A creditor might file a motion to avoid violating the automatic stay, or to get permission to take some action other than collect a debt.
In the last three blog posts we’ve covered five reasons why creditors ask for “relief from the automatic stay.” The first one is by far is the most common. Creditors ask for “relief from stay” to take back collateral, or to establish payment and other terms that you must meet to avoid losing the collateral.
The other four reasons were to get permission to finish a lawsuit or other proceeding to determine:
- whether you owe any debt to the creditor
- the amount of that debt, assuming you owe something
- whether you owe a debt which can be paid by insurance (instead of you personally)
- whether the debt you owe can be discharged (written off) in bankruptcy
Today we cover two more reasons that a creditor may ask the bankruptcy court for “relief from stay.” These tend to be precautionary—arguably the creditor or other party could act without bankruptcy court permission. But because of the risks of potentially violating the automatic stay the party first asks for permission.
So, a party could file a motion for relief from stay
- to get a court determination whether the creditor’s intended actions would violate the automatic stay
- to get permission to take some other action against you not involving collecting a monetary obligation
Penalties for Violation of the Automatic Stay
When a creditor or other party learns that you’ve filed a bankruptcy case, it knows that it can no longer take collection action against you to collect any debt. If it does take such action it would likely be in violation of federal law and may have to pay damages.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Code (at Section 362(k)(1)) says that an individual injured by any willful violation of a stay provided by this section shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.
In other words there can be significant financial penalties for taking action against you in violation of the automatic stay.
1. Avoiding Violation of the Automatic Stay
The problem is that sometimes it’s not crystal clear whether a certain action by a creditor would violate the automatic stay or not. Bankruptcy Code Section 362 has 8 subsections detailing the kinds of actions that bankruptcy stays (stops). It has 28 exceptions about the kinds of creditor actions that the automatic stay does not stop. The entire code section contains about 6,500 words—lots of potential for confusion.
So how does a creditor or other adversary of yours avoid the potentially serious penalties for violating the stay? It can file a precautionary motion for relief from stay to put the issue before the bankruptcy court. The creditor/adversary doesn’t act against you until after getting the court’s determination that it is acting legally.
For example, assume that you file a bankruptcy case while you are in the midst of a divorce. Your ex-spouse wants to finish the divorce proceeding regardless of your bankruptcy filing. The Bankruptcy Code says it’s not a violation of the automatic stay to finish a divorce proceeding. However it IS a violation to the extent that “such proceeding seeks to determine the division of property that is property of the estate.” (Section 362(b)(2)(A)(iv).)
So your ex-spouse may file a precautionary motion to find out if the property to be divided is included in “property of the [bankruptcy] estate.” He or she wants to know how to go forward with the divorce without violating the automatic stay.
Note that you can simply not respond to such a motion if you’re fine with the action your adversary proposes. The bankruptcy judge will then likely give the adversary the clarification it needed. If you don’t object ,your adversary will more likely get what it is requesting.
But if you want to object, you respond through your bankruptcy lawyer to the creditor’s motion. The judge then decides whether the creditor’s proposed action would be a violation of the automatic stay. And if it would be a violation, the court usually also decides whether the adversary is still entitled to relief from stay to proceed with his or her action.
2. Permission to Take Action Other Than to Collect a Debt
Similarly, a creditor may ask for relief from stay to take some action separate from collecting its debt. It is essentially asking to take some action other than debt collection, and wants to be sure it can.
When you enter a contract with a creditor, you often have contractual obligations beyond just paying the debt. For example, if you’re behind on rent payments on an apartment when you file bankruptcy, you owe a debt. The landlord cannot pursue you on that debt because of your bankruptcy filing. But it may want to evict you so that it can rent it to another tenant. So the landlord could file a motion for relief from stay to get permission to evict you. That motion would make clear that the landlord is NOT asking for or getting permission to collect the back rent. It’s just asking for permission to proceed with an eviction-only lawsuit. If the landlord succeeded in that motion, the court’s order granting the permission would also be limited to the eviction proceeding, and would not allow collection of the back rent.
(There are special rules about the automatic stay involving residential rentals. So be sure to discuss this with your Kalispell bankruptcy lawyer if it pertains to you. Also, see Section 362(b)(22 and 23) of the Bankruptcy Code and our recent blog posts about this.)