Chapter 13 of the United States Code’s eleventh title (“Bankruptcy Code” or “Code”) “permits any individual with regular income to propose and have approved a reasonable plan for debt repayment based on that individual’s exact circumstances,” explaining why a Chapter 13 plan is commonly known as “a wage earner’s plan.” In general, upon winning approval of such a plan by a bankruptcy court, a debtor is obligated to pay any post-petition disposable income in sufficient quantity to guarantee every unsecured creditor at least what would have been received in a bankruptcy proceeding under the Code’s seventh chapter. In exchange, the debtor gains unconstrained control of every asset subsumed into the bankruptcy estate upon the date that he, she, or they filed for bankruptcy relief. Even after the passage of the 2005 bankruptcy reform law, a Chapter 13 discharge still eliminates types of debts not dischargeable via Chapter 7, including civil fines and penalties, divorce decree debts, and welfare repayment obligations.
To be eligible for Chapter 13 and thus for this expanded discharge, however, a debtor must satisfy the eligibility criteria in § 109(e): “Only an individual with regular income that owes . . . noncontingent, liquidated, unsecured debts of less than [$394,725] . . . may be a debtor under chapter 13.” Over the past year, a question that could affect lenders’ ability to collect on outstanding student loans debts—whether a debtor whose student loan debt pushes them above this statutory maximum forfeits their eligibility for relief under Chapter 13—has resulted in inconsistent rulings by several bankruptcy courts.
The latest case—In re Fishel, No. 17-14180-13, 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 965, 2018 WL 1870368 (Bankr. W.D. Wis. Mar. 30, 2018)—is from Madison, Wisconsin.
On December 18, 2017, Victoria Sue Fishel, a consumer debtor with a car loan, tax debt, credit card and charge account debt, and a small amount of medical bills, filed a bankruptcy petition listing some $150,000 in unsecured, nonpriority debt, including about $16,000 in student loans, as well as other student loans of an unknown size. Filed with her petition, Fishel’s repayment plan proposed to devote all disposable income for five years toward payment of her creditors. While the Chapter 13 trustee tabulated only $132,000 of student loan debt, the United States Department of Education (“DOE”) filed a claim for more than $340,000. Noting that Fishel’s debt totaled more than $394,725 using the latter figure, the trustee objected to her plan and consequently filed a motion to dismiss based on § 109(e).
In articulating her decision, Judge Catherine J. Furay made several points. Legally, regardless of the fact that a lack of § 109(e) eligibility, though not identified as a basis for mandatory dismissal in § 1307, had been treated as a valid reason for dismissal by some courts, the decision to convert or to dismiss a Chapter 13 case always remains “a matter of discretion for the bankruptcy court.” “It should be made,” she added, “on a case-by-case basis considering the best interest of creditors and the bankruptcy estate.” Factually, it was “undisputed the Debtor can make the proposed [p]lan payments,” “[t]he only real roadblock to confirmation of Debtor’s [p]lan . . . [being] the alleged amount of her student loans which, in any case, will not be discharged in her bankruptcy.” Lastly, she stressed the policy considerations set forth in In re Pratola, 578 B.R. 414 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2017), that she held weighed in favor of permitting Fishel’s case to proceed.
As Judge Furay herself acknowledged, multiple courts have rejected the approach to student loans and § 109(e) favored by Fishel and Pratola, including In re Petty, No. 18-40258, 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 1231, 2018 WL 1956187 (Bankr. E.D. Tex. Apr. 24, 2018); In re Bailey-Pfeiffer, No. 1-17-13506-bhl, 2018 WL 1896307 (Bankr. W.D. Wis. Mar. 23, 2018); and In re Mendenhall, No. 17-40592-JDP, 2017 Bankr. LEXIS 3600, 2017 WL 4684999 (Bankr. D. Idaho Oct. 17, 2017).
Troutman Sanders LLP will continue to monitor these developments and the intersection of bankruptcy law with student loans.