In Elliott v. Weil (In re Elliott), ___ B.R. ___, 2014 WL 6972472 (9th Cir. BAP 2014), the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit held that Law v. Siegel, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1188 (2014), abrogated Ninth Circuit authority under which a debtor’s exemption could be denied, or under which a debtor could be denied the right to amend his or her exemptions, on the basis of bad faith or prejudice to creditors.
In an effort to conceal his Los Angeles home from judgment lien creditors, Edward Elliott (“Elliott”) transferred his residential real property to a business entity formed by the son of a former associate. The property was later transferred to another corporation formed and controlled by Elliott. Then, in December 2011, Elliott filed a chapter 7 petition. He failed to schedule any interest in the property or the corporation and he omitted certain judgment lien creditors. According to his schedules and testimony at his 341(a) meeting of creditors, he lived in Granada Hills and owned no real property. Relying on the schedules and Elliott’s testimony, the trustee filed a “no asset” report, Elliott was granted a discharge, and the case was closed.
A few weeks later, Elliott’s corporation quitclaimed the residence back to Elliott for no consideration. Elliott advised his judgment lien creditors that he acquired the property postpetition, and demanded that their judicial liens be removed. After an investigation, the judgment lien creditors successfully moved to reopen Elliott’s bankruptcy case.
In June 2013, the trustee filed a complaint for turnover of the property and revocation of Elliott’s discharge. In April 2014, the bankruptcy court granted summary judgment, revoked the discharge, vested title to the property in the trustee, and ordered that the property be turned over to the trustee. Elliott did not appeal the judgment.
While the adversary was pending, and almost one year after the case was reopened, Elliott amended his schedules to disclose an interest in the property and claim a $175,000 homestead exemption therein. The trustee objected to the claimed exemption due to Elliott’s bad faith concealment of the asset. The trustee also argued that Elliott could not claim a homestead exemption because he did not hold title to the property on the petition date. The bankruptcy court sustained the trustee’s objection on the basis that the debtor belatedly claimed the exemption in bad faith, but did not address the trustee’s alternative argument. Elliott appealed. Less than one month after the appeal was filed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Law v. Siegel.
The BAP first concluded that Law v. Siegel abrogated Ninth Circuit authority under which exemptions could be denied if a debtor acted in bad faith or creditors had been prejudiced. See Martinson v. Michael (In re Michael), 163 F.3d 526 (9th Cir. 1998); Arnold v. Gill (In re Arnold), 252 B.R. 778 (9th Cir. BAP 2000). Although the bankruptcy court’s ruling was supported by then-existing Ninth Circuit law, under Law v. Siegel, unless statutory power exists to do so, a bankruptcy court may not deny a debtor’s exemption claim – or bar a debtor from amending his or her exemptions – on the basis of bad faith or prejudice to creditors.
Second, the BAP addressed the trustee’s argument that Elliott could not claim a homestead exemption because he did not own the property on the petition date. The BAP held that for purposes of CCP § 704.730, continuous residency, not continuous ownership, controls the analysis. That exemption applies to any interest in the property so long as the debtor satisfies the continuous residency requirement set forth in CCP § 704.710(c). Because the bankruptcy court’s inquiry was confined to Elliott’s bad faith, the BAP remanded for the bankruptcy court to determine whether Elliott was, in fact, entitled to a homestead exemption under CCP § 704.730. Third, the BAP identified an alternative statutory basis for denying Elliott’s homestead exemption on remand. Section 522(g) provides that a debtor may claim an exemption in previously-transferred property that a trustee recovers under sections 510(c)(2), 542, 543, 550, 551 or 553 if “such transfer was not a voluntary transfer of such property by the debtor” and “the debtor did not conceal such property.” Since the trustee prevailed in her turnover action under section 542, Elliott’s right to claim an exemption is limited by section 522(g), and the BAP suggested that the limitation be considered on remand.
Some bankruptcy courts interpret Law v. Siegel narrowly, limiting its holding to cases in which trustees seek to surcharge exemptions after the objection period has expired. These courts continue to follow Michael and Arnold, sustaining timely filed objections when debtors conceal assets and then amend their schedules to claim exemptions after trustees discover and incur expenses administering those assets. The trustee in Elliott conceded the point in her brief, so the BAP’s decision was rendered without the benefit of a party advocating a contrary position. Before bankruptcy courts, this likely remains an open issue.
These materials were written by John N. Tedford, IV, of Danning, Gill, Diamond & Kollitz, LLP. Editorial contributions were provided by ILC member Doris A. Kaelin, of Gordon & Rees LLP.
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