Monday, July 21, 2008

bankruptcy - exemption - objection - 30-day limit

In re Reilly - 3rd Circuit - July 21, 2008

A Chapter 7 trustee who does not lodge a timely objection to a debtor’s claim of exemption of personal property may not move to sell the property if he later learns that the property value exceeds the amount of the claimed exemption.

Where, as here, the debtor indicates the intent to exempt her entire interest in a given property by claiming an exemption of its full value and the trustee does not object in a timely manner, the debtor is entitled to the property in its entirety.

Debtor is a cook with a one-person catering business. In her Schedule B and Schedule C, she listed "business equipment" as personal property with a value of $10,718 and claimed an exemption for the full value under 11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(6) and 11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(5).

The trustee did not object to the exemption within the 30-day period prescribed by Fed. R. Bank. P. 4003(b). He later sought an appraisal of the business equipment and determined it to have a value of approximately $17,200. He then filed a motion before the Bankruptcy Court to sell the business equipment in order to recoup the value, less the $10,718 exemption, for the bankruptcy estate. The Bankruptcy Court rejected this motion and agreed with the debtor that the property was fully exempt from the bankruptcy estate because the trustee had not filed a timely objection to the claim of exemption.

Under Fed. R. Bankr. P. 4003(b), the trustee, as a party in interest, has 30 days from the close of the creditors’ meeting under § 341(a) (or the date of filing any supplemental schedules or amendment to the exempt-property list, whichever is later) to object to any exemptions a debtor claimed on his or her Schedule C. If no objection is made, “the property claimed as exempt on [the Schedule C] is exempt.” 11 U.S.C. § 522(l).

Recognizing a split of authority of the issue, and relying primarily on Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz, 503 U.S. 638 (1992), the court rejected the trustee's argument that Rule 4003 and § 522(l) only place a 30-day limit on the trustee’s ability to object to an exemption on the ground that it was not properly taken—that there is no statutory basis for claiming the exemption—and does not control objections to property valuation.

The court said that its holding "accords with bankruptcy’s promise of a fresh start. Once the period for objection lapses, all parties involved know what property belongs to the bankruptcy estate and what remains with the debtor. The debtor can then use that property with the knowledge that it is her own and will not be subject to later liquidation for the benefit of creditors. This is not the case where the debtor claims an exemption in an amount less than the value listed on the schedules. In that circumstance, the trustee is entitled to claim for the bankruptcy estate the value of the property in excess of the exemption sought, without the need for a timely objection....But where the debtor lists a value for the property and claims an exemption in the same amount, the trustee is on notice of the debtor’s valuation and has ample time to seek confirmation that the debtor’s claimed value represents the true worth of the asset."

The trustee’s concern that the holding today will encourage gamesmanship among crafty debtors who may seek to undervalue their property with the hope of having it bypass the bankruptcy estate is answer by the fact that "there are significant protections in place for both the trustee and the bankruptcy estate....Moreover, on the facts here, there is no reason to suspect bad behavior on the part of the debtor. Indeed, it is quite to the contrary. If the trusteee discovered bad faith by the debtor, bankruptcy and criminal law allow recourse."