Business Litigation that Continues After You File Bankruptcy

If you shut down your business, and file bankruptcy, that often ends business litigation against you. But not in these three situations.

 

Lawsuits against You that Bankruptcy Ends

Many legal claims against you or your closed or closing business are resolved by the filing of your bankruptcy case. They are resolved either legally or practically, or both.

Claims that are legally resolved by your filing of bankruptcy are those intended to make you pay money. Or, claims to determine how much money you must pay. The discharge (the legal write-off) in bankruptcy of whatever debt you owe will usually result in you not needing to pay anything on the claim under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” There’s not much point to a lawsuit to determine whether you owe money or about how much you owe if any such debt will just get discharged in bankruptcy. That’s true regardless how much the debt amount is, and regardless whether there’s a court-determination of the debt or not.

Claims that are practically resolved by your bankruptcy filing are those that are simply not worth pursuing any further. For example, if you file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case in which the creditors are slated to receive only a few pennies on the dollar, that fact would hugely reduce the benefit of litigation to prove that you owe more money. A simple cost-benefit analysis would show that the very slight possible benefit of further litigation is not worth the addition time or money spent by the creditor.

Lawsuits that Bankruptcy Does NOT End

However, there are certain types of debts that would still need to be resolved by a court. In these situations the creditor would likely get permission from the bankruptcy judge to start a lawsuit or to continue one already started. Here are three types that need court resolution.

1) Determining the Amount of a Debt

If a debt is being discharged in a no-asset Chapter 7 case—one in which all assets of the debtor are “exempt” and protected—then, as indicated above, the amount of that debt makes no practical difference. Whatever the amount of the debt, it is getting discharged without payment of anything towards that debt.

But in an asset Chapter 7 case, in which the bankruptcy trustee is anticipating a pro rata distribution of the proceeds of the sale of assets, the amounts legally owed on all the debts need to be known for that distribution to be fair to all the creditors.  The same holds true in most Chapter 13 cases, in which the creditors are being paid a portion of their debts. That’s because the established amount of any single debt affects the amounts received by all the creditors. So litigation to determine the validity or amount of a debt needs to be completed, even if by a relatively quick settlement (acknowledging the reduced benefit of further litigation because of the reduced stakes at issue for any individual creditor).

2) Possible Insurance Coverage of the Debt

If a claim against a debtor may be covered by insurance, then the affected parties likely want the dispute to be resolved legally.

That’s because a court needs to determine 1) whether the debtor is liable for damages, 2) whether those damages are covered by the insurance, and 3) whether the policy dollar limits are enough to cover all the damages or instead leave the debtor personally liable for a portion. The following types of business litigation tend to involve insurance coverage issues:

  • vehicle accidents involving the business’ employees or owners, especially those with the complication of multiple drivers (and thus, multiple possible insurance coverages)
  • claims on business equipment damaged by fire or flood, or stolen

In these situations the bankruptcy court will likely give permission for the litigation to continue outside of bankruptcy court, while not allowing the creditor to pursue the debtor as to any amount not covered by the insurance policy limits.

3) Nondischargeable Debts

Some of the biggest fights about business-related debts occur when a creditor argues that its debt should not be discharged in the bankruptcy case.  The grounds for objecting to discharge are quite narrow—in general the debtor must have defrauded the creditor, embezzled or stolen from the creditor, or intentionally and maliciously hurt the creditor or its property.

These discharge fights can happen in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 13 in the past did not let creditors raise discharge challenges that were allowed under Chapter 7. That changed with the last major changes to the bankruptcy law (in 2005), which for the first time allowed those challenges to be raised in Chapter 13 as well. Since Chapter 13 is often a better solution for debtors who have closed a business (it’s often a better way to deal with business-related debts like payroll and income taxes, for instance), many of the dischargeability challenges by creditors now happen in Chapter 13 cases.

 

Written by

A graduate of Lewis and Clark Law School by way of Kansas State University, David Richardson is a licensed member of the Oregon and Washington Bar Associations, the US District Court for Oregon and Western Washington, and the District of Oregon and Western Washington Bankruptcy Courts.