Debtor Misled Lender as to Discharge of Debt

Posted by NCBRC - April 17, 2023

The debtor’s own conduct gave the lender reason to believe that the debt owed to him was not discharged, so the bankruptcy court did not err in finding that the lender’s continued collection efforts lacked the requisite scienter to support a contempt sanction for violation of the discharge injunction. Bernhard v. Kull (In re Bernhard), No. 22-854 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 3, 2023).

When his business began to suffer financially, the debtor borrowed $60,000 from a childhood friend. He made sporadic efforts to pay the debt, but at one point he told the lender he might have to file for bankruptcy. He assured the lender that if he did file, he would not include the debt in his bankruptcy. When the debtor finally did file for chapter 7 bankruptcy, he did not list the debt in his schedules, inform the trustee or the court of the debt, or inform the lender of the bankruptcy. The lender therefore didn’t learn of the bankruptcy until the debtor received his discharge. Over a year after discharge, the debtor executed a new promissory note to the lender and made more payments on the debt.

At some point, however, the lender grew impatient with the slow progress on repayment and filed suit in state court. The debtor returned to the bankruptcy court and filed an adversary proceeding against the lender and his attorneys seeking a finding of contempt for violation of the discharge injunction. The bankruptcy court found that the debt had been discharged and that the defendants violated the discharge injunction. But the court declined to hold the defendants in contempt finding that they lacked the requisite scienter.

The only issues raised in the debtor’s appeal to the district court related to the bankruptcy court’s findings that 1) the lenders had no notice of the bankruptcy case until it was too late to seek a finding that the debt was nondischargeable, 2) that the defendants lacked the requisite scienter to justify a contempt order, and 3) that the debtor was not entitled to any relief other than a declaration that the debt was discharged.

The court set out the requirements for establishing contempt for a discharge violation: “(1) a discharge order has been entered (discharging the applicable debt); (2) the creditor had notice of the discharge order; (3) collection efforts continued regardless; and (4) there is no objectively reasonable basis for concluding that the creditor’s conduct might be lawful under the discharge order.”

Here the court took into consideration the long-term friendship between the parties, the debtor’s efforts to repay the loan including executing a post-discharge promissory note and making payments, and the debtor’s failure to tell the lender that he had filed for bankruptcy. The court found no error in the bankruptcy court’s finding that the defendants were unaware of the debtor’s bankruptcy filing until it was too late to file objections. In addition, the court found that the debtor indicated through word and action that he intended to repay the debt even after he received his discharge. All of these things gave the lender a reasonable basis to believe that the debt was not discharged and that he was within his rights to pursue repayment.

The court thus concluded that the bankruptcy court did not commit clear error in finding no basis for a contempt order against the defendants, nor did it err in finding that the only relief to which the debtor was entitled was an order declaring the $60,000 debt discharged.

The debtor has filed an appeal to the Third Circuit, case no. 23-1358.

Bernhard ED Pa Feb 2023


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