After Chicago v Fulton: Not Only Cars

Chicago v Fulton automatic stay and turnover cases are not just about cars

After Chicago v Fulton: Not Only Cars

A Survey of Fulton Rulings and a Weakened Automatic Stay

Intro: What is a Fulton ruling?

When Chicago v Fulton (In re Fulton), 141 S Ct. 585 (Sup Ct, 2021) was first decided by the Supreme Court, there was a consensus among bankruptcy attorneys that the erosion of the automatic stay with regard to turnover was only about cars. That is, Fulton was a narrow ruling that was only about impounded vehicles seized prepetition, and wouldn’t really impact or weaken the automatic stay otherwise. Two years on, that turns out not to be the case.

What “Exercise Control” Meant Before Chicago v. Fulton

Prior to Fulton, many courts around the United States held that the filing of a bankruptcy petition compelled a party to return to debtor property taken for the purposes of collections prepetition. This forced return was under the power of the automatic stay of 11 USC 362, specifically section (a)(3). That portion of the statute “stays” or prohibits “any act … to exercise control over property of the estate.” Prior to 2021, it was common for courts to hold that property taken prepetition but held postpetition was “exercising control” of it and in violation of the stay.

Locally here in the Ninth Circuit, an example of a pre-Fulton exercise control case was In re Del Mission Ltd., 98 F.3d 1147 (9th Cir, 1996). There, the appellate court held, “we conclude that the State’s knowing retention of the disputed taxes violated the automatic stay.” Id. at 1152. After Fulton, Del Mission is no longer good law.

A Chicago v Fulton battle over automatic stay and turnover
A Chicago v Fulton battle over automatic stay and turnover

What SCOTUS Ruled in Chicago v. Fulton

Fulton reversed the law of many courts, including here in the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court held that “mere retention of estate property after the filing of a bankruptcy petition does not violate § 362(a)(3) of the Bankruptcy Code.” Id. at 592. It ruled that it to be a stay violation, it would take “affirmative acts that would disturb the status quo of estate property as of the time when the bankruptcy petition was filed.” Merely holding onto something doesn’t do that.

Deep Dive on the Automatic Stay

What is a post-Fulton case or Fulton ruling

The Chicago v Fulton case was about the city of Chicago seizing and impounding vehicles prepetition for motor vehicle infractions and to collect fines, then refusing to turn over the vehicle upon the bankruptcy filing per 362(a)(3). Post-Fulton, courts are now finding that any property, not just a car, seized prepetition can be “merely retained” without finding a violation of the automatic stay. Two years later, this is a quick survey to see how courts are ruling on this issue now.

First Circuit

Milk. In re Vaqueria Las Martas, 638 BR 482 (1st Cir BAP, 2022). Not a typical automatic stay and turnover case, this Chapter 12 involves a loan for a couple of million dollars secured by thousands of gallons of milk. Fulton came into the picture because of the reference in it to filing an adversary proceeding for turnover under Section 542. Interestingly, at page 499, the 1st Circuit BAP found that the Supreme Court in Fulton “decided the issue narrowly,” but it was referring to the turnover process, not the Fulton ruling itself.

Bank accounts – “beyond the status quo” In re Educational Technical College, Case No. 21-02392 (EAG) (Bankr Ct, Puerto Rico, 2022). Here, the bankruptcy court found that the allegations against creditor rise above the level set in Fulton and Stuart (discussed below) when it misled debtor, took contradictory positions, used vexatious litigation tactics, and delayed things unnecessarily.

Second Circuit

No cases found yet.

Third Circuit

Bank accounts. In re Margavitch, Case No. 5:19-05353-MJC (Bankr Ct, MD Penn, 2021). Margavitch was one of the first turnover rulings on the issue to come out after Chicago v. Fulton was decided. It involved a pre-petition attachment lien, and the creditor took no action to withdraw it once the case was filed. The Court held, citing Fulton, that a stay violation requires an affirmative act that disrupts the status quo of estate property on the date the petition was filed. Further, the Margavitch court ruled, “passive maintenance of its valid pre-petition attachment lien in no way changed the status quo and therefore, did not constitute a violation of §362(a)(2).”

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Bank accounts. In re Kipps, Case No. 5:19-01662-MJC, (Bankr Ct, MD Penn, 2022). The same judge who decided Margavitch decides another bank account case, and reaches the same conclusion.

Fourth Circuit

No cases found yet.

Fifth Circuit

No cases found yet.

Sixth Circuit

No cases found yet.

Seventh Circuit

No cases found yet.

Eighth Circuit

No cases found yet.

Ninth Circuit

Bank accounts. Stuart vs City of Scottsdale (in re Stuart), 632 BR 531 (9th Cir BAP, 2021). Here, Bank of America froze three bank accounts of debtor before he filed bankruptcy. Upon filing, the bank refused to release the frozen funds. The Ninth Circuit BAP held, “Where a creditor has executed a prepetition writ of garnishment against a debtor’s bank account, it is under no affirmative obligation to release the funds and need only maintain the status quo.” Id. at 540. “Because the City immediately asked the state court to stay the case and did nothing to change the status quo that existed when Mr. Stuart filed his bankruptcy petition, it did not violate the automatic stay.” Id. at 544.

Entering a Court Order. In re Censo, 638 BR 416 (9th Cir BAP, 2022). The Ninth Circuit BAP goes one step further. In Censo, there was a pre-petition lien, and so this seems to be the normal fact pattern. What’s different here is that there was a summary judgment order regarding the lien that was granted postpetition. The 9th Cir BAP found that the order did not change the status quo: “Shellpoint’s lien existed as of the petition date, and the DC Order simply affirmed the validity of the existing lien. It did not affect KAH’s possession or control of the Property. The DC Order thus did not disturb the status quo and did not violate § 362(a)(3).” Id. at 425. The automatic stay provision of 362(a)(1) bars actions against debtor. In Censo, the BAP’s found the “automatic stay inapplicable to lawsuits initiated by the debtor, and a defendant in an action brought by the debtor may defend itself in that action without violating the automatic stay.” Id. at 424.

Court action taken in defense. In re Lee, Case No. 13-11850-gs (Bankr Ct, Nevada, 2022). Debtors reopened their fourth bankruptcy case, which was previously dismissed, to file lawsuits. In response, the creditor brought a motion, and the bankruptcy court ruled, citing Censo, that the automatic stay doesn’t apply to state court actions commenced by the debtors.

Withholding a passport. In re Bronson, Case No. 20-30704-thp11 (Bankr Ct Oregon, 2022). In this case, there were allegations that creditor withheld debtor’s passport to collect unpaid child support. The bankruptcy court addressed the issue as to whether a stay violation occurred regarding the passport, but found there was not enough factual evidence to make a ruling.

Tenth Circuit

No cases found yet.

Eleventh Circuit

Beyond the status quo: Car seized prepetition but then sold postpetition is a stay violation. In re Rakestraw, Case No. 22-40960-PWB, (Bankr Ct, ND Georgia, 2022). “Although a creditor’s retention of a vehicle repossessed prepetition does not violate the provisions of the automatic stay in 11 U.S.C. § 362(a)(3), the automatic stay in § 362(a)(4) prohibits the enforcement of a lien against property of the estate. Accordingly, the alleged postpetition sale of the Vehicle to enforce the lien violated the automatic stay.”

Summary of turnover cases after Chicago v Fulton

Post-Fulton rulings and jurisprudence are still on the thin side two years later. However, it is clear that the Chicago v Fulton holding applies far beyond motor vehicles. In fact, most rulings citing Fulton had nothing to do with cars and trucks.

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