Punitive Damages for Stay Violation Were Excessive

Posted by NCBRC - March 24, 2023

The punitive damages awarded by the bankruptcy court were unconstitutionally excessive where they were seven times greater than actual damages and the bankruptcy court increased the damages on remand because it found the lender’s success at the BAP level would eliminate a substantial disincentive to engage in the conduct establishing the automatic stay violation. Rushmore Loan Mgmt Serv., LLC v. Moon, No. 22-1126 (D. Nev. Feb. 6, 2023).

When the debtors, Adnette Gunnels-Moon and Willie Moon, filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy, they listed Rushmore as a mortgage creditor on a loan in Adnette Gunnels-Moon’s name only, but gave the wrong address for Rushmore. For that reason, Rushmore was unaware of the bankruptcy and continued to dun the debtors for monthly mortgage payments. At one point when Rushmore called Willie Moon, he told Rushmore that he and Adnette had filed for bankruptcy. The debtors obtained their discharge in 2016. But Rushmore, apparently adhering to an unwritten policy of not accepting bankruptcy notification from a third party, continued its collection activity through the bankruptcy and after discharge.

The debtors reopened their bankruptcy to seek contempt sanctions against Rushmore for violation of the automatic stay and the discharge order. The bankruptcy court found in favor of the debtors on the automatic stay claim and awarded $742.10 representing the costs of reopening the bankruptcy. It also awarded $100,000 in emotional distress damages to Willie, and $200,000 in punitive damages. The court found no discharge injunction violation because it was unclear when Rushmore became aware of the discharge. The court also awarded $56,150 in attorney’s fees, $10,857.94 in costs, and an additional $3,500 in supplemental fees.

The parties filed cross-appeals. The debtors sought to reverse the bankruptcy court’s denial of the discharge injunction claim and its refusal to award certain fees, and Rushmore sought to reverse the damages award to Willie. Rushmore did not challenge the bankruptcy court’s finding that it violated the automatic stay as to Adnette, and did not seek to overturn the $742.10 in damages based on that claim.

The BAP reversed the $100,000 award to Willie, finding Rushmore did not violate the automatic stay as to him, affirmed the finding that punitive damages were warranted but remanded for reconsideration as to the amount, and affirmed the finding that Rushmore did not violate the discharge injunction. The BAP also remanded for reconsideration of the fee awards.

On remand, the bankruptcy court awarded $67,007.94 in fees and costs and $3,500 in supplemental fees. It increased the punitive damage award to $500,000. It awarded an additional $14,827 for Adnette’s defense of Rushmore’s adversary complaint, $70,415.95 to Adnette in appellate fees related to the first fee decision, and $45,235.82 in appellate fees for the contempt decision appeal, for a total appellate fee award of $115,651.77.

The court began its analysis with Rushmore’s challenge to the attorney’s fee awards noting that the goal of section 362(k) is to return debtors to their status as it was before the automatic stay violation. Rushmore argued that the bankruptcy court should have separated out the fees attributable to litigation of the discharge injunction and deducted those fees from the total fee award on the automatic stay claim.

The district court found the bankruptcy court satisfied the BAP’s instructions by explaining that the litigation of the automatic stay violation was inextricably intertwined with the discharge violation litigation and therefore the fees were inseparable.

The district court also found that the failure of Willie’s claims did not require the court to reduce the fees based on litigation of those claims because the evidence supporting them also either supported the automatic stay claims, or were relevant to the egregiousness of Rushmore’s conduct. The court observed that, although a bankruptcy court is required to award fees causally linked to a stay violation, it may approximate. “The essential goal in shifting fees is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection.”

The court also rejected Rushmore’s contention that the bankruptcy court should have reduced the punitive damage award based on the BAP’s instruction to revisit that award in light of its having reversed the court’s award of damages to Willie. In fact, the BAP merely instructed the bankruptcy to revisit the award. The bankruptcy court complied with that instruction.

Therefore, the court affirmed the award of $70,507.94 in attorney’s fees and supplemental fees to Adnette for prosecution of the original contempt proceedings.

The court next addressed the bankruptcy court’s award of fees to Adnette for litigation surrounding Rushmore’s adversary complaint. The bankruptcy court originally declined to award those fees, but did so after the BAP remanded with instructions to revisit the issue. At that time, the bankruptcy court determined that Rushmore’s complaint sought to dismiss the automatic stay claim. Therefore, the bankruptcy court concluded that Adnette’s defense of Rushmore’s complaint was part of her litigation in support of her automatic stay claim. The district court found no error in this conclusion and affirmed the $14,827 attorney fee award.

Rushmore challenged the bankruptcy court’s award of fees incurred in the appeals of the fee decision, the supplemental fee decision, and the adversary fee decision. Specifically, Rushmore contended that the bankruptcy court should have required Adnette’s attorney to specify the amount of time he spent on the issues Adnette prevailed on, and not award any fees for the time spent on Willie’s failed claim for discharge violation.

The district court found no error in the bankruptcy court’s attorney fee award. It held that the bankruptcy court did not apportion any fees to litigation of Willie’s claims. It also held that there was no clear distinction between the evidence supporting the discharge injunction and the automatic stay claims. The court upheld the award of Adnette’s full fees for defending the fee award on appeal.

As to the appellate fees related to the appeal of the contempt order, Rushmore argued that because the bankruptcy court reduced those fees after remand by 20%, Rushmore prevailed on that appeal and the debtors were not entitled to fee shifting. While the court did not entirely agree, it found that “[t]he bankruptcy court abused its discretion in failing to apportion fees for time spent on Willie’s unsuccessful appeal on the discharge injunction issue.” It found those fees both severable as a practical matter, and not related to the automatic stay violation. The court found that it could reasonably calculate the proper reduction, and it did so, reducing the total fee award based on the contempt order by 80%, to $11,308.96.

Rushmore next argued that the awards in general were disproportionate to the actual damages of $742.10 which Adnette incurred before Rushmore ceased its offending conduct.

The court disagreed. It found that section 362(k)’s deterrent effect is furthered by permitting the debtor to recover attorney’s fees for successfully litigating an automatic stay violation. In this case, Rushmore followed an unwritten and undisclosed policy of ignoring third party information regarding bankruptcy of its borrowers. Because it learned early on that Adnette was in bankruptcy but ignored that information without telling her that the information had to come from her to compel action, it needlessly perpetuated the automatic stay violation. The bankruptcy court took these facts into consideration and did not abuse its discretion in calculating appropriate damages.

Turning to the issue of punitive damages, the court noted that, on remand, the bankruptcy court increased the punitive damage award from $200,000 to $500,000. The bankruptcy court based its decision on the reprehensible nature of Rushmore’s position that it need not act on third party information of bankruptcy and its continued collection efforts. It was also persuaded that greater deterrent was needed because the BAP’s decision against Willie’s claims eliminated his ability to sue on his own behalf for Rushmore’s conduct.

Rushmore countered that the punitive award violated its due process rights by punishing it for prevailing on appeal as to Willie.

In reviewing a punitive damage award on constitutional challenge the court considered: “the degree of the defendant’s reprehensibility or culpability, the relationship between the penalty and the harm to the victim caused by the defendant’s actions, and the sanctions imposed in other cases for comparable misconduct.”

Based on these factors, the court agreed that the punitive damage award was unconstitutionally excessive. It found the award punished Rushmore for its conduct to Willie and others similarly situated rather than for any harm suffered by Adnette. It also found an award greater than a 4:1 ratio of punitive to actual damages requires both particularly egregious conduct, and relatively small actual damages. Here, though Adnette’s award of $742.10 was small, the entire fee award was not.

Having found that the bankruptcy court erred with respect to the punitive damages award, the court found that remanding with instructions to reconsider that award would merely consume more time and money in what was already an outsized case. Therefore it calculated punitive damages. It found that Rushmore’s appeals were not unreasonable and it’s conduct not malicious. There was no evidence that it extended to other borrowers. The court concluded that a 1.5 multiplier satisfied the principles of punishment and deterrence. It reduced the award of punitive damages to $128,002.41.

As the district court anticipated, Rushmore filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Gunnels-Moon D Nev Feb 2023

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