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In re Lownes

August 5, 2010

IN THE MATTER OF: JOHN LOWNES, DEBTOR.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

BANKRUPTCY APPEAL

MEMORANDUM

Appellant Amrit Lal claims a judgment he obtained for unpaid rent against the Appellee-Debtor John Lownes acts as a lien on Lownes' mobile home. He further claims that this lien should have passed through Lownes's Chapter 7 bankruptcy unaffected and should not have been discharged. Lal appeals two orders of the Bankruptcy Court. For the reasons below, the Court will affirm the orders and dismiss the appeal.

I. BACKGROUND

On July 8, 2009, John Lownes filed a voluntary Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Petition.

Schedule

A of the Petition lists no real property owned by Lownes. Chapter 7 Voluntary Pet., In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. July 8, 2010), ECF No. 1. As for personal property owned by Lownes, he listed a 2005 Skyline Beerchvill Mobile home, valued at $70,000, under the heading "automobiles, trucks, trailers, and other vehicles and accessories." Id. Lownes listed First Corner Stone Bank as a secured creditor and claimed that the bank had a lien on the mobile home in the amount of $68,742.15. Id. Lownes did not list the mobile home as exempt personal property but the security deposit he provided to the lot owner, totaling $450, is listed as exempt. Id. Lal was listed as a creditor holding an unsecured non-priority claim in the form of a judgment for $5,026.35. Id. Lownes also filed a debtor's statement indicating that he complied with the Bankruptcy Code's credit counseling requirement. See 11 U.S.C. § 727(a)(11). It reported that Lownes "received a briefing from a credit counseling agency approved by the United States trustee or bankruptcy administrator that outlined the opportunities for available credit counseling and assisted [him] in performing a related budget analysis, and [he has] a certificate from the agency describing the services provided to me." Chapter 7 Voluntary Pet., In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. July 8, 2010), ECF No. 7.

On July 10, 2009, a Notice of a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Case, Meeting of Creditors, and Deadlines was docketed. § 341(a) Notice, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. July 10, 2010), ECF No. 11. The § 341(a) creditors' meeting was conducted on August 7, 2009. Docket Entry Confirming Meeting, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Aug. 8, 2010). On August 11, 2009, Lownes filed a Debtor Education Financial Management Course certificate. Debtor Educ. Course Certificate, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2009), ECF No. 18. On September 2, 2009, Lal filed objections to Lownes's claimed exemptions. He contended that "considering the number of exemptions claimed by the debtor, the creditor's meeting was held in haste, without sufficient and proper notice of essential information contained in the exemptions to the creditors." Lal's Objection to Debtor's Claim of Exemption ¶ 2, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Sept. 2, 2009), ECF No. 24. Lal argued that his pre-petition judgment docketed in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas was not subject to discharge in bankruptcy. Id. ¶ 7. Lal also called into question Lownes's need to file for bankruptcy and accused him of being "hale and hearty with a respectable gainful employment with all the perks and benefits." Id. ¶ 9. A hearing was set for October 8, 2009 but was continued to November 12, 2009. Lal failed to appear at the hearing and the Bankruptcy Judge therefore dismissed Lal's objections for failure to prosecute. Order Dismissing Objections, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Nov. 12, 2009), ECF No. 30. Lal sought reconsideration of the dismissal, arguing that he was too sick to stand on the day of the hearing and that though he sent a copy of a motion to continue the hearing to the attorneys for the trustee and the debtor, he was unable to find the fax number of the bankruptcy judge. Mot. for Recons., In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Nov. 24, 2009), ECF No. 34. He did however mention his illness and inability to travel to the judge's courtroom deputy. Id. The court set a hearing date of December 17, 2009 for Lal's motion for reconsideration. Lownes was discharged on December 4, 2009. Order Discharging Debtor, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Dec. 4, 2009), ECF No. 37.

The hearing took place on December 17, 2009. The bankruptcy judge expressed skepticism about Lal's illness. Lownes's attorney claimed that Lal held "a landlord judgment... that was reduced to a judgment in the Court of Common Pleas for unpaid rent" and that Lal was mistaken when he asserted that he was a mortgage holder. Tr. of Oral Arg. at 2-4, In re Lownes, Bankr. Pet. No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Dec. 17, 2010), ECF No. 40. The Bankruptcy Judge took the matter under advisement and on January 14, 2010, the Bankruptcy Court denied Lal's motion to reinstate his objections to Debtor's exemptions. Order Den. Objections, In re Lownes, Bankr. Petition No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2010), ECF No. 41. The court reiterated its belief that Lal was less than forthcoming about his illness but also concluded that "it is clear that Mr. Lal has no viable substantive challenge to the Debtor's claim of exemption." Id. Instead, Lal's concern was that he would suffer financial hardship because he would be unable to make his mortgage payments if his judgment against Lownes remained unpaid. Id. On January 28, 2010, the Bankruptcy Court denied Lal's petition to reconsider the Bankruptcy Court's January 14, 2010 Order. Order Den. Recons., In re Lownes, Bankr. Petition No. 09-15014 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Jan. 28, 2010), ECF No. 44. This appeal followed and after some gentle prodding from this Court, the matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

District courts have jurisdiction over appeals from final bankruptcy court orders. 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). A district court reviewing a bankruptcy court's decision has plenary review over the bankruptcy court's legal conclusions. See Am. Flint Glass Workers Union v. Anchor Resolution Corp., 197 F.3d 76, 80 (3d Cir. 1999); Computer Personalities Sys. v. Aspect Computer, 320 B.R. 812, 816 (E.D. Pa. 2005). "Findings of fact... shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the bankruptcy court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." FED. R. BANKR. P. 8013; see also In re Nelson Co., 959 F.2d 1260, 1263 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Brown v. Pa. State Emps. Credit Union, 851 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir.1988)). A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if the reviewing court, upon review of the record, "is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." In re CellNet Data Sys., Inc., 327 F.3d 242, 244 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). Matters left to the discretion of the bankruptcy court judge are reviewed for abuse of that discretion. In re Martin's Aquarium, Inc., 98 F. App'x 911, 913 (3d Cir. 2004). An abuse of discretion exists if the "court's decision rests upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, an errant conclusion of law, or an improper application of law to fact." In re SGL Carbon Corp., 200 F.3d 154, 159 (3d Cir. 1999).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Status of the Mobile Home

Lal claims that the mobile home should be treated as real estate for purposes of Pennsylvania law. According to Lal, if the mobile home is real property, Pennsylvania law grants him a lien on that property in the amount of his judgment and that this lien should ...


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