Judge Janet S. Baer - Opinions

Judge Janet S. Baer

13 B 43900, 15 A 00140
The chapter 7 trustee (the “Trustee”) filed a six-count adversary complaint against American Express Centurion Bank, Inc. (“American Express”), seeking to avoid and recover from American Express an allegedly preferential or fraudulent transfer made by Katina Callas, the Debtor’s non-filing spouse (“Katina”), to American Express pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 547(b), 548(a)(1), and 550(a).  American Express did not challenge the avoidability of the transfer; rather, it sought summary judgment only on Counts II and V, the recovery claims of the complaint.  Asserting an affirmative defense under § 550(b)(1), American Express contended that the Trustee could not recover the transfer from American Express as an immediate or subsequent transferee of Katina.  The Court concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and that the uncontested facts demonstrated that American Express took the transfer for value, in good faith, and without knowledge of the voidability of the transfer.  Accordingly, the Court found that American Express established a valid affirmative defense to liability under § 550(b)(1).  As such, the Court granted American Express’s motion for partial summary judgment and entered judgment on Counts II and V of the complaint in favor of American Express.

15 B 05304, 15 A 00812
The Plaintiff filed an adversary complaint in the bankruptcy case of the Debtor, seeking a determination that a debt owed to the Plaintiff by the Debtor in connection with her car is not dischargeable and that the Debtor is not entitled to a discharge.  The car in question was impounded by the City of Chicago three times, the third time post-petition.  Experiencing financial difficulties and having no money to either repair and recover the car or get it towed from the impound lot, the Debtor filed an amended chapter 13 plan which provided for surrender of the car to the Plaintiff in full satisfaction of its claim.  The Plaintiff filed an objection to confirmation, arguing that surrender was not possible because the Debtor was not in possession of the car.  While the objection was pending, the title to the car was transferred from the Debtor’s name to a company in Illinois and then, later, two more times to other entities.  Subsequently, the Debtor converted her case to a case under chapter 7.  In its complaint, the Plaintiff argued that the debt is nondischargeable under § 523(a)(6) because the Debtor abandoned the car, knowing that it would be disposed of, and that her lack of action was willful and malicious in that it caused a total loss to the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff argued, similarly, that the Debtor is not entitled to a discharge under § 727(a)(2) because she intended to hinder, delay, and defraud the Plaintiff by “refusing” to retrieve the car from the impound lot.  The Court found that the Plaintiff failed to meet its burden to demonstrate that the Debtor’s actions were either willful or malicious as required by § 523(a)(6).  The Court further found that the Plaintiff did not prove that the Debtor intended to hinder, delay, or defraud the Plaintiff for purposes of § 727(a)(2).  Accordingly, the Court held that the debt at issue is not excepted from discharge under § 523(a)(6) and that the Debtor is entitled to her discharge.

15 B 35358, 15 A 00876
The Debtor filed an adversary complaint against Walsh Construction Company and the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, seeking:  (1) a determination that certain funds deposited with the Clerk pursuant to a judgment order entered by the Circuit Court are property of the bankruptcy estate, and (2) turnover of those funds to the Debtor.  Walsh filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the complaint.  The judgment order awarded Walsh $27,500,000 on its breach of contract claim against the Debtor, awarded the Debtor a total of about $8,300,000 on its breach of contract claim against Walsh and an interpleader claim filed by the Debtor’s subcontractor, and provided that the amounts awarded to the Debtor be set off against the amount awarded to Walsh.  The Court found that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not bar its jurisdiction over the adversary proceeding because the Court did not need to overturn the Circuit Court’s decision to determine the interests of the parties.  As to the substantive issue, the Court found that, based on applicable law and the language in the judgment order, the setoff was accomplished pre-petition, through and at the time of the entry of the order; the setoff therefore effectuated a transfer; the deposited funds were thus not property of the Debtor’s bankruptcy estate; and, as a result, the funds could not be turned over to the Debtor.  Accordingly, the Court held that the Debtor failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and, in fact, could not assert any set of facts establishing its entitlement to the relief it sought.  Therefore, the Court granted Walsh’s motion to dismiss the complaint, and the complaint was dismissed with prejudice.

13 B 38329, 14 A 00034
The Plaintiff filed an adversary complaint in the bankruptcy case of the Debtor, seeking a determination that a state court judgment debt owed to the Plaintiff by the Debtor and his former law firm is not dischargeable pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 523(a)(4) and (a)(6).  That judgment was based on the Debtor’s legal malpractice in connection with the preparation and execution of a will under which the Plaintiff was named as a beneficiary. Specifically, the Debtor falsely signed the name of a second witness on the signature page to the will, failed to get the will re-executed prior to the testator’s death, directed his secretary to notarize the signature page with the false signatures, and subsequently remained silent regarding his wrongful conduct while representing the Plaintiff in state court proceedings.  As to § 523(a)(4), the Court found that the Debtor owed the Plaintiff a fiduciary duty in her capacity both as an intended third-party beneficiary under the will and as the executor of the probate estate.  The Court further found that the Debtor committed both defalcation and fraud while acting as a fiduciary.  As to § 523(a)(6), the Court found that the Debtor knew that injury to the Plaintiff was substantially certain to result from his misconduct and that his actions were wrongful and intentional, caused injury to the Plaintiff, and were done without just cause or excuse.  Accordingly, the Court held that the judgment debt is nondischargeable under both §§ 523(a)(4) and (a)(6).

09 B 30029
Debtors’ financial advisor FBR Capital Markets & Co. (“FBR”) filed an amended application for compensation, which included a request for a restructuring fee and reimbursement of expenses, the majority of which were attorneys’ fees incurred in defense of FBR’s fee request.  Plan transferee Bletchley Hotel at O’Hare LLC (“Bletchley”) filed an objection, asking the Court to:  (1) reconsider its prior decision, which found that FBR was entitled to the restructuring fee, and (2) deny or substantially reduce both the restructuring fee and the requested attorneys’ fees for work performed in defending the original fee application.  As to the restructuring fee, the Court denied the request for reconsideration because Bletchley primarily rehashed arguments already considered and rejected in the prior proceeding and, thus, failed to sustain its burden under Rule 60(b).  The Court further found that, based on the express language of the governing documents, the restructuring fee was subject to review under the improvidence standard of § 328(a) and that the requested amount of the fee would not be reduced because Bletchley failed to identify any developments incapable of being anticipated at the time the order approving FBR’s retention was entered.  As to the reimbursement of expenses, the Court found that FBR is not entitled to the attorneys’ fees incurred for fee-defense work because the reimbursement under the pre-approved engagement letter is subject to review under § 330 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Baker Botts L.L.P. v. ASARCO LLC held that § 330(a)(1) does not allow a bankruptcy court to award attorneys’ fees for work performed in defending a fee application.  Accordingly, the Court awarded FBR a restructuring fee in the requested amount of $2,568,145.89 and reimbursement of expenses not related to the defense of FBR’s fees in the amount of $62,466.60.

In re Sam Callas
April 23, 2015

13 B 43900, 14 A 00719
On the chapter 7 trustee’s motion for authority to turn over certain funds to secured creditor BCL-Capital Funding LLC (“BCL”) as alleged cash collateral proceeds, a creditor (and the Debtor’s former attorney) (“Stern”) objected, arguing that the proceeds were not BCL’s cash collateral and that turnover was, thus, improper.  The trustee contended that he was bound by the terms of a pre-conversion cash collateral order (the “Order”) in which the Debtor and BCL had agreed that certain funds constituted cash collateral.  The Court found that the Order did not, by its terms, foreclose consideration of Stern’s arguments regarding the validity of BCL’s claimed interest in the proceeds because the Order: (1) made no findings regarding whether the funds were cash collateral, and (2) contained broad reservations of rights.  Thus, the Order was found to have no preclusive effect beyond enforcement of the Order itself.  Further, the Court found that, despite an assignment of rents held by BCL, the proceeds were paid to the Debtor before the commencement of the case and while he retained control of the property at issue and that, thus, BCL could assert no interest in the proceeds by virtue of the assignment.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that the proceeds at issue were not BCL’s cash collateral and, accordingly, denied the trustee’s motion.

09 B 30029
Debtors’ financial advisor filed an application for compensation that included a request for a “restructuring fee” based on the percentage of indebtedness involved in any restructuring. Plan transferee objected to the restructuring fee because the restructuring that took place in the case was based on a third party’s plan. Plan transferee argued that the agreement regarding the restructuring fee was unclear and that parol evidence explained that the financial advisor was not entitled to the restructuring fee because the plan confirmed was neither the debtors’ plan nor the result of the financial advisor’s efforts. The District Court (who originally reviewed this matter on appeal after Summary Judgment ) found that the Retention Order, which was modified by the parties after the Engagement Letter was signed and submitted, made the agreement ambiguous and remanded for trial. The Court found the agreement as such was ambiguous and allowed the parties to introduce parol evidence. The Court found, however, that the parol evidence was confusing and unhelpful. It did nothing to clarify the ambiguity in the revised Retention Order regarding the terms under which the financial advisor would be entitled to the restructuring fee. Ultimately, the Court construed the ambiguity against the party responsible for creating the ambiguity - the plan transferee. The Court therefore found that the financial advisor was entitled to the restructuring fee.

12 B 35492, 12 A 01889
Pro se debtor Gabriela Carter commenced an adversary proceeding seeking to discharge her educational loan debt owed to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and Educational Credit Management Corporation pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8).  The issue addressed by the Court was whether the Debtor met the three-pronged Brunner test requiring her to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that paying the loans would cause “undue hardship.”  The Court found that the evidence demonstrated that the Debtor cannot maintain, based on current income and expenses, a minimal standard of living if forced to repay the student loans, thus satisfying the first prong of the test.  The Court also found, however, that the Debtor failed to present evidence of additional, exceptional circumstances indicating that the state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period.  Because the Debtor was not able to satisfy this second prong, the Court found that she did not meet her burden to prove that repayment of the loans would constitute an undue hardship under the statutory exception and held that the student loan debt is nondischargeable under § 523(a)(8).

12 B 30867
In response to a memorandum opinion allowing creditor bank costs of collection in their bankruptcy case, the debtors filed a motion to alter or amend the opinion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) and Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9023, requesting that the Court reduce the amounts awarded. The debtors alleged that the Court erred by basing its opinion on the fact that numerous confirmation hearings and modified plans were required before a plan could be confirmed rather than focusing on the reasons for the delay. The Court found that because the debtors merely rehashed old matters and attempted to advance a version of the evidence that could and should have been presented prior to judgment, they failed to establish the existence of manifest errors of fact or newly discovered evidence required under Rule 59(e). Accordingly, the Court denied the debtors’ motion.

In re Hector and Ana Briseno
September 25, 2013

12 B 02903

Counsel for the Debtors filed an amended fee application in this chapter 13 case, requesting fees of $3,500 pursuant to the firm’s Attorney-Client Agreement for Legal Services. The Debtors objected to the application, alleging that the firm should receive no fees because its attorneys betrayed the Debtors’ trust in the representation, particularly with respect to negotiations in two lien strip adversary proceedings. The issue before the Court was whether the fees requested were reasonable compensation for actual, necessary services rendered pursuant to section 330 of the Code or whether the fees charged exceeded the reasonable value of the services provided pursuant to section 329. The Court found that the time spent by counsel in providing legal services to the Debtors was both appropriate and necessary for the administration of the case and that the rates charged for those services were commensurate with those charged by comparably skill attorneys. The Court also found, however, that a reduction in fees was justified because of the firm’s role in a miscommunication between attorney and client in the negotiation of a settlement in the lien strip adversaries. Accordingly, the Court sustained the Debtors’ objection in part, awarded counsel fees of $3,000, and disallowed the remaining fees of $500.