By Ryan C. Wood
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on October 14, 2015, see In re Schwartz-Tallard Case No. 12-60052, that debtors can recover attorneys’ fees and costs reasonably incurred when seeking sanctions and damages for the willful violation of the automatic stay pursuant to Section 362(k) of the Bankruptcy Code. This is a huge decision and was badly needed. How can anyone enforce their rights if they cannot afford to hire representation and that representation cannot even recover their fees for correctly and successfully prosecuting the award of damages? They cannot and it created vast injustices for those damaged by the willful violation of the automatic stay. This holding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals properly makes the party, creditors; bare the cost of their bad behavior, willfully violating the automatic stay. I previously wrote way back in December 2010 about how the backbone of the bankruptcy process is the automatic stay.
Previously debtors could only recover attorneys’ fees and costs up to when the violation of the stay was remedied. Not attorneys’ fees and cost associated with seeking sanctions and damages when remedying the automatic stay violation. This structure of recovery of fees was a huge problem for debtors and their bankruptcy attorneys. For some reason the system time and time again has policies that do not allow attorneys for debtors to be paid for their time when advocating on behalf of their clients. Enforcing the violation of the automatic stay used to be a prime example. A client would come to us with evidence a creditor is violating the automatic stay even though they were served with notice of the bankruptcy case. Some violations of the automatic stay are innocent and can be remedied by sending an email or letter to the creditor or their counsel. The damages are not significant.
In other circumstances creditors actually sue debtors post-discharge for a discharged debt and then refuse to dismiss the state court lawsuit. If you have ever been sued for any reason it does not feel good. Under the prior fee structure if their bankruptcy lawyer filed a motion for sanctions in bankruptcy court for the willful violation of the automatic stay the creditor could then just seek dismissal of the state court lawsuit as soon as possible after the filing of the motion for sanctions. Then all the time and effort to seek damages for the creditor’s willful violation of the automatic could not awarded to the debtor’s attorney. That would include the time to appear at the hearing for sanctions and any time after the violation was cured when continuing to prove damages that in some cases are very significant. What a horrible structure. It encouraged violations of the automatic stay and discouraged debtors from enforcing their rights for the violation of the automatic stay and seeking damages. In my opinion it went against everything filing for bankruptcy PROTECTION is supposed to be about.
Now creditors will properly weigh the consequences of their willful choice to violate the automatic stay properly given they will have to pay for the debtors attorney’s fees and costs from day one to the end of the process of proving damages. There will therefore be less violations of the automatic stay and debtors can obtain the relief they originally sought when filing a petition for bankruptcy. It will also eliminate the need to litigate exactly when the violation of the automatic stay ended and how much time and money was spent by the debtor’s attorney up to when the violation of the automatic stay ended. The focus can now be on the willful violation of the automatic stay that should never have happened and the resulting damages. Attorneys for debtors will also no longer fear, at least in this area of representing debtors, that they will get left holding the bag financially for properly advocating on behalf of their clients. Now if we could only get this kind of treatment in other areas of bankruptcy practice regarding the time we spend advocating for our clients there would be even more justice to be had by debtors. After all, filing for bankruptcy protection is following the law.
In the Schwartz-Tallard case the facts are actually far worse. The debtor’s house was improperly foreclosed on and the debtor had to fight to get the house back. The debtor then sought sanctions and damages. The creditor in this case appealed the rulings of the lower bankruptcy court and lost. In this case the debtor’s attorney could not recover all the time and money spent defending the appeals? The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remedied the prior strange result in the Steinberg case limiting recovery of attorneys’ fees and cost to when the automatic stay violation ceased and now include recovery of attorneys’ fees and cost seeking damages, including any appeals.