well as pain and suffering. Because the actual funds the debtor sought to exempt differed from the description in her claimed exemption, the court found her original exemption claim did not trigger section 522(l)’s clock and the trustee’s objection was not time-barred. While the trustee could have lodged a prophylactic objection to the debtor’s exemption from the outset, he was not obligated to do so.

Because the district court’s finding that the appeal was equitably moot was not jurisdictional, the circuit court declined to address that issue.

The court affirmed.

Biondo 6th Cir Feb 2023



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