Tuesday, May 9, 2006
Case Law Development: Effect of Bankruptcy Discharge on State Court Judgements to Enforce Non-Discharged Debts
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was called upon to revisit what it characterized as the “ceaseless litigation” involved following a couple’s divorce in 1993. The case addresses the issue of discharge of debt in bankruptcy but also provides yet another example of how difficult and contentious efforts to enforce obligations under divorce judgments can be.
After their 1993 divorce action, Husband filed bankruptcy and had discharged certain property settlement obligations but was unsuccessful in discharging his alimony debt. Wife then brought several state court contempt actions to enforce the obligations under the divorce proceeding. In one of these actions, she obtained a state court judgment for contempt ordering that Husband pay the discharged property settlement (the court being unaware of the bankruptcy discharge at that point), the alimony arrearages of over $96,000, damages for failure to pay alimony (primarily Wife’s lost equity in property that was foreclosed when she was unable to pay her mortgage), and attorneys fees in enforcing the obligations.
Husband then brought an action in bankruptcy court to reopen the bankruptcy and requested the court to void the state court judgments. The bankruptcy court ruled that Husband's prior bankruptcy discharge caused all of Wife's claims, except for the claim for non-discharged alimony, to be barred by res judicata. The decision was affirmed by the district court.
The court of appeals, rejected the bankruptcy court’s use of res judicata to resolve the dispute and focused instead solely on the questions of focus instead on the requirements of section 524(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Act regarding whether the state court judgments were for debts that had been discharged by the bankruptcy action. Thus, the court pointed out that the state court’s original judgment for non-payment of the property settlement was clearly an attempt to enforce a discharged debt and was void.
As to the judgment for attorney’s fees, the court of appeals noted that reasonable attorneys' fees incurred in collecting support obligations should be treated as support obligations while attorney’s fees related to discharged debts should be considered discharged debt. Wife’s award of attorneys’ fees related to efforts to enforce both discharged and non-discharged debt. The district court had held that, because of this, the entire judgment of attorneys' fees was void under the equitable doctrine of unclean hands. The court of appeals disapproved this use of the unclean hands doctrine, noting that this equitable doctrine may not be used by a federal court to void a state court judgment. Rather, the court held that the state court judgment for fees was void to the extent that those attorneys' fees were incurred in enforcing discharged debt and remanded for a determination of what portion of the attorneys’ fees related to that debt.
As to the damages for foreclosure of Wife’s property, the court noted that because the foreclosure occurred before Husband had filed for bankruptcy, they were “claims” in the bankruptcy and were discharged along with Husband’s other debts. As to losses of other property, the court remanded for a factual determination of how much of that award was for pre-petition and post-petition claims.
In re Egleston, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 11296 (May 5, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited May 8, 2006 bgf)