Articles Posted in Appellate Court

United States Supreme Court, Docket: 14-116 Opinion Date: May 4, 2015

Appellant Bullard filed a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy case and proposed Plan. The Debtor’s mortgage lender objected to the treatment of its claim under the Plan and the Bankruptcy Court sustained that objection, denying confirmation of the Plan with leave to amend.

First Appeal

The Debtor appealed the denial of confirmation to the 1st Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which concluded that denial of confirmation was not a final, appealable order under 28 U.S.C.158(a)(1). Nonetheless, the BAP heard the issue as an interlocutory appeal – the operative provision in the Bankruptcy Code requiring “with leave of the court.” Tha BAP agreed that Bullard’s proposed Plan did not accord proper treatment to the mortgage company and upheld the ruling of the Bankruptcy Court.

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The Facts

In 2004 Miller sought to build a 4-unit condominium project on her lot in Monona, Wisconsin. The process stalled while Miller bought another lot, amended the plan, and abated an unexpected asbestos problem. Then her real problems began.

Miller negotiated unsuccessfully with her neighbor, a former mayor, who trespassed onto her property at the direction of city officials and took photographs for use at a planning commission meeting to oppose her project. Citations were issued for creating a public nuisance and working without the proper permit; the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a “Stop Work” Order due to the asbestos. Miller was also required to erect a fence, was told that weeds were too high, and was ordered to remove various structures.

State Courts

A Wisconsin State Court rejected 3 of the citations issued against her, stating that while “some of the efforts to enforce compliance were unreasonable” Miller had not pointed to any similarly situated person who had been treated differently. With the Court on its side, Monona refused to adjust taxes on the property to reflect the demolition of existing structures, and Officials continued to trespass by parking cars on her property. Continue reading →

Today’s post features a pair of cases in which a foreclosure defense Attorney seems to have gone too far. Foreclosure defense has become a veritable cottage industry over the past decade and it is common for Clients to expect their lawyer to do more than fight. They want to delay “by any means necessary.” But the Courts still regard the law as a genteel profession. This means that what Clients see as run of the mill zealous lawyering comes off to the Judge as unprofessional or worse. This pair of cases highlights that point.

Case #1: In re Wendy A. Nora

Facts

Nora was known for using tactics to prolong her Clients’ cases. Here she had removed a matter to Federal Court based on what she called “recently uncovered research” to the effect that Freddy Mac was the true party in interest. The case was already 4 years old. But the District Court rejected her argument and remanded back to State Court, awarding PNC its Attorney’s fees and costs.

Nora moved for reconsideration. The Court did not change its position and called her pleading “frivolous” because she made “no good faith argument for changing existing law and offered no meritorious arguments for reconsidering the decision to award fees.” The Court went on to say that Nora “repeatedly used procedural feints to delay the foreclosure” and noted that she’d been suspended from practice in Minnesota for that very reason.

Back in State Court Nora continued her tactics: accusing the Judge and the Court Reporter of manipulating transcripts even as she asserted that the District Judge had pursued a campaign of libel and Opposing Counsel engaged in “civil fraud” and “racketeering.” Nora also made repeatedly references to rejected arguments from prior motions and stated that if she were given an evidentiary hearing she would be vindicated.

Findings

In her defense, Nora characterized her comments as mere rudeness. The Court disagreed, stating that her repeated and factually baseless accusations of criminal conduct were “unacceptable.” It then found that:

  • Nora’s actions were meant solely to delay her Clients’ foreclosure; and that
  • Her outbursts  were “unbecoming a member of the bar” in violation of Rule 38 of the Rules of Federal Appellate Procedure.

Holding

The Court Imposed sanctions of $2,500 on Nora and ordered she be suspended from practicing before it. The holding was forwarded to the Office of Lawyer Regulation of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where a disciplinary case is underway.

Case #2: Nora v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A.

Facts

HSBC initiated a Wisconsin foreclosure against the Rinaldis, who counterclaimed alleging that certain paperwork had been fraudulently altered and that HSBC lacked standing to enforce the mortgage. The Rinaldis lost at summary judgment and did not appeal. HSBC later agreed to modify its mortgage and the Court vacated the Judgment of Foreclosure. The Rinaldis filed a new suit reasserting their counterclaims. Before the Court could rule on HSBC’s motion to dismiss, the Rinaldis filed Bankruptcy. HSBC filed a Proof of Claim in the Bankruptcy, but the Rinaldis objected and filed Adversary claims alleging fraud, abuse of process, tortious interference, breach of contract, and violations of RICO and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Holding

The Bankruptcy Court recommended denial of the Adversary action and the District Court agreed.The Court also warned the Rinaldis that if they filed additional frivolous claims they would be sanctions due to the “vexatious and time and resource-consuming” nature of their “nigh-unintelligible” filings.

Did that deter the Rinadldis? Perish the thought. Following several additional filings of the same type the Rinaldis voluntarily dismissed their Bankruptcy but their Attorney, Nora, filed additional motions. Consequently the Court ordered a sanction of $1,000 against Nora, which the 7th  Circuit upheld on appeal.

The Upshot

Lawyers are asked to be advocates, but how zealous is too zealous? While cases such as the ones above could answer that question, it is not clear that they do. Was Nora too zealous in this case or just too rude? Should she not have stepped into a Courtroom to begin with? Should she have done more diligence or tossed out her Client because they were asking for too much? Sadly, the simple fact is that even if an Attorney is prepared to draw the line, they can bet there is another lawyer around the corner that won’t.

No wonder Shakespeare wrote “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Your Turn

Want to share your thoughts on this post? Need to discuss your own situation? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us via e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.

In Kmart v. Footstar and Liberty Mutual the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was presented with 2 primary issues:

  • Is an indemnification clause triggered when an employee acts outside the scope of his duties?
  • Does an insurance company have a duty to defend the lawsuit arising from such an incident?

The Facts

Footstar operated the footwear department at various Kmart locations. Footstar employees could only work in shoe department unless they had written permission from Kmart. The agreement between the two stores provided that Footstar was to “reimburse, indemnify, defend and hold [Kmart] harmless” in the event of an accident. Footstar also bought insurance from Liberty Mutual.

In 2005 a Kmart customer asked for assistance retrieving a stroller. Both a Kmart and Footstar employee attempted to secure the stroller, which fell out of the box and hit the customer in the face. The accident took place well outside the Footstar department. The customer sued Kmart in negligence. Kmart in turn sued Footstar and Liberty Mutual, alleging that they owed a duty to defend and indemnify it.

The Opinion

First, the 7th Circuit ruled that Footstar and Liberty Mutual did not have a duty to indemnify Kmart: for such a duty to arise the injury would have to arise “pursuant to” or “under” the agreement between the stores. But that agreement in this case prohibited Footstar employees from taking action outside the footwear department. The Court also noted that the duty to indemnify arises only where the insured’s activity and resulting damages fall within the policy’s coverage terms. Since the Footstar employee here was acting in an extra-contractual manner, there was no indemnification requirement.

Second, the Court noted that under Illinois and New Jersey law Footstar and Liberty Mutual were liable for defense costs incurred following notice of the lawsuit because an insurer may be required to defend its insured even when there will ultimately be no obligation to indemnify. In other words, an insurer has a duty to defend unless the complaint in issue simply did not involve its insured.

In summary, the Court concluded that the actions of the Footstar employee were “potentially covered” and arose out of his performance under the agreement between the stores.

The Upshot

This case reminds us that even in this day and age contract drafting is a nuanced but critical part of what lawyers do. Here, the Agreement and the Policy were both deemed ambiguous by the Court, which left them open to competing interpretations. Had they been better written, the issue may not have come up at all.

 

Kashwere, LLC vs. Kashwere USAJPN, LLC
Before the U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Circuit
Docket No. 13-3730 Decided November 13

The Facts

Diversity jurisdiction brought this complex commercial case before the 7th Circuit, which applied Illinois law to a series of trademark and business questions. At issue was whether the developer of chenille fabric under the tradename “Kashwere” (Selzer) could prevent a series of transactions via a non-compete agreement (“NCA”) and, conversely, whether the buyer of the Kashwere trademark (Kashwere LLC) could prevent Selzer from using a conduit company and distributors (Kashwere USAJPN) to get around that same NCA.

The Issues

The background in the case makes the opinion lengthy and complex: in fact, the Court goes out of its way to mention the convoluted facts and blames the litigants’ Attorneys for failing to keep it simple. But the issues are actually limited and familiar. In a nutshell, they are:

1) Can Kashwere LLC, as licensee of the Kashwere trademark, prevent Selzer from using USAJPN to market overseas via distributors; and
2) Can Kashwere USAJPN prevent Kashwere from allegedly violating the same NCA by attempting to sell directly into the Japanese market.

Put another way, the issues were:

(A) Does the NCA prevent distributors – not the signatories themselves but their distributors – from selling Kashwere?
(B) If not, do the equitable obligations of good faith and fair dealing implied in Illinois contracts prevent the same?

The Decision

The Appellate Court concluded that the facts indicated Selzer was not playing fair (so licensee Kashwere LLC has a cause of action) but it is dubious whether the NCA would affect the right of distributors of USAJPN to sell the product once they bought it. In other words, the NCA could only bind the signatories, not prevent the distributors from selling the product.

The Upshot

The Opinion basically favors free commerce and reads the NCA – a document the parties hoped would prevent future litigation – narrowly. That narrow reading means that there is only the slightest wiggle room for Selzer, so licensee, Kashwere LLC, ought to obtain relief on remand (although not the draconian relief that it was seeking initially). As for Selzer and his would-be Japanese conduit USAJPN, they do not fair well in this opinion at all.

Your Turn

Want to share your thoughts on this post? Need to discuss your own situation? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us via e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.

As a Bankruptcy lawyer I can’t count how many times people have asked why Courts won’t reduce their mortgage debt to match the deflated value of their home, or why they should pay anything on that second mortgage, line of credit, or HELOC, when they’re underwater. I even discussed these questions and the state of the law concerning lien strips in this post. Now, the very cases referred to in that post have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the stage is set for the battle of the lien strip cases.

Of course this all started with the Supreme Court’s 1992 Opinion in Dewsnup v. Timm that the Bankruptcy Code does not permit the cramdown of a partially secured mortgage. Some Courts took this to mean that lien-strips are a no-no. Others interpreted it to mean that lien-strips were permissible under the right circumstances. So in some parts of the country a completely unsecured second mortgage can be stripped, but only in a Chapter 13 reorganization; while in other parts it can be stripped in a Chapter 7 liquidation, too.

So, with Courts in disagreement, what’s a home-owner to do? Remember, in Dewsnup the Court ruled the Bankruptcy Code doesn’t permit mortgages to be written down to the value of the home – even though that practice, known as the cram down,  is acceptable as to vehicles. Ironically, one of the Court’s primary concerns in Dewsnup was to prevent windfall gains to home-owners who strip away their loans, then enjoy the profits as their homes rise in value.

But that didn’t exactly happen, did it? These days, most people’s homes are more a burden than a boon. Luckily the Supreme Court has agreed to take another look at the question. And just in time: being underwater with your 1st mortgage while having an unsecured 2nd is the new normal. And nowhere is that more true than in Florida where both cases to be consolidated and heard by the Court, Bank of America v. Caulkett and Bank of America v. Toledo-Cardona, started off as Chapter 7 Bankruptcies.

In a nutshell, the issue to be decided is whether, in a Chapter 7, partially secured mortgages can be written down and unsecured ones written off, despite the Supreme Court’s Dewsnup decision. Here, Florida home-owners filed Chapter 7 and were allowed to strip their unsecured second mortgages. That decision by the Bankruptcy Court was affirmed by the Federal District Court as well as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bank of American now wants the Supreme Court to outlaw Chapter 7 lien strips once and for all.

Stay tuned to this station as the case goes up for argument and decision. We’ll bring you the opinion as soon as it’s available.

Your Turn

Want to share your thoughts on the largest municipal Bankruptcy in U.S. history? Need to discuss your own situation? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us via e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.

Many small business owners find comfort and success capitalizing on a franchise. Franchisors use Non-Compete (“NCA”) and Non-Disclosure (“NDA”) clauses as well as mandatory arbitration provisions to protect themselves. But should such a provision be effective against a non-signing spouse? That was the question before the Appellate Court in the recent 7th Circuit case of Everett vs. Paul Davis Restoration. The short answer? Yes, it is.

The Family Business

Davis Restoration entered into a Franchise Agreement with Matthew Everett, husband of Plaintiff Renee, as the “principal owner” of Franchisee EA Green Bay. Sometime after signing as the sole owner of EA, Matthew transferred 50% of the company to his wife despite not securing permission from the Franchisor beforehand. Eventually, the Franchise Agreement was terminated and the 2-year non-compete provision took effect. Matthew then transferred the remaining 45% of EA to his wife, who continued to operate it under the name “Building Werks” from the same location with the same customers and employees. Moreover, the Franchisor contended, Building Werks continued to capitalize on its good will and reputation.

Reversal of Fortune

The Franchisor reacted to the breach of its NCA by initiating arbitration with Mrs. Everett, who sought a declaratory judgment in District Court to the effect that she should not be bound by the Arbitration Clause because the Franchise Agreement was signed by her husband. The District Court, however, found “abundant evidence” that she had benefited from the Franchise Agreement and therefore could be compelled to arbitrate according its terms. This was the so-called Direct Benefits Doctrine.

Following arbitration, the Franchisor went back to Court to confirm the unanimous finding in its favor. To its great surprise, this time the District Court denied confirmation and declared that its earlier ruling had been in error. Now, the Court felt, the benefit to Renee from the Franchise Agreement had not been “direct” but “indirect” through her ownership interest in EA and relationship to her husband. As a result, she could not be compelled to accept the arbitration award.

The Doctrine of Direct Benefits Estoppel

The Franchisor appealed to the 7th Circuit, which set about deciding whether the obligation to arbitrate in such a document was limited to those who had personally signed it or could include non-signatories benefited by it. Ultimately the Appellate Court reached same basic conclusion drawn by the District Court the first time around: that the non-signing, benefited party could not escape her obligation to arbitrate because she was estopped from doing so by the Doctrine of Direct Benefits.

As the Court observed, a direct benefit is derived the subject agreement itself. An indirect benefit by contrast would be one derived from exploitation of the contractual relationship of the parties. The 7th Circuit found that Mrs. Everett received the same benefits as her husband, including the ability to trade on the name, goodwill, and reputation of the Franchisor. In fact, Mrs. Everett’s ownership in EA had only arisen because EA had been formed to satisfy the requirements of the Franchisor. In every sense, Renee had benefitted from Matthew’s relationship with the Franchisor.

The Upshot

Perhaps the primary message of this case was that those who live by the Franchise Agreement, die by the Franchise Agreement…. So to speak. If a party directly benefits from a deal, they should be made to comply with its less glorious features as well. After all, any other conclusion would end up handing franchisees a giant loophole.

Questions about your own situation? Business owner looking for answers? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach out to us by e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.

In LaSalle Bank N.A. vs. Cypress Creek 1, LP (Edon Construction et al.), 950 N.E.2d 1109 (2011), 242 Ill.2d 231 (Feb. 25, 2011), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on the thorny problem of how to apportion proceeds from a foreclosure sale between the mortgagee bank and mechanics lien claimants when there weren’t enough proceeds arising from the foreclosure sale to pay both in full. In other words, who gets paid and who gets the shaft according to Sec. 16 of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act?

Holdings

Here’s what the Court decided:

#1 Sec.16 of the Mechanics Lien Act gives lien claimants priority only as to the value of work in place (materials and labor).

#2 The Illinois S. Ct. case of Clark v. Moore, 64 Ill. 273 (1872) indicates that while the contractor is entitled to the value of unpaid work and materials used to improve the property (which would be in its Mechanics Lien), the value of paid-for work and materials should benefit the mortgage lender (mortgagee), not title holder (mortgagor) or the contractor.

#3 In dividing sale proceeds between the mortgagee and the lien claimant, Illinois Courts have used one of two analyses:

(a) Market Value approach;

(b) The Contract approach.

Courts have also used subordination rules to supplement their analysis.

Conclusion

Under the facts of this case the Court determined that the value of unpaid work in place (the liened sum) should be tendered to the Contractor, except for those improvements paid for with mortgage funds or construction loan funds, which should inure to the Mortgagee. All other sums should go to the Mortgagee as well.

Mechanics Lien or construction law question of your own? See our Construction Primer and feel free to contact us for a confidential consultation.

By Guest Blogger: Paul B. Porvaznik, Esq.

When you file for bankruptcy, you sign sworn schedules that itemize your assets.  If you fail to fully disclose or update your asset summary, you risk a creditor objecting to your discharge on the basis of fraud.  Another peril of nondisclosure concerns claims that arise after the bankruptcy filing; like future lawsuits.   So, what happens if a claim develops after you file your bankruptcy petition but before you are granted a discharge and you don’t inform the bankruptcy court of this claim?  That’s the question examined in Schoup v. Gore, 2014 IL App (4th) 130911 (4 Dist. 2014), a case that will doubtless serve as a cautionary tale for future bankruptcy petitioners.

 In Schoup the debtor filed in 2010 and obtained a discharge in 2012.  Several months into the case the debtor was injured on private property, giving rise to a premises liability claim.  The debtor didn’t tell the bankruptcy court or trustee of the premises suit until after his bankruptcy case was discharged. Indeed, after obtaining his discharge the debtor filed that claim. The property owners moved for summary judgment on the basis of judicial estoppel, arguing that the plaintiff’s failure to disclose the suit as an asset in his bankruptcy barred the post-discharge action entirely.  The trial court agreed and the plaintiff/debtor appealed.

Ruling: Summary judgment affirmed. Why? Because the judicial estoppel doctrine barred the plaintiff’s premises liability suit.  Judicial estoppel prevents a litigant from taking a position in one case and then, in a later case, taking the opposite position (i.e., you can’t claim that you’re an independent contractor in one case and then in a second case, claim that you’re an employee).  Judicial estoppel’s purpose is to protect the integrity of the court system and to prevent a party from making a mockery of court proceedings by conveniently taking whatever position happens to serve that party at a given moment.  (¶ 9).  The five elements of judicial estoppel: (1) two positions are taken by the same party; (2) the positions must be taken in judicial proceedings; (3) the positions must be taken under oath; (4) the party must have successfully maintained the first position and received a benefit from it; and (5) the two positions must be “totally inconsistent.” (¶ 10).  Illinois courts have consistently held that a debtor who fails to disclose an asset – including an unliquidated lawsuit – can’t later realize a benefit from the concealed asset after discharge.  (¶ 14).

The Court agreed with the trial court that all five elements were met.  First, the plaintiff took two positions: he impliedly represented to the bankruptcy court that he had no pending lawsuits and then filed a personal injury suit in state court after discharge.  The two positions were taken in judicial proceedings (Federal bankruptcy court and Illinois state court) and under oath (the plaintiff signed sworn disclosures in the bankruptcy court and filed a sworn complaint in state court).  The plaintiff also obtained a benefit from concealing the premises liability case as he received a discharge without any creditor knowing about the state court claim.  Finally, plaintiff’s positions were “totally inconsistent”: he omitted his personal injury case from his bankruptcy schedules and then filed a state court personal injury suit after he got his discharge. (¶¶ 17-18).

In conclusion, a party that had absolutely nothing to do with the plaintiff’s prior bankruptcy was able to get a case dismissed because the plaintiff didn’t update his asset schedules to account for an inchoate lawsuit.  The case is a great reminder to always check on-line bankruptcy records to see if a plaintiff suing your client has any prior bankruptcies.  More than once I’ve found that a plaintiff recently received a discharge before filing suit and never disclosed the lawsuit as an asset in the bankruptcy case.  In those situations, the plaintiff, not wanting to deal with a judicial estoppel motion (like the one filed by the defendants in this case), is usually motivated to settle for a reduced amount and in one case, even non-suited the case.  Viewed from the debtor’s lens, I counsel clients to fully disclose all assets – even lawsuits that haven’t materialized on the bankruptcy filing date.  Otherwise, they run the risk of having a creditor challenge the discharge or even having a future lawsuit dismissed; like the plaintiff in this case.

My other observation concerns the “sworn statement” judicial estoppel element.  What if the state court complaint wasn’t verified under oath?  Would that still meet the sworn statement criterion?  It’s unclear from the text of the opinion.  If the complaint wasn’t verified, I think I’d argue that the plaintiff didn’t take two sworn contradictory positions.

About the Author: Paul B. Porvaznik, Esq. is a business litigation attorney practicing in Chicago at the firm of Molzahn, Rocco, Reed & Rouse, LLC, a full-service litigation firm.  He has practiced for 17 years primarily in the areas of general civil litigation, mechanics liens, landlord-tenant law, collections, post-judgment enforcement and general business disputes.

As a rule, debtors ask the Bankruptcy Court to protect them. In return for its iron-clad protection the Bankruptcy Court demands that all rules be obeyed and debtors refrain from hiding or giving away assets that could be used to satisfy creditors.

To ensure that nothing slips through the cracks Bankruptcy law empowers the case Trustee to claw back anything paid or given away by a debtor within 90 days of filing. In essence, Bankruptcy law treats all such transfers as attempts to shed assets. So payments in that period automatically constitute preferential transfers (“preferences”). Preferences can be sucked back into the Bankruptcy Estate by the Trustee; so unsuspecting vendors can be ambushed and forced to give back money they actually earned!

Finally, to make things even more confusing there are exceptions to the preference rule such as payments in the ordinary course of business, a contemporaneous exchange for value, and receiving new value for the payment.

In re Mississippi Value Livestock

In re Mississippi Valley Livestock, decided recently by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, involved payments made by the debtor within 90 days of an involuntary bankruptcy filing. But since the debtor had not planned on filing, it would be hard to say that it was purposely trying to get rid of property or playing hide-and-seek with assets. So this was not exactly the kind of case the law was meant to prevent. No, this was one of those cases that pushed the Bankruptcy law to its limits.

The Facts

Mississippi Valley Livestock (“Debtor) was in the business of buying and selling cattle for slaughter. J&R Farms (“J&R”) hired the Debtor to sell its cattle and remit the proceeds – essentially a consignment arrangement. The two entities enjoyed a long, prosperous commercial relationship until the Debtor started to fall behind in payments: first to J&R, then to all its other creditors.

While J&R was prepared to wait for things to turn around, a group of creditors got together and petitioned the Debtor into involuntary bankruptcy; but not before it paid around $900,000 to J&R. The Trustee in the Debtor’s case objected that the constituted a “transfer” of “property of the estate” on account of an existing (i.e. “antecedent”) debt: the dictionary definition of a preference.

Finally, no exception applied because this was not an “ordinary” payment – it represented an extraordinary payment to a particular creditor while the other creditors were poised to get nothing at all. The upshot, said the Trustee, was that the Debtor had chosen to pay J&R with money that should have been used to pay all creditors pro rata.

The Issues

The first issue in the case was whether or not the money paid by the Debtor was really its property, and therefore property of the Bankruptcy Estate. If this was the Debtor’s money, then paying it all to J&R – even though it was owed – was a derogation of the pro rata payment obligation of the Trustee: a Bankruptcy no-no.

But J&R argued that the Debtor was really just giving it back its own property (or at least the proceeds from the sale of that property). So if the sold cattle had never belonged to the Debtor, the proceeds from the sale of those cattle didn’t belong to the Debtor either.  And when the Debtor paid J&R, it was just returning what it didn’t own: certainly, that did not constitute a preference, right?

As usual however, there was a fly in the ointment. The Debtor had placed the proceeds from the sale of J&R’s cattle into the same account it used for other monies. The result was comingling of funds, making them indistinguishable when paid out.

So the second issue in the case was whether the Debtor paying J&R back with the proceeds from the cattle sale (J&R’s own money) or with its operating funds and savings (which should have gone to the Trustee and been distributed to other creditors)?

Bankruptcy Court and District Court Agree: The Proceeds Were Not the Debtor’s Property

 The Bankruptcy Court and District Court agreed with J&R that the Debtor was merely holding the proceeds of the cattle sale as a bailee and did not have a legal or equitable interest in them.  This was especially true because property interests in Bankruptcy are created and defined by State law – not Bankruptcy law. In its evaluation of the case, the 7th circuit does a very thorough analysis of the law on this subject, focusing on the distinction between bailor/bailee relationships and conditional sales in Illinois.  The Court concludes that a bailor/bailee relationship existed here.

Time For A Constructive Trust

While that conclusion could have been the end of the story, in this case it was not. Had the Debtor returned the consigned cattle, there would be no dispute. But here the proceeds were returned to J&R, not the cattle.  The Court concluded that a link had to be found between those cattle and the money returned, or the Debtor would be back in preference territory.

The method used to create that link was the constructive trust – an equitable device in Illinois law that is used when one party has money to which it is not entitled. A constructive trust prevents unjust enrichment of that party. Here, if a constructive trust were construed then the funds in question would never have been part of the Debtor’s Bankruptcy Estate.

Of course a constructive trust actually circumvents the Bankruptcy Code since it prioritizes some creditors over others (which is why it is used so sparingly in Bankruptcy Court). Here however, it was the perfect vehicle because it permitted the Debtors payments to J&R to be characterized as a kind of restitution claim.  The Court noted that in order for a restitution claim to lie, the funds had to be traced to the creditor’s specific interest; which is just what happened here.

But since the funds in this case were comingled, there were insufficient findings at the Trial Court level to support the necessary tracing. As a result the case was remanded for further findings.

The Upshot

The moral of the story here is 2-fold:

First, comingling proceeds or fungible items of personal property is a danger to all parties – Debtors, Creditors, and everyone involved.

Second, even where the parties maintain solid practices, proceeds should be remitted in the ordinary course of business and not permitted to pile up.

Got a thorny issue yourself? Give us a call and find out how we can help you!