The Fourth Circuit Rules That Parties in an Adversary Proceeding Cannot Manufacture a Final Judgment

Posted by JIm Haller - September 20, 2023

In Kiviti v. Bhatt, No. 22-1216, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 24415 (4th Cir. Sep. 14, 2023), the court ruled that the parties in an adversary proceeding cannot manufacture a final judgment in order to appeal an otherwise interlocutory order.  Further, the mootness doctrine employed by Article III courts to determine whether a case or controversy exists does not apply to bankruptcy courts as non-Article III courts.

Prior to filing bankruptcy, the chapter 7 Debtor (Bhatt) was contacted to renovate the creditorv’s (Kiviti) home.  Upon finding the Debtor was unlicensed, the creditor filed suit in state court to recover all funds paid ($58,770).  Prior to judgment, the Debtor filed a chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The creditors then filed an adversary proceeding with two counts.  The first count asked the court to enter a judgment against the Debtor for the amount paid.  The second count asked the court to find the debt non-dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(2)(A).  The creditors also filed a proof of claim although the bankruptcy estate was small.

The bankruptcy court granted the Debtor’s motion for summary judgment on the non-dischargeability count leaving only the first count asking for a money judgment.  The creditors wished to appeal but needed a final judgment.  Therefore, the parties agreed to dismiss the first count without prejudice.

On appeal, the court reviewed whether the case was final in order to review the bankruptcy court’s decision to dismiss the non-dischargeability count.  The creditors argued that the adversary proceeding was moot because if they are unsuccessful challenging the dismissal of the non-dischargeability count, their debt will be discharged and uncollectable.  The court held that the parties can’t manufacture finality.  Furthermore, the court held that mootness is a limitation on Article III courts (stemming from the case or controversy requirement) but not bankruptcy courts as non-Article III courts.  Instead, bankruptcy courts can rule on proceedings that are moot.

The parties cannot manufacture finality

“The parties will be unsurprised by our holding that the bankruptcy court’s order was not final—and so not appealable—when entered. After all, that is why they agreed to dismiss Count I. They thought that, by doing so, they would make the order final because there would no longer be anything left to adjudicate in the adversary proceeding. J.A. 63 (agreeing to dismiss Count I “so as to give rise to a final order from which an appeal . . . may be taken”); J.A. 73 (“The instant appeal is from an interlocutory  order that became a final order upon dispensation of the remaining cause of action below.”).

“They were wrong. They cannot “use voluntary dismissals as a subterfuge to manufacture jurisdiction for reviewing otherwise non-appealable, interlocutory orders.” See Waugh Chapel S., 728 F.3d at 359. When Congress requires finality, we must ensure that “every matter in the controversy . . . [is] decided in a single appeal.” Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, 582 U.S. 23, 36, 137 S. Ct. 1702, 198 L. Ed. 2d 132 (2017) (quoting McLish v. Roff, 141 U.S. 661, 665-66, 12 S. Ct. 118, 35 L. Ed. 893 (1891)). Yet, if we allowed the parties to appeal Count II now, there would be nothing to stop them from reinstating—and then separately appealing—Count I down the line. See J.A. 63 (agreeing that the dismissal is “without prejudice to the [Kivitis’] right to amend their pleadings so as to seek a finding of liability should there be an appellate remand”). Such tactics impermissibly “erode the finality principle” Congress enacted. See Microsoft, 582 U.S. at 37; see also In re AroChem Corp., 176 F.3d at 619 (explaining that the “flexible” nature of bankruptcy finality does not “overcome the general aversion to piecemeal appeals” (cleaned up)). So the voluntary dismissal did not make the bankruptcy court’s earlier, partial dismissal final.

“True, some partial dismissals are final and appealable after the parties voluntarily dismiss the remaining claims. See Affinity Living Grp., LLC v. StarStone Specialty Ins. Co., 959 F.3d 634, 638-39 (4th Cir. 2020). But that’s only when the district court dismisses some claims and, in the process, makes it legally impossible to prevail on the remaining claims, even while allowing them to limp on. Id. In this sense, the litigants do not impermissibly create finality by voluntarily dismissing the doomed claims; they merely recognize that it already effectively exists. See id. at 639 (hearing an appeal from a case that was “legally over” even before the voluntary dismissal).

“That is not what happened here. These parties set out to create finality, not recognize it. The adversary proceeding was not “legally over” after the bankruptcy court’s partial dismissal. See id. Count II’s dismissal did not mean the Kivitis could not prevail on Count I. Count I asked whether Bhatt was in debt to the Kivitis—i.e., whether Bhatt violated D.C. law by renovating the Kivitis’ house without a license and thus owed them money. Count II asked whether any such debt was dischargeable—i.e., whether Bhatt obtained such a debt through “false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud.” See 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(2)(A). Just because the bankruptcy court found that Bhatt had obtained $=P13 no debt through fraud did not mean the Kivitis were wrong that he violated D.C. law. Count I was still very much alive.

“The parties agree that the Kivitis could have prevailed on Count I’s merits even after Count II’s dismissal. In fact, they maintained their proof of claim which sought the same monies. Yet the Kivitis still argue that their voluntary dismissal recognized rather than created finality because, they say, their Count II loss rendered the adversarial proceeding moot. According to them, a moot proceeding is “legally over” and so this appeal falls within Affinity Living Group‘s safe harbor.

“The root of their mootness argument is that, without Count II, any judgment they won via Count I could not be collected outside bankruptcy and their $58,770 would be recovered—if at all—only through the bankruptcy’s proof-of-claims process. So once Count II failed, they argue, Count I became legally moot. A case is moot when “it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever” to the complaining party.5 Mission Prod. Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC., 139 S. Ct. 1652, 1660, 203 L. Ed. 2d 876 (2019) (quoting Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165, 172, 133 S. Ct. 1017, 185 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2013)). Recall that if a debt is discharged, it cannot be collected outside the bankruptcy proceedings. So if the bankruptcy court agreed Bhatt owed the Kivitis money (success on Count I), but determined that debt dischargeable (failure on Count II), the Kivitis could not directly use the judgment they won from Count I to force Bhatt to pay them outside of bankruptcy. Their only means of recovery would be within bankruptcy, via their already filed proof of claim. The Kivitis thus contend that they could not get “any effectual relief” from the adversary proceeding, rendering it moot. Appellant’s Supp. Br. at 10 (“[T]he Bankruptcy Court’s dismissal of Messrs. Kiviti’s claim . . . caused the remaining case to become moot, and to accordingly strip the Bankruptcy Court of Article III jurisdiction.”).

“The Kivitis’ argument is clever; but it misses at least one critical link: Mootness is an Article III doctrine, and bankruptcy courts are not Article III courts. Mootness arises out of Article III’s “case-or-controversy” requirement. The United States’s judicial Power extends only to cases or controversies. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. To be a case or controversy, parties must have a “‘personal stake in the outcome’ of the lawsuit,” at each stage of the litigation. Lewis v. Cont’l Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 478, 110 S. Ct. 1249, 108 L. Ed. 2d 400 (1990) (quoting Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 101, 103 S. Ct. 1660, 75 L. Ed. 2d 675 (1983)); Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 577 U.S. 153, 161, 136 S. Ct. 663, 193 L. Ed. 2d 571 (2016). If they lose that stake, their case drifts beyond the judicial Power and becomes moot. See United States v. Payne, 54 F.4th 748, 751 (4th Cir. 2022). But since bankruptcy courts are not Article III courts, [*17]  they do not wield the United States’s judicial Power. Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. 462, 503, 131 S. Ct. 2594, 180 L. Ed. 2d 475 (2011). So they can constitutionally adjudicate cases that would be moot if heard in an Article III court.

“To be sure, a bankruptcy case must—at the start—be within the judicial Power. Section 1334 grants near-exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters to federal district courts. 28 U.S.C. § 1334(a). The district court may then refer a bankruptcy case to a bankruptcy judge (who serves as a unit of the district court). 28 U.S.C. §§ 157(a), 151.9 But, of course, a district court can only refer a case that it has jurisdiction over. See Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. 506, 514, 19 L. Ed. 264 (1868) (“Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause.”). So before a bankruptcy case is referred to a bankruptcy court, the case must satisfy Article III. See In re Curtis, 571 B.R. 441, 447 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2017) (“[T]he bankruptcy court’s power to hear, or to hear and determine, as the case may be, bankruptcy cases and proceedings is entirely dependent upon the referral by the district court.”).

“So too must Article III be satisfied after the bankruptcy court acts and the case is returned to the district court from the bankruptcy court. Every action by a district court is constrained by Article III, including reviewing a bankruptcy court order. So a district court has no authority to act without an existing constitutional case or controversy. See In re Thorpe Insulation Co., 677 F.3d 869, 880 (9th Cir. 2012); In re Croniser, No. 22-1227, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 28563, 2022 WL 7935991, at *1 (4th Cir. Oct. 14, 2022) (unpublished).

But that limit on the district court’s authority does not constrain the bankruptcy court. Once a case is validly referred to the bankruptcy court, the Constitution does not require it be an Article III case or controversy for the bankruptcy court to act. See In re Technicool Sys., Inc., 896 F.3d 382, 385 (5th Cir. 2018) (“Bankruptcy courts are not Article III creatures bound by traditional standing requirements.”). That requirement comes from the Constitution’s limits on the judicial Power. Bankruptcy courts do not wield judicial Power. End of story.

“At least that is the end of the constitutional story. The statutory story—i.e., whether bankruptcy courts have statutory authority to decide a constitutionally moot matter—is more complex. Still, the tale concludes the same way: a bankruptcy court can adjudicate a constitutionally moot matter.

“Bankruptcy courts, as statutory creatures, have whatever power Congress lawfully gives them. So to see if bankruptcy courts can decide matters outside the judicial Power, we check to see if Congress has given them that power. And Congress has said that bankruptcy courts “may hear and determine all [bankruptcy] cases . . . and all core proceedings . . . referred” to them by a district court. 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)(1) (emphasis added). Not just those that could be fully adjudicated in district court. Once a bankruptcy case lands in bankruptcy court, any number of things could happen before the estate’s distribution is settled. As relevant here, the parties could embroil themselves in an adversary proceeding. But whether that proceeding could itself be adjudicated in an Article III court is of no moment. By § 157’s text, a bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction requires only that the case or core proceeding arise under Title 11 and be referred to the bankruptcy court. § 157(b)(1). Section 157 does not require every “discrete dispute[ ],” see Ritzen, 140 S. Ct. at 587, arising post-referral to satisfy Article III. Nor does any other provision.

“Against this silence, Congress has elsewhere explicitly imported some Article III type requirements onto bankruptcy courts. For example, it created so-called “bankruptcy standing” by giving “parties in interest” a right to be heard, at least in Chapter 11 bankruptcies. See 11 U.S.C. § 1109(b); In re Capital Contracting Co., 924 F.3d 890, 895 (6th Cir. 2019) (discussing § 1109(b)).11 And it also codified some version of mootness for real-property cases. See 11 U.S.C. § 363(m); In re Rare Earth Mins., 445 F.3d 359, 363 (4th Cir. 2006) (explaining that § 363(m) “creates a rule of ‘statutory mootness'”). Yet these principles are not the same as Article III’s limits and Congress has never imported all [*20]  those limitations. We refuse to make that choice for it; indeed we cannot do so. See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 96 (2012) (“[W]hat a text does not provide is unprovided.”).

“A few bankruptcy courts confronting this issue have disagreed. They point to a district court’s authority to “withdraw, in whole or in part, any case or proceeding” referred to a bankruptcy court. See 28 U.S.C. § 157(d). They also think it significant that Congress called bankruptcy courts “unit[s] of the district court,” with judges that are “judicial officer[s]” thereof. See § 151. Following these breadcrumbs, those courts have held that a bankruptcy court’s power depends on a district court’s power—and thus evaporates if the case strays outside of Article III’s bounds. See, e.g., In re Kilen, 129 B.R. 538, 542-43 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 1991) (“In light of the derivative nature of the bankruptcy court’s power, it is obvious that the constitutional standards of Article III which bind the district court also bind the bankruptcy court.”); In re Interpictures, Inc., 86 B.R. 24, 28-29 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 1988); but cf. Stern, 564 U.S. at 500-01.12

“We are unconvinced. Congress requires bankruptcy courts to get cases from district courts and allows district courts to withdraw cases. And the Constitution limits the cases a district court can refer or withdraw. But these two facts do not add up to a limit on the types of matters a bankruptcy court can adjudicate after referral, nor a requirement that those matters be eligible for withdrawal. That could be how it works—if Congress said so. Yet Congress has not said so. So that is not how it works.

“In the same vein, we refuse to overread Congress’s designation of bankruptcy courts as “unit[s]” of the district court. See 28 U.S.C. § 151. Certainly, district courts oversee many aspects of bankruptcy courts. For example, when bankruptcy judges consider matters within the judicial Power, district courts can—indeed sometimes must—review those actions. § 157(a), (b)(1), (c)(1). But bankruptcy courts are not “mere adjuncts” of district courts. Stern, 564 U.S. at 487. They exercise “broad powers” under their own statutory grant of jurisdiction. See id. at 488. Congress did not impliedly limit that express grant through cryptic labelling in a separate provision.

“The argument to the contrary depends on finding something inherent about the words “cases” and “proceedings” in the bankruptcy jurisdictional provisions that brings them necessarily within the judicial Power. It assumes that when Congress gave federal courts (Article III and non-Article III alike) jurisdiction over bankruptcy “cases” and “proceedings,” it imbued those words with Article III’s limits. So that, even absent Article III, the statutes themselves would require the same level of adversariness.

“But we do not ordinarily interpret a jurisdictional statute’s constraints to be the same as the Constitution’s. In fact, we often go out of our way to create differences and draw distinctions even where—unlike here—the statute uses Article III’s precise language. See Navy Fed. Credit Union v. LTD Fin. Servs., LP, 972 F.3d 344, 352 (4th Cir. 2020) (“Unlike the constitutionally permitted ‘minimal diversity’ jurisdiction, diversity must be ‘complete’ to satisfy this Congressional grant.” (citing Strawbridge v. Curtiss, 7 U.S. 267, 267, 2 L. Ed. 435 (1806)).

“If we did, our caselaw would look very different. The constitutional-jurisdiction inquiry would often collapse into the statutory one. Yet it doesn’t. For example, litigants can have statutory jurisdiction to sue States even if the Constitution forbids it. See, e.g.Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10, 10 S. Ct. 504, 33 L. Ed. 842 (1890). More to the point, we dismiss moot cases because they are no longer Article III cases, not because they fall outside the scope of a statute. See, e.g., Eden, LLC v. Justice, 36 F.4th 166, 169-72 (4th Cir. 2022). So we refuse to read in Article III’s limits.

“To recap, bankruptcy courts are not Article III courts. So Article III constraints— such as mootness—do not apply to them as a matter of constitutional aw. They only apply if Congress said so in a statute. But it hasn’t. And that means whether Count I was constitutionally moot is beside the point. The bankruptcy court could still adjudicate it.

“Since the Kivitis cannot argue that their adversary proceeding was constitutionally moot when Count II was dismissed, they have not shown the proceeding was legally doomed when they dismissed Count I. They are thus left arguing the order was final because Count I was practically over post-dismissal. See, e.g., Appellant’s Supp. Br. at 4 (claiming there was “no judicial economy” to pursuing Count I before appealing Count II). Yet the Supreme Court rejected this exact reasoning in Microsoft. The Microsoft plaintiffs also thought it “economically irrational” to litigate their still-legally-viable claims to final judgment. Microsoft Corp., 582 U.S. at 34. Still, the Court refused to let them create finality by voluntarily dismissing those claims. Id. at 36; see also Affinity Living Grp., 959 F.3d at 639 (distinguishing between claims that are “legally” and merely “practically” over). Here too, it is irrelevant that the parties think there is “no judicial economy” in litigating Count I to final judgment before they appeal the order dismissing only Count II. Count I is legally viable, and its dismissal was without prejudice, so that dismissal did not create a final order under § 158(a). And that means the district court lacked jurisdiction to review it.”

Kiviti v Bhatt

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