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In re Schaffer

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 23, 2019

In the Matter of: FRANK G. SCHAFFER


          CHAD F. KENNEY, J.

         Every case has a life of its own and every case must be viewed from the point of view of its specific facts before assessment can be made as to where it fits into the spectrum of protections and remedies provided by the law. Most cases fall somewhere within this spectrum requiring a complete development of a record and a painstaking analysis of the record and application of the law. There are a few cases, and this is one, that fall outside the spectrum of protections and remedies because a litigant, here the Debtor, uses those protections not as a protection but as a weapon to avoid, to mask, to delay, to deflect, and to disassemble.

         The Honorable Ashely M. Chan of the United States Bankruptcy Court found, among other things, that the Debtor failed to fully disclose his assets and liabilities in both of his two bankruptcy filings, flagrantly disregarded the Chapter 13 trustee's warning not to spend funds which constituted property of the bankruptcy estate unless the Debtor could repay such funds to his creditors, filed pleadings containing multiple inconsistencies, and lacked the ability to obtain confirmation of a bankruptcy reorganization plan. ECF No. 12-17 at p. 20.

         Accordingly, and as a result of the Debtor's bad faith, the Bankruptcy Court granted relief from the automatic stay to allow: Rashiddudin Mohammadi ("Rashid") to pursue his state law rights against certain proceeds that the Debtor is entitled to receive as an inheritance; Kichkin General Trading, LLC ("Kichkin") to pursue its state law rights to recover certain gems that it owns that are in the possession of the Debtor; and Kichkin and Rashid (collectively, the "Creditors") to resume state court litigation against the Debtor. Id. The order made clear that the automatic stay would otherwise remain in full force and effect as to remaining estate property and that the Creditors were prohibited from executing on any other property of the estate without receiving further leave from the court. Id. at p. 47.

         The Debtor argues on appeal to this Court that the Bankruptcy Court did not have a just basis for granting relief from the automatic stay. ECF No. 11 at p. 12. The Court wholly disagrees.

         I. Standard of Review

         The Court has appellate jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). Where a district court reviews a decision of the bankruptcy court on questions of fact, the court applies a clearly erroneous standard of review. Woodardv. City of Philadelphia, 558 B.R. 711, 716-17 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984)). Under this clearly erroneous standard of review, the bankruptcy court's findings of fact must stand unless "the court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Id. (quoting Brager v. Blum, 49 B.R. 626, 629 (E.D. Pa. 1985)).

         However, "the 'clearly erroneous standard' does not apply to questions of law. Thus, where the appellate question presented is solely one of law, no presumption of correctness applies. The bankruptcy judge's legal conclusions may not be approved without [the district court's] independent determination of the legal questions." Id. (quoting In re Gilchrist Co., 410 F.Supp. 1070, 1074 (E.D. Pa. 1976) (citations omitted)); see also Universal Minerals, Inc. v. C.A. Hughes & Co., 669 F.2d 98, 101-03 (3d Cir. 1981). Therefore, a bankruptcy court's conclusions of law are subject to plenary review. See Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989); Kimmelman v. Port Authority, 344 F.3d 311, 316 (3d Cir. 2003). Here, Debtor's appeal is primarily based on the Bankruptcy Court's conclusions of law and, therefore, his arguments are subject to plenary review.[1]

         II. Background

         State Court Litigation Between the Debtor and Creditors On December 26, 2013, the Debtor entered into a partnership agreement with Kichkin, through its representative Rashid, under which the Debtor agreed to clean, cut, polish, develop, and sell gems supplied by Kichkin. A619-24. The parties agreed to split any net profits from sale of the gems. Id. The agreement stated that the Debtor did not obtain ownership of the gems and they were to be returned to Kichkin upon his request. A619-22. On February 2, 2015, Rashid and the Debtor entered in to a declaration of commitment under which the Debtor promised to sell the gems for the parties' mutual benefit and pay the total amount of money to Rashid personally. A642 (stating that the total cost of both gems was $561, 176.60). Despite that agreement, the Creditors never received any money from the Debtor. A673.[2] On July 25, 2016, the Creditors filed a lawsuit against the Debtor in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas alleging breach of contract, fraud, promissory estoppel, and unjust enrichment. A29-30. On February 21, 2018, after the Debtor failed to respond to the Creditors' motion for partial summary judgment, the state court entered a liability judgment on Kichkin's breach of contract claim, directed that an assessment of damages hearing take place within 30 days of the order, and granted partial summary judgment in favor of Rashid on his breach of contract claim for both liability and damages in the amount of $561, 176.60 exclusive of interest and costs. A353, A487-97. The Debtor did not file an appeal of the judgments. A673. On March 5, 2018, Rashid filed an application for costs on the judgment. A30, ¶ 4.

         The Debtor's Late Mother's Estate

         While the state court action was proceeding, the Debtor's mother passed away. A234-39. At the time of his mother's passing, the Debtor was appointed as executor of the mother's estate. Id. On October 4, 2017, the estate, in an interesting and unique maneuver, paid the Debtor, through his attorney, $50, 000 to induce the Debtor to relinquish his position as the executor of the estate. A238-39; A547-48. The Debtor's attorney was paid $10, 000 for his services and the remaining $40, 000 was paid to the Debtor. Id. On the face of it, this fee seems to be exorbitant but for our immediate purposes here it is irrelevant other than the fee seems significant enough to highlight given that we have two creditors who have received nothing.

         The Debtor's Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Petition

         On March 23, 2018, approximately one month after the state court judgments were entered, the Debtor filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. A626. Subsequently, on April 5, 2018, the Debtor filed his schedules, statement of financial affairs, and Chapter 13 plan, which were full of discrepancies. A674. Notably, the Debtor did not disclose his interest in his mother's estate or that he had received money from his mother's estate. Id. The Debtor also identified the Creditors as secured creditors holding a single joint claim related to the state court judgment, which the Debtor portrayed as only secured to the Debtor's estimated value of the gems, which he asserted was only $5, 000, despite previously having agreed that the gems cost significantly more than that amount. Id[3]

         Furthermore, the Debtor also stated in his statement of financial affairs that his gross income from January 1, 2018, to March 23, 2018, was $7, 500 and that his gross income during each of the past two years was $30, 000 per year. Id. However, the Debtor's March 2018 and April 2018 operating reports reflected total gross income of $21, 388.50 for those two months alone. Id. Despite this sum, the Debtor's operating statements showed losses of $10, 357.30 and $14, 360.49 respectively, which also conflicted with the Debtor's alleged net income. Al 16-17; A675.

         On May 24, 2018, the Section 641 meeting of creditors was held. A629. At that meeting, when asked by the trustee if he had any interest in property due to him from someone who had died, the Debtor disclosed his interest in his mother's estate for the first time, but represented that he did not know whether he would receive any distribution or whether the mother's estate had any funds despite the fact that by this time, the Debtor had already received $50, 000 in exchange for relinquishing his executorship. A235-36; A547-548.

         The following day, the Debtor received a $100, 000 distribution from the estate. A243; A360. Shortly after receipt, the Debtor's counsel emailed the Chapter 13 trustee to advise that the Debtor had received a substantial payment from the estate. A360; A637-38. In response, the Chapter 13 trustee sent a letter to the Debtor's counsel stating that "it is clear under 11 U.S.C. Section 541(a)(5), that any interest in property received by 'bequest, devise, or ...

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