Lateral Appeal in BKR to District Judge Often Overlooked

The PHH case underscores the statistics and the substance of actions brought in U.S> Bankruptcy Court. The fact is that BKR judges, once called magistrates, do not have the jurisdiction or power of ordinary District Court Judges.

In addition out of the three possible venues for appeal from BKR rulings and decisions, the one that gets the most traction the most often is directly to the sitting District Court judge in whose courthouse the BKR proceedings are pending. District judges are the most likely to find that the BKR “judge” lacked jurisdiction or power to even hear many matters.

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Hat tip to Dan Edstrom

see PHH v Sensenich US Dist Lexis 207801

There are three possible routes for appeal. The one that gets the best results is rarely used for unknown reasons. So here are some pointers on bringing an appeal from a ruling or decision entered by a BKR judge:

  1. Lateral appeal to District Court Judge: Success rate around 50%
  2. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP): Success rate around 15%
  3. Direct appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals: Success rate less than 15%.

This anomaly was first pointed out by a Bankruptcy Court Judge in Arizona who as presenting at a CLE Bar Seminar for Bankruptcy lawyers. The seminar was in 2009 and still we are waiting for BKR practitioners to pick up the ball.

An apparently little known fact is that BKR courts are courts of limited jurisdiction as to what they can hear and how they can hear the issues. Many practitioners avoid an appeal from BKR to the Federal District Court Judge because they think that the District judge is on the same level as the BKR judge. And they think that two judges on the same bench are not going to rule against each other.

This view is simply wrong. They are not on the same bench. District Judges have authority over everything that happens in BKR court. BKR court is itself broken up into two categories. One category is simple rulings on motions in the administrative court proceeding (which is why the BKR “Judges” were called magistrates).

Most of what happens in the administrative phase of a bankruptcy is ministerial. Rulings that cross the line of ruling from ministerial to substantive judgments on the law regarding consumer rights, foreclosures etc. are subject to challenge and are as likely to get overturned by the District Judge as not. This is the part most people have some familiarity.

The other category is Adversary actions. This means someone has filed a lawsuit in Bankruptcy Court that is separately served and subject to the same rules of procedure as an action filed in U.S. District Court. But the similarity ends there. Many adversary actions go far beyond the jurisdiction of the BKR judge.

Lack of jurisdiction means the judgment or ruling is void. Those void judgments are generally reversed by the District Court judge and not necessarily by the BAP or Circuit Court probably because nobody brings up the issue of whether the BKR action was in the correct court.

Generally speaking there are two categories of appeal: procedural and substantive. Appeals citing errors in procedure (including jurisdiction) generally get the most traction. Appeals citing substantive law or worse, citing errors in apprehending the evidence, have the lowest success rate.

In the case cited above, Federal District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford reversed a bankruptcy judge’s ruling that had imposed sanctions against a creditor “based on Rule 3002.1(i) of the Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the bankruptcy court’s inherent authority, and Bankruptcy Code section 105.”

The sanctions were awarded in three cases where debtors had to make mortgage payments pursuant to chapter 13 plans.  The mortgage servicer had billed the debtors for fees that the bankruptcy trustee asserted were improper. At a trustee’s request, the bankruptcy court imposed sanctions against the servicer of $375,000: $25,000 for each case under Rule 3002.(i) and $300,000 total for violations of court orders under its inherent powers and section 105.

Rule 3002.1 permits bankruptcy courts to provide relief to debtors when mortgage creditors fail to disclose certain fees and charges. Rule 3002.1(i) allows courts to remedy violations of certain provisions of Rule 3002.1 by (among other things) “award[ing] other appropriate relief, including reasonable expenses and attorney’s fees caused by the failure.” Whether Rule 3002.1 authorizes punitive sanctions was a matter of first impression. Neither the parties nor the court had found a case where a bankruptcy court had invoked the rule to support sanctions in this manner.

Judge Crawford reasoned that, because Rule 3002.1 is a procedural rule, it cannot enlarge the substantive authority of the bankruptcy courts. If bankruptcy courts do not have the substantive authority under statute and case law to issue punitive sanctions, then a mere procedural rule cannot alter the lack of substantive authority. The court thus concluded that the question under Rule 3002.1(i) was reducible to the question under a bankruptcy court’s inherent powers and section 105.

For homeowners this ruling helps. Citing it puts the banks in the position of opposing a ruling that went in their favor, i.e., this PHH case.  This also puts the homeowner on notice to check carefully before filing an adversary action instead of a collateral action that is directly before the District Judge or even State Court.

The problem is that most BKR attorneys who mostly do Chapter 7 and Chapter 13, have little or no litigation experience. Thus it may be necessary to NOT  charge your BKR lawyer with there responsibility of filing an adversary or collateral action and to bring in separate trial counsel even if the decision is made to file an adversary complaint.

 

 

 

Objections and Preserving Your Rights on Appeal: From, Whose Lien Is It Anyway? by Neil F Garfield

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Editor’s Comment:

Foreclosure cases are won or lost on procedure more than on the merits of the case offered by either side. Lawyer and especially pro se litigants tend to use the right of appeal, as though it was a vehicle for entertaining evidence, objections or motions that should have been made. These make up a large percentage of the 85% of cases that are affirmed on appeal.[1]

The appellate court rarely has even the power to consider affidavits or other evidence that was not proffered and which does not show up on the record on appeal sent by the clerk of the court on the “trial” level. The appellate court is limited to what DID happen and not what SHOULD have happened. If the matter was properly raised in the lower court, then the matter may be considered by the appellate court. If not, then they must simply state that the grounds for appeal were not properly preserved for appeal and affirm the decision of the lower court Judge.

In foreclosure cases, most of the objections that should be made are known in advance and quite probably should be brought or offered as a motion in limine before the actual hearing, so that the complete focus of the court is on the issue that  would be presented by opposing counsel  and the objections raised by the borrower homeowner. In those cases, where the objections are known in advance, you should not only state that you have an objection, but the state the reasons for your objection and include a memorandum of law on the point, complete with copies of the most relevant cases.

Most of the errors that I see on the trial court level amounts to denial of due process in that the Court refuses to hear the merits or to allow the parties to conduct discovery. If that is the case in your case, you should mention it even though it is “fundamental error” that the appellate court could hear even without raising the objection contemporaneously with the subject of your objection.

This assures (along with the transcription from a court reporter) that everything about that objection was stated, presented and denied, if such is the case. It might also alert the Judge that you are ready to make such an appeal. If the objection is procedural relating to whether a proper foundation has been laid for the introduction of evidence, or whether the Court is accepting the proffer of counsel without any evidence in the record to support it, then you must make that point clearly and with support from citations in your own state. If the court refuses to hear the objections in limine then you still have the matters raised as part of the court record but you must raise the objection in the hearing or you might well have waived them unless your main point (ill advised) is that the court abused its discretion in denying the motion in limine without hearing it on the merits.

In every case I have seen reversed on appeal, there was something in the record that contradicted or nothing in the record that supported the position taken on appeal.

There are no magic words or bullets on objections. What is necessary is that you state it, without rambling on tangent subjects, with sufficient specificity so that the appellate court will understand in a flash what your objection related to, and what grounds and what law upon which you were relying. Do not combine objections. If you have more than one then state that you have 2 or more objections and proceed with the first.

The mistake I see in appeals and trial proceedings is that the attorney for the homeowner borrower remains silent while opposing counsel states facts that are not in the record (because there has not been an adversary proceeding and that you deny those facts, as they are in issue between the two sides). In many cases the Judge takes silence as a concession that the facts are true as stated and that your defense relates to something other than contesting the facts being proffered by opposing counsel.

The appellate court might agree, particularly if you are not clear in immediately identifying the fact that there was a real transaction in which money exchanged hands and then another event which involved the signing of papers but in which there was no actual transaction. The fact that the borrower believed the papers to be true while everyone else knew they were not, cannot now be used to further the fraud upon your client.

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[1] It has been pointed out by some bankruptcy court judges that out of the three possibilities for appeal of a bankruptcy court ruling, petitioners and their counsel usually bypass the appeal laterally to the sitting District Court Judge charged with hearing civil cases with Federal jurisdiction and with hearing appeals from decisions made in the bankruptcy court. Sources tell us that the percentage of reversals and remand is possibly as high as 50% when brought to the District Judge rather than the BAP or Circuit Court of Appeals.

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