The first rule of bankruptcy ought to be: Do not file for bankruptcy unless you have a clearly defined goal you are trying to accomplish. Maybe the bank is about to foreclose on your house or repossess your car. Bankruptcy may be able to stop (or at least delay) those things. Which leads me to the second rule: Do not file for bankruptcy unless you are confident that it will help you accomplish your goal.
Sarah Katherine Sussman lived on Clark Avenue in Tampa, Florida. She held title to the property as trustee for The Sussman Family Trust Living Trust. The Trust had obtained the property from Sarah’s mother, Teresa M. Gaffney, after her father, John J. Gaffney, died in December 2011. For whatever reason (the opinion does not say), the administrator of John’s estate wanted to undo that series of transfers. The administrator sued Sarah and Teresa in state court and obtained a final judgment on October 16, 2017, ordering that title be returned to John’s estate and that Sarah be evicted. Sarah appealed and moved to stay the judgment pending appeal, but that motion was denied. So, on October 24, she filed a pro se petition for bankruptcy, hoping “to obtain a stay of eviction from [the] property.”
It’s easy to see why she did that. Section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code says that the mere filing of a petition for bankruptcy automatically stays “the commencement or continuation” of any lawsuit against the debtor, the “enforcement, against the debtor or against property of the estate” of an existing judgment, and any act to obtain possession or control of property of the estate, among other things. 11 U.S.C. § 362(a)(1)-(3). It seems like an eviction would be the enforcement of a judgment against the debtor, so filing for bankruptcy should have kept her in the house. Right?
Not necessarily. The stay is broad and it is powerful, but it does not cover absolutely everything that might be related to the debtor or the bankruptcy. One major limitation is that it only applies to legal and equitable interests “of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case.” 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)(1) (emphasis added). The automatic stay does not automatically undo things that happened before the petition was filed. There may be other procedures and remedies available to address those things, but the automatic stay does not automatically un-foreclose your house or un-repossess your car. You must file the petition before the foreclosure or repossession happens. Evictions are a little different. Unlike foreclosures and repossessions, evictions generally require a judicial determination of the right of possession before the eviction can occur. In this case, the state court determined that John’s Estate had the right of possession of the Clark Avenue house before Sarah filed for bankruptcy. Accordingly, the bankruptcy court, the district court, and the Eleventh Circuit all held that the bankruptcy petition would not undo that judgment or stop the eviction.
The Eleventh Circuit said that she filed for bankruptcy specifically to stop or delay the eviction. If so, that was a poor strategic choice, and not just because of the nuances of the distinctions between foreclosures and evictions. The first sentence of the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion tells us that Sarah is “a debtor proceeding pro se.” The “Disussion” section says they can only “discern from [Sarah’s] scattershot appeal, two issues sufficiently developed for appellate review.” The footnote to that sentence explains that several other issues were waived because they were either “not raised below or raised in a cursory fashion without citation to authority.” In other words, there may have been other arguments that would have worked but she didn’t raise them effectively. All of which is why you hire a lawyer: to help you know which arguments to make and how best to make them.