In a bankruptcy, I often tell clients they are entering a “fishbowl” in which they have to list and disclose all property. Not doing so can get debtors in plenty of trouble. When what is not listed happens to be a valuable lawsuit, non disclosure can also cost them and the unfortunate attorneys who handle such claims plenty. This is the message from two recent Circuit Court cases, Guay v Burack, 677 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2012), and Love v. Tyson Foods, Inc. 677 F.3d 258 (5th Cir,2012). In both cases, a failure to list pending lawsuits in a timely fashion caused the courts to dismiss those suits, under the doctrine of judicial estoppel. In both cases, the debtors in bankruptcy did disclose the lawsuits, but in both cases, the courts held that “too little, too late” was not enough to save the day.
In Guay v Burack, the debtors initially filed under Chapter 11. While they were in Chapter 11, police executed search warrants and caused alleged damage to their property. Their case was converted to Chapter 7, and 3 days later, Mr. Guay filed a pro-se civil rights suit in federal court. His wife followed with a similar suit. The Guays did not list these claims in their original bankrutpcy filing because the incidents had not occurred. However, they were required to amend to list them, and were later ordered to do so. Instead, they refused, and in fact filed affidavits stating that there was no need to do so as their original papers were accurate. Even though the Chapter 7 trustee learned about the suit and later abandoned the claim as not being of sufficient value, the courts held that judicial estoppel required that their complaints be dismissed, as they had taken inconsistent positions in the bankruptcy and district court, playing “fast and loose” with the system. Interestingly, the suits were not a secret for very long. At the First Meeting of Creditors, the debtors disclosed the existence of the suits to the Chapter 7 trustee, but only after being questioned by counsel appearing for the State of New Hampshire. The Trustee later gave up the claims by filing an abandonment.
In Love v Tyson Foods, Mr. Love filed a federal suit alleging violations of his civil rights and employment discrimination, while he was a debtor in a pending Chapter 13 case. Love did not disclose his claims against Tyson and affirmatively stated “NONE” on Schedule B, item 21, which required the identification of “[o]ther contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature.” On September 22, 2008, the bankruptcy court confirmed Love’s Chapter 13 plan, which did not mention the then-pending EEOC matter and provided that Love’s unsecured creditors would receive no payment. Only after Tyson moved to dismiss the lawsuits did Love file amendments listing these assets. By that time, his Plan had been confirmed. He never moved to amend it to make any money from the lawsuit available for his creditors. The District Court and later the Circuit Court agreed that this was “too little too late”, and that under the circumstances, judicial estoppel should result in the suits being dismissed.
Debtors in bankruptcy have a continuing duty to disclose assets and claims such as these, in the Schedules they file with the bankruptcy court. Disclosure should include assets acquired or claims that arose while a debtor is in Chapter 11 or Chapter 13. Not doing so, these courts emphasize, is playing with fire.
Judicial Estoppel is a doctrine that punishes those who say one thing in one court, and say something materially inconsistent in a later proceeding, in bad faith. Where once a court has accepted the position asserted and acts on that position, a litigant cannot “play fast and loose” by then taking a different position in another court to gain some advantage or with a motive to do so.
Attorneys who handle these types of suits for debtors in bankruptcy have to be careful as well. The risk of judicial estoppel dismissal is only one of the risks or issues presented. Early consultation with experienced bankruptcy counsel is essential.