On January 14, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Chicago vs. Fulton reversed a Seventh Circuit ruling that the City of Chicago violated the automatic stay created by car owners’ bankruptcy filings, when the City refused to immediately return the cars after the bankruptcy filing that had been impounded pre-bankruptcy for parking or traffic violations. Put another way, if a creditor is in possession of assets they seized prior to the bankruptcy filing, they do not necessarily have to return the repossessed property.
This unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court “resolves” a dispute among the federal appellate courts on a very discrete issue under Section 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.
The Third, Tenth, and District of Columbia Circuits had determined that creditors who maintained possession of seized property are NOT violating the automatic stay. Contrary to those Circuits, the Second, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits found that holding on to seized property is a prohibited “act to exercise control over property” of the bankruptcy estate and therefore violative of the stay.
Justice Alito delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court. He wrote that the “most natural reading” of the Bankruptcy Code is that it “prohibits affirmative acts that would disturb the status quo of estate property as of the time when the bankruptcy petition was filed.” He further stated that the act of merely retaining possession of the repossessed property does not violate the automatic stay.
Justice Sotomayor, in her concurring opinion, highlighted the fact that the Justices did not decide whether other sub-sections of Section 362 may still require a creditor to return repossessed debtor property if the creditor is holding it for the purpose of extracting payment. She wrote her concurring opinion to emphasize that despite this ruling, the Court is not deciding whether and when Section 362’s other provisions may require a creditor to return property to the bankruptcy estate or debtor. See 362(a)(4) and (6). She also pointed out that this Opinion did not provide guidance as to how bankruptcy courts should actually enforce the creditor’s separate obligation to deliver property back under other sections of the Bankruptcy Code, including Section 542. Importantly, Justice Sotomayor articulated her social concerns as to how low-income communities are disproportionately burdened in this regard, as well as communities of color. She points out how many debtors who are affected by this problem rely on their cars to go to and from work and that in order to get their car back, they must rely on procedures in bankruptcy court which are extremely slow (proceedings to enforce turnover of property under Section 542) and how it is up to the legislatures to address this issue.
This opinion is a “must read” especially for consumer practitioners who represent not only creditors but debtors concerning the ability to retrieve repossessed property. Importantly, the Supreme Court in this opinion did not rule on whether debtors could achieve their desired results by invoking other provisions of Section 362 or 542, leaving the door open to other possible avenues of recourse.