A creditor may ask the bankruptcy court to let another court finish a lawsuit about liability and/or the amount of damages.
“Relief from the Automatic Stay”
Our last blog post was about the possibility of a creditor asking for “relief from the automatic stay.” The automatic stay refers to the immediate protection you receive from debt collection as soon as you file bankruptcy. (See Section 362 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the “Automatic stay.”)
So, a creditor’s motion for “relief” from that protection refers to a creditor’s request to the bankruptcy court for permission to pursue a debt in spite of your bankruptcy filing. In certain circumstances a creditor may have legal grounds to ask for an exception to the automatic stay protection. (See Section 362(d) of the Bankruptcy Code about “relief from the stay.”)
Last time we focused on the most common situations in which creditors ask for “relief from the automatic stay.” That’s when a creditor wants to pursue the collateral securing the debt. For example, it wants to repossess your vehicle or foreclose on your home because you aren’t current on monthly payments. Once you file bankruptcy creditors can’t take such actions until asking for and getting “relief from stay” from bankruptcy court.
Relief for Creditor for Reasons Other than Pursuing Collateral
However, there are other reasons for creditors to ask for relief from stay. The automatic stay covers more than the protection of collateral from your creditors. It also stops most lawsuits against you to collect a debt. In most cases your bankruptcy filing will permanently stop that lawsuit. But sometimes, under limited circumstances, a creditor which has sued you may ask for bankruptcy court permission to finish that lawsuit.
We cover two of these limited circumstances today (and the rest in our next blog post).
Reasons to Ask for Relief from Stay to Finish a Lawsuit
A creditor might ask to finish a lawsuit in order to determine:
- whether you are at all liable on a debt—liability
- if you are liable on a debt, the amount you owe—the damages
1. Determining Liability Outside of Bankruptcy Court
Someone or some business may think you owe something to it, but you dispute that you do. You don’t think you owe anything. You think you have no liability at all.
If this dispute about liability is already being addressed in a lawsuit when you file your bankruptcy case, sometimes it makes sense to finish determining liability in that lawsuit. Your bankruptcy filing would almost always stop that lawsuit. The creditor would have to get the bankruptcy court’s permission to continue the lawsuit to determine whether you were liable.
For example, you may dispute any liability on a large credit card debt run up by your ex-spouse without your knowledge. If the cred card company sues you to collect the debt, you may be able to establish in that lawsuit that you owe nothing on that debt. The creditor may believe that you are liable and wants to determine that through the lawsuit. It may file a motion for relief from stay to do so in spite of your bankruptcy filing. (It would more likely do so if it could get money out of your bankruptcy case. That could happen in an asset Chapter 7 case or in a Chapter 13 case paying unsecured debts.)
2. Determining the Amount of a Claim
You may instead be in a lawsuit in which you admit that you owe something but dispute the amount owed. The creditor may ask for relief from stay to finish the lawsuit in order to determine the amount you owe.
For example, you were in an accident in which you admit some liability but dispute the amount of damages. You admit that you were at least partially at fault but dispute the damages you caused and their dollar amounts. In this situation the creditor may ask the bankruptcy court for relief from stay to finish the pending lawsuit to determine the amount of damages for which you are liable.
As in the situation above, the creditor would not bother asking for relief from stay if the debt is simply going to get discharged (written off) with nothing paid to it no matter how large the debt. It’s only worth pursuing the matter if the creditor can anticipate getting paid something. Again, this would be much more likely in an asset Chapter 7 case or a Chapter 13 case paying general unsecured debts.
Will the Creditor Get Relief from the Stay?
In both of these situations, the bankruptcy court may or may not grant relief from stay to finish the lawsuit. It mostly depends on which court could more efficiently finish resolving the dispute—the original court or the bankruptcy court. If the liability or damages dispute has come close to being litigated in the original court, the bankruptcy court may just let the first court finish the lawsuit. That’s also more likely if that court has more experience dealing with those kinds of cases than a bankruptcy court. That’s often the situation. But it a lawsuit has just started, and the dispute is one that the bankruptcy court is experienced in handling, it may not give relief to the creditor but instead resolve the liability or damages dispute itself.