By Gary D. Koch, Petrie + Pettit
Evictions are typically matters handled exclusively through the state court system, in whichever county the property is located. Every now and then, though, we have to make a trip to federal court to assist a landlord. This most frequently arises when a tenant files for bankruptcy protection.
Bankruptcy is authorized by the United States Constitution and is codified in Title 11 of the United States Code. There are 15 “chapters” of code, but the most common of those in this context are Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. The bankruptcy protections provided by filing under either chapter are extremely powerful, and can stop an eviction in its tracks.
Chapter 7 bankruptcies are relatively short-lived. The filing of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy creates an automatic stay of any action to collect on a debt, including past-due rent, or to continue any action to recover an interest of the “bankruptcy estate”, which includes the tenant’s right to continued occupancy of the rented premises.
Chapter 7 bankruptcies are typically open for four to six months before the case is closed. If the case results in a “discharge,” most debts which existed at the time of the filing are wiped out. Rent incurred before the case was filed is generally discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Chapter 13 bankruptcies usually run for a much longer duration. These bankruptcies may repay some amount of the existing debt to creditors, but do so over a 3 to 5 year period. The filing of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy also creates an automatic stay against collection or recovery.
There are a few exceptions to the automatic stay. Most relevant to a landlord, is that if a judgment of eviction is entered by the state court before the bankruptcy is filed, the landlord can still execute the writ and remove the tenant from the property. Be aware, however, that there is an exception to this exception, so there are limited circumstances when even a previously granted judgment of eviction is halted by a bankruptcy filing!
In all other circumstances, whether a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 is filed, in order to move forward with an eviction action, including serving a notice terminating the tenancy, the landlord will need permission from the Bankruptcy Court to do so. We obtain this permission by filing a Motion to Lift the Automatic Stay.
For Chapter 7 bankruptcies, the process of obtaining a lift of the stay requires a specific basis to file and may take as long as the life of the bankruptcy itself, so doing so may be an exercise in futility. Once the Chapter 7 discharges, dismisses or closes, the landlord can proceed against the tenant for any debt incurred after the date the Chapter 7 case was filed. Lifting the stay may allow the landlord to begin the process a few weeks earlier than the end of the bankruptcy.
For Chapter 13 bankruptcies, though, given their much longer duration, lifting the automatic stay is a viable option for the landlord. There need to be grounds for the motion, such as failure of the tenant to pay rent after the filing of the bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Court will also likely give the tenant a “second chance” with the first motion, and order that any rental arrears incurred after the date the case was filed be included in the repayment plan, but may also order that any future missed rent payments will result in an immediate lifting of the stay.
Evictions are complicated enough, but when you add in a bankruptcy as well, navigating both the state AND federal courts becomes a minefield. Petrie + Pettit has shepherded may clients through both court systems and stands ready to assist you.