By Ryan C. Wood
Time and time again I hear various government overpayments are not dischargeable when filing for bankruptcy protection. This is wrong. Government overpayments and overpayments are general unsecured debts that are eligible to be discharged when filing bankruptcy. I dedicated an entire section of a bankruptcy attorney website to hopefully dispel this myth over seven years ago. Overpayments from various government entities such as the California EDD (Employment Development Department), welfare overpayments, food stamp overpayments, social security overpayments and even retirement benefit overpayments are eligible to be discharged when filing for bankruptcy protection given they are general unsecured debts.
Do Not Forget About Recoupment Though
What is even more unknown is what equitable recoupment is. This article discusses the difference between a setoff and equitable recoupment. Equitable recoupment is not a violation of the automatic stay or order of discharge resulting from filing for bankruptcy and that is what is at issue in the case described and listed below.
Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel No. CC-17-1375-LSF
The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel recently had an appeal that dealt with these issues as it pertained to a former city council member who also served on the planning commission for a city for around 17 years, a long time. Upon retirement she applied to supplement her retirement income by obtaining retirement income from the State of California via CalPers (she was apparently a State of California employee) and the also applied in her city for their Retirement Enhancement Plan benefits given her “:public service” as a member of the city council and planning commission. The 9th Circuit BAP memorandum of decision specifically added a footnote to the memorandum of decision to highlight that this person was on the city council at the time this Retirement Enhancement Plan was approved and that she voted in favor of the Retirement Enhancement Plan.
The Retirement Enhancement Plan is supposed to provide a small supplement to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPers) benefits for only certain eligible city employees. Public Agency Retirement System (PARS) is a private corporation that manages this Retirement Enhancement Plan. When there is an overpayment of some sort of benefit the question is always why was the person overpaid? In this case there seemingly are mistakes by all parties involved. The Retirement Enhancement Plan enrollee and bankruptcy filer in this case provided PARS with her income correctly as $14,938.04 annually or a year, which should have resulted in a monthly plan benefit of only $99.87 from the Retirement Enhancement Plan. Then PARS sent her an enrollment packet that mistakenly had the income listed as $14,938.04 per month, not annually, and resulted in a monthly benefit payment of $1,198.84 or a 1,100% increase……. The enrollee just signed the enrollment documents and returned them to PARS with the mistake. The overpayment of $1,098.97 continued for about 19 months before PARS realized the mistake and requested the $21,972.20 in overpayments be immediately returned.
Four months later in December 2014 the enrollee and overpayment receiver filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. Again, the PARS overpayment is a general unsecured debt that is eligible be discharged when filing for protection under the Bankruptcy Code. In Chapter 13 it becomes a little more complicated given a bankruptcy filer may have an obligation to pay all or part of their unsecured debt back and have the unpaid portion discharged upon completion of the Chapter 13 Plan. Almost three years after filing the Chapter 13 bankruptcy case the bankruptcy filer and overpayment receiver filed a motion for sanctions against PARS for violating the automatic stay in the chapter 13 case for withholding benefits to recoup the overpayment she received before the chapter 13 bankruptcy case was filed.
As I have told potential clients and clients for years that the underlying overpayment is eligible to be discharged, but the entity that the overpayment is owed the money has the right to recoup from any future benefits you made receive. This is what PARS is doing in this case. PARS reduced the bankruptcy filers/overpayment receivers’ current benefit to recoup the overpayment or funds the bankruptcy filer should not have received. The bankruptcy filer and her bankruptcy attorneys filed a motion for sanctions saying PARS is violating the automatic stay in the bankruptcy case by continuing to collect on a debt that is part of the bankruptcy filing and eligible to be discharged. This is called equitable recoupment.
PARS filed an opposition to the motion for sanctions providing the bankruptcy filer or overpayment receiver should have known she was receiving too much each month given she had approved the Retirement Enhancement Plan when she was on the city council and she knew the Retirement Enhancement Plan was intended only to provide a minimal supplement to CalPers retirement payments. She actually received $1,198.84 each month and that is a lot higher than the intent of the Retirement Enhancement Plan. Also PARS argued that she had signed the forms that included the calculation error and should have noticed the calculation error at that point too. If the cashier is supposed to give you a dollar in change and gives you $1,000 19 times in a row instead you will notice right? The bankruptcy court held PARS had the right to equitable recoupment and the bankruptcy filer and overpayment receiver appealed the order denying her motion for sanctions to the 9th Cir. BAP. So here we are now.
Equitable recoupment is not a violation of the automatic stay when filing for bankruptcy protection. Equitable recoupment is also not provided for in the Bankruptcy Code, but is a common law equitable doctrine, a fairness doctrine, that provides the setting up of a demand arising from the same transaction as a plaintiff’s claim or cause of action for the purposes of abatement or reduction. See Newbery Corp. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 95 F.3d 1392, 1399 (9th Cir. 1996). Recoupment is not subject to or limited to claims that exist before a bankruptcy case is filed and can be recovered after the bankruptcy case is filed. This is what is going on in this case by PARS. PARS setup a demand for return of the overpayment for the purpose of abatement or reduction of the bankruptcy filer’s current and future benefits under the Retirement Enhancement Plan. If the bankruptcy filer was no longer receiving benefits under the Retirement Enhancement Plan from PARS, then there is no way for the abatement or reduction to take place on current and future received benefits.
Here comes the more complicated part and a detailed analysis of if a party has the right to recoupment. There is a two part test used by the Ninth Circuit….. the events need to be part of the same transaction and must be sufficiently interconnected so that it would be unjust to insist that one party fulfills its obligation without requiring the same of the other party. The Ninth Circuit uses a logical relationship test regarding if the events are part of the same transaction. See Aetna U.S. Healthcare, Inc. v. Madigan (In re Madigan), 270 B.R. 749, 753 (9th Cir. BAP 2001). Transaction is defined liberally and in a flexible construction or broadly.
The original Bankruptcy Court found that the logical relationship test was satisfied given the debt owed to PARS and future benefits owed to the bankruptcy filer/overpayment receiver were from the same facts. The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel did not have too much to add to the analysis and agreed that the overpayment owed to PARS and the current benefits received by the bankruptcy filer/overpayment receiver are from the identical transaction and retirement plan.
The bankruptcy filer/overpayment receiver in the appeal attempts to argue that equitable recoupment is not part of the Bankruptcy Code, if Congress intended for equitable recoupment to be an exception to the automatic stay Congress would have included it in Section 362(b) of the Bankruptcy Code and California law prohibits the offset of retirement benefits. The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel explained that it is bound by Ninth Circuit precedent unless overturned by the Supreme Court and equitable recoupment is a doctrine in the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel further noted that the bankruptcy filer/overpayment receiver did not make these arguments in her opening brief so the panel does not have to consider them regardless. Ouch. Regarding California law prohibiting the recoupment of retirement benefits the appellate court equally slams the door and provides multiples cases in which California courts treat pension benefits the same as wages for purposes of recoupment. See Krolikowski v. San Diego City Emps.’ Ret. Sys., 24 Cal. App. 5th 537, 557 (2018) (holding that recoupment of state pension benefit overpayment was not barred by statutes of limitations; exemptions for levy and attachment of public retirement benefits; equitable estoppel; or laches).
What Happens Most of The Time Regarding Overpayments When Filing Bankruptcy
What happens with overpayments most of the time when filing bankruptcy is after receiving a discharge that is the end. Someone receives an overpayment for whatever reason and they do not need future benefits from the program or entity they received the overpayment from. There is no way for the discharged overpayment to be collected on given there are no current or future benefits paid out that can be reduced for recoupment purposes.
Do Not Mistake Setoff With Equitable Recoupment
Unlike equitable recoupment setoff is codified in Section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code. Setoff allows a creditor to deduct amounts owed to it by the bankruptcy filer from amounts the creditor owes to the person or entity filing for bankruptcy protection. A creditor must request and receive relief from the automatic stay before doing any sort of setoff. Also a distinguishing difference is setoff does not allow claims from before the bankruptcy case was filed to be setoff with claims after the bankruptcy case was filed.