Automatic Stay Violations

27 Mar

11 U.S.C. Section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code, otherwise known as the “Automatic Stay” is perhaps the most well known section in the Code. The Stay comes into play in every bankruptcy case at the moment the bankruptcy petition is filed with the Court Clerk’s office. Section 362(a) delineates the types of matters which are “stayed”, and subsection 362(b) describes the matters which are not bound by the Stay. Subsection 362(c) explains the time period during which the stay operates in cases under various chapters in the Code, and subsections 362(d) – (g) provides the framework for motions filed with the Bankruptcy Court for “Relief from the Stay” to enable a creditor to take action which is otherwise prohibited under subsection 362(a).

Subsection 362(h) describes the penalties that can be assessed for violations of the Automatic Stay. It reads as follows:

(h) An individual injured by any willful violation of a stay provided by this section shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.

Note that subsection (h) only refers to individuals, Moratzka v. Visa U.S.A., 159 B.R. 247 (Bankr. D. Minn. 1993); corporations which find that they are victims of stay violations must resort to the general contempt powers of the Bankruptcy Court under 11 U.S.C. Section 105 to obtain relief. See In re Chateaugay Corp., 920 F. 2d 183 (2nd Cir. N.Y. 1990); Jove Eng’g v. I.R.S., 92 F. 3d 1539 (11th Cir. Ala. 1996). It is also important to recognize that subsection 362(h) is considered as an additional right for debtors and not foreclosing other remedies that might be available to debtors. 130 Cong. Record 6504 (House March 26, 1984).

This subsection has been interpreted to have a restriction built into the remedies available: the violation must be “willful” in order for damages and attorneys’ fees to be awarded. An example of how “willful” has been defined some courts is contained in Atkins v. Martinez, 176 B.R. 1008 (Bankr. D. Minn. 1994): “The element of deliberation that is contemplated here, of course, is the specific intent to proceed with an act, knowing that it is proscribed by a court order”. Recently, the First Circuit decided Fleet Mortgage Group, Inc. v. Kaneb, 1999 WL 1006329 (1st. Cir.) and described how “willful” will be defined in this circuit.

The Court concluded that a willful violation does not require a specific intent to violate the stay. The standard under Subsection 362(h) is met if there is knowledge of the stay and the defendant intended the actions which constituted the violation. Kaneb, supra. at 2. Further, where the creditor received actual notice of the automatic stay, courts must presume that the violation was deliberate. Kaneb, at 2. Finally, the First Circuit gave guidance as to the burden of proof in stay violation actions. “The debtor has the burden of providing the creditor with actual notice. Once the creditor receives actual notice, the burden shifts to the creditor to present violations of the automatic stay.” Kaneb, at 2.

Also of interest in the Kaneb case is that the debtor was awarded damages in the sum of $25,000 for emotional distress and $18,200.68 in attorneys’ fees and costs of appeal. The emotional distress damages were deemed appropriate, in part, due to the specificity with which the debtor was able to describe the harm he suffered as a result of the bank’s stay violations. Counsel should carefully read this decision to learn what to do (and not to do) in prosecuting and defending stay violation actions under subsection 362(h).

There are two types of proceedings that can be brought: a “motion for order to show cause” which requests the Court to issue an order requiring the offending creditor to appear before the Court and explain its conduct (reminiscent of Ricky Ricardo telling Lucy that she “has some esplainin’ to do”); or a formal adversary proceeding (summons and complaint). Either mechanism for bringing the mater to the Court’s attention appears to be equally effective, unless the creditor is an individual or business with few contacts with Maine – in that scenario, the summons and complaint process is best to catch the attention of the offending creditor.

The Kaneb decision should be well cited for years since it may spawn a new pursuit of stay violators. While debtors may have been willing to let creditors off the hook with minor sanctions for a stay violation in the past, more significant sanctions could be sought in these matters in the future. The prospect of stay violations by credit card companies can only increase as the card companies and/or their accounts are bought and sold. Currently, credit card accounts in bankruptcy are considered commodities to be exchanged. It is expected that the selling companies will not always adequately label the accounts they package for sale, or that the buying companies have procedures in place to address bankruptcy concerns. Automatic Stay violators beware!

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