December 15, 2017

Supreme Court Issues Important Ruling About Chapter 13

Supreme Court of the United StatesOn June 7, 2010, the United States Supreme Court released its decision in the case of Hamilton, Chapter 13 Trustee v. Lanning.   The Supreme Court rarely hears argument in consumer bankruptcy cases so the Lanning decision is big news to consumer bankruptcy lawyers.

The issue in Lanning is one that has troubled bankruptcy lawyers since 2005, when the “means test” was added to the Bankruptcy Code.   The means test functions as a test – do you have the “means” or disposable income to fund a Chapter 13 repayment plan?  If the means test shows that you do not have sufficient disposable income to make a Chapter 13 work, then you qualify for Chapter 7.

As one of the assistant United States trustees once told me – the purpose of the means test is to disqualify as many people as possible from Chapter 7, and to force them into Chapter 13.

In practice, the means test does not work very well in predicting who can make a Chapter 13 work.  One of the biggest complaints has to do with the mechanical nature of means testing.   To run a means test, I have to gather pay stubs from the past 6 months.  I then create a monthly average, which represents available income.  Next I prepare a means test budget, but I do not use actual expense amounts.  Instead, the means test tells me how much my clients are allowed to spend for food, medicine, utilities, etc.  And where do these budget numbers come from?  Means test numbers are based on IRS budgets used in delinquent tax repayment plans.  In other words, the means test budget allocations are not especially generous.

This explanation of the means test is somewhat oversimplified, but you get the main idea – every bankruptcy debtor’s income and expense numbers have to be run through the means test, and not surprisingly this somewhat mechanical test produces some absurd results.

The classic example of absurd results occurs when a debtor has received a Christmas bonus or a one time payment.  That bonus/one time payment has to be included in the monthly income numbers even if it is not guaranteed or likely to happen again.  In other situations a debtor may have earned a comfortable income but has now lost his job – under a strict reading of the means test, he earns too much money to file Chapter 7.  And he can’t afford to file a Chapter 13 because he now has no income.

The Supreme Court has injected some common sense into this situation.  In the Lemming case, which was filed in Topeka, Kansas, the debtor’s 6 month average was skewed by a one time payment arising from a buyout from her former employer.  The debtor filed a Chapter 13 plan that called for a payment that the debtor could afford based on her actual, current income.  The trustee objected on the grounds that the means test dictated a higher number (that the debtor clearly could not afford based on his actual income).

The Topeka bankruptcy judge agreed with the debtor and approved a plan that Ms. Lemming could afford.  The trustee appealed and lost in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The trustee appealed again and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and held that bankruptcy judges need not apply a “mechanical approach” to means testing in Chapter 13 cases.  Instead, judges should “take into account other known or virtually known certain information about the debtor’s future income or expenses.”  Rather than looking backwards, judges can take a forward looking approach and consider the realities of a debtor’s income.   This forward looking approach should be considered in cases with unusual facts and the Lemming decision should not be construed as an invalidation of the means testing formula.

Despite the Supreme Court’s warning that a “forward looking” approach should only be used in limited situations, I suspect that bankruptcy judges will use “Lemming arguments” mitigate some of the harsh results of Chapter 13 in general.   Bankruptcy judges recognize that Chapter 13 cases often do not work because means testing and aggressive trustee arguments force debtors to agree to plans that commit debtors to pay every last dime to the trustee.  Unfortunately, family emergencies and unexpected things happen over the course of a five year bankruptcy plan and many plans will fail – not because the debtor did anything wrong, but because there is no “give” in the plan.

I predict that judges will use the rationale of Lemming to reduce some of the harsh results of the means test and help debtors improve their chances at success in Chapter 13.

If you want to read the Lemming decision, click on the link.  I also found a nice summary of Lemming in attorney Jordan Bublick’s fine South Florida bankruptcy blog.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Ginsberg represents honest, hardworking men and women in the Atlanta area who need personal bankruptcy protection. In practice for over 25 years, Jonathan teaches bankruptcy law and practice at legal continuing education seminars and he is a founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Network. Jonathan lives with his wife and children in Atlanta.

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