foreclosure mills - duty of attorneys to determine evid. support for pleadings
In re Taylor - 3d Cir. - August 2, 2011
In this Ch. 13 proceeding, the court upheld the bankruptcy court's imposition of sanctions on a creditor's attorney and law firm and the creditor, HSBC, for filing a proof of claim in a Ch. 13 proceeding without adequately determining if the allegations in their filings had "evidentiary support." In that they did not, the court stated "the attorney essentially abdicated her professional judgment to a black box." [emphasis added]
This case is an unfortunate example of the ways in which overreliance on computerized processes in a high-volume practice, as well as a failure on the part of clients and lawyers alike to take responsibility for accurate knowledge of a case, can lead to attorney misconduct before a court.
In the debtors' bankruptcy petition, they listed the bank HSBC, which held the mortgage on their house, as a creditor. In turn, HSBC filed a proof of claim with the bankruptcy court.
HSBC attorneys filed two pleadings in the bankruptcy court—(1) the request for relief from the automatic stay which would have permitted HSBC to pursue foreclosure proceedings despite the Taylors‟ bankruptcy filing and (2) the response to the debtors' objection to HSBC‟s proof of claim.
HSBC retained the Udren Firm to seek relief from the stay. Mr. Udren is the only partner of the Udren Firm; Ms. Doyle, who appeared for the Udren Firm in the case, is a managing attorney at the firm, with twenty-seven years of experience. HSBC does not deign to communicate directly with the firms it employs in its high-volume foreclosure work; rather, it uses a computerized system called NewTrak (provided by a third party, LPS) to assign individual firms discrete assignments and provide the limited data the system deems relevant to each assignment. The firms are selected and the instructions generated without any direct human involvement. The firms so chosen generally do not have the capacity to check the data (such as the amount of mortgage payment or time in arrears) provided to them by NewTrak and are not expected to communicate with other firms that may have done related work on the matter. Although it is technically possible for a firm hired through NewTrak to contact HSBC to discuss the matter on which it has been retained, it is clear from the record that this was discouraged and that some attorneys, including at least one Udren Firm attorney, did not believe it to be permitted. In this case, NewTrak provided the Udren Firm with only the loan number, the debtors' name and address, payment amounts, late fees, and amounts past due. It did not provide any correspondence with the Taylors concerning a dispute about the debtors' liability to HSBC for flood insurance payments and coverage that HSBC procured over the debtors' objection.
The law firm filed requests for admissions (RFAs), to which the debtors did not respond. Even so, the bankruptcy court denied the request to enter the RFAs as evidence, noting that the firm "closed their eyes to the fact that there was evidence that . . . conflicted with the very admissions that they asked me [to deem admitted]. They . . . had that evidence [that the assertions in its motion were not accurate] in [their] possession and [they] went ahead like [they] never saw it." . . . The court noted: Maybe they have somebody there churning out these motions that doesn‟t talk to the people that—you know, you never see the records, do you? Somebody sends it to you that sent it from somebody else. . . . "I really find this motion to be in questionable good faith," the court concluded.
Rule 9011 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the equivalent of Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, requires that parties making representations to the court certify that "the allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support." Fed. R. Bank. P. 9011(b)(3).12 A party must reach this conclusion based on "inquiry reasonable under the circumstances." Fed. R. Bank. P. 9011(b). The concern of Rule 9011 is not the truth or falsity of the representation in itself, but rather whether the party making the representation reasonably believed it at the time to have evidentiary support. In determining whether a party has violated Rule 9011, the court need not find that a party who makes a false representation to the court acted in bad faith. "The imposition of Rule 11 sanctions . . . requires only a showing of objectively unreasonable conduct." [citations omitted] While Rule 9011 "does not recognize a „pure heart and empty head‟ defense,". . . a lawyer need not routinely assume the duplicity or gross incompetence of her client in order to meet the requirements of Rule 9011. It is therefore usually reasonable for a lawyer to rely on information provided by a client, especially where that information is superficially plausible and the client provides its own records which appear to confirm the information.
However, the attorney's behavior was unreasonable, both as a matter of her general practice and in ways specific to this case. First, reasonable reliance on a client's representations assumes a reasonable attempt at eliciting them by the attorney. That is, an attorney must, in her independent professional judgment, make a reasonable effort to determine what facts are likely to be relevant to a particular court filing and to seek those facts from the client. She cannot simply settle for the information her client determines in advance—by means of an automated system, no less—that she should be provided with. Yet that is precisely what happened here.
The attorney;'s reliance on HSBC was particularly problematic because she was not, in fact, relying directly on HSBC. Instead, she relied on a computer system run by a third-party vendor. She did not know where the data provided by NewTrak came from. She had no capacity to check the data against the original documents if any of it seemed implausible. And she effectively could not question the data with HSBC. In her relationship with HSBC, the attorney essentially abdicated her professional judgment to a black box. [emphasis added]
We appreciate that the use of technology can save both litigants and attorneys time and money, and we do not, of course, mean to suggest that the use of databases or even certain automated communications between counsel and client are presumptively unreasonable. However, Rule 11 requires more than a rubber-stamping of the results of an automated process by a person who happens to be a lawyer. Where a lawyer systematically fails to take any responsibility for seeking adequate information from her client, makes representations without any factual basis because they are included in a "form pleading" she has been trained to fill out, and ignores obvious indications that her information may be incorrect, she cannot be said to have made reasonable inquiry. Therefore, we find that the bankruptcy court did not abuse its discretion in imposing sanctions on the creditor's attorney and law firm.
(a) Rules 1023.1 through 1023.4 do not apply to disclosures and discovery requests, responses, objections and discovery motions that are subject to the provisions of general rules.
(b) Every pleading, written motion, and other paper directed to the court shall be signed by at least one attorney of record in the attorney’s individual name, or, if the party is not represented by an attorney, shall be signed by the party. This rule shall not be construed to suspend or modify the provisions of Rule 1024 or Rule 1029(e).
(c) The signature of an attorney or pro se party constitutes a certificate that the signatory has read the pleading, motion, or other paper. By signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating such a document, the attorney or pro se party certifies that, to the best of that person’s knowledge, information and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,
(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation,
(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law,
(3) the factual allegations have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and
(4) the denials of factual allegations are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.
(d) If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that subdivision (c) has been violated, the court may, subject to the conditions stated in Rules 1023.2 through 1023.4, impose an appropriate sanction upon any attorneys, law firms and parties that have violated subdivision (c) or are responsible for the violation.