File for bankrupcty when you have enough assets to pay your debts, then hide some assets . . . what could go wrong?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Law book (pd)I don't usually post about bankruptcy or criminal law issues, but the facts from a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which involved both bankruptcy and criminal law issues, were too intriguing to ignore. 

In United States v. Free, defendant "made the bizarre decision to file for bankruptcy even though he had more than sufficient assets to pay his debts." Then, "having filed for bankruptcy unnecessarily, [he] hid assets worth hundred of thousands of dollars from the Bankruptcy Court." Not surprisingly, this led to criminal charges being brought against defendant and convictions for multiple counts of bankruptcy fraud. To make things even more odd, despite all of his "prevarications," defendant's creditors were paid in full from the bankruptcy estate. So, to summarize, defendant did not need to file bankruptcy but chose to do so, only to then defraud the Bankruptcy Court by hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assets, but eventually paid "100 cents on the dollar" to his creditors.

The legal issue in the case was how to properly calculate "loss" under the Sentencing Guidelines, which increase a "fraudster's" recommended sentence based on the loss he causes, or intends to cause, his or her victims. The curious part about Free was that the victims, defendant's creditors, were paid in full, therefore they had not suffered any loss in the usual sense of the word.

In Free, plaintiff filed for bankruptcy in his capacity as as the sole proprietor of an electric company he owned. He also owned a company that specialized in the sale of vintage firearms, which would become a central part of his bankruptcy case. Free claimed that he filed for bankruptcy to stay the sheriff's sale of property he was on the verge of losing through foreclosure. When he filed, he identified more than $1 million in assets — property and personal property, including firearms — and almost $700,000 in liabilities.  He originally filed under Chapter 13, but the court converted it to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would liquidate his assets and distribute the proceeds to his creditors.

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For Richer And For (Perhaps Very Shortly) Poorer: Wife Must Testify About Husband’s Allegedly Hidden Assets

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

For husbands, the lesson from a recent Appellate Division opinion is that you cannot assert the marital privilege in an attempt to keep their wives from being deposed by a judgment creditor about assets that you might be trying to conceal from that judgment creditor. In U.S. Electrical Services, Inc. v. Electrical Solutions Group, Inc., plaintiff obtained a judgment for approximately $165,000 against defendants (a corporation and an individual who was alleged to be the sole shareholder of the corporation). In post-judgment proceedings, plaintiff applied for, and obtained, an order of discovery permitting the deposition of the individual defendant's wife based upon plaintiff's assertion that she had knowledge of certain assets that the individual defendant had failed to disclose.

The individual defendant moved to vacate the order, arguing that any testimony from his wife would be subject to the marital privilege — codified at N.J.SA 2A:84A-22 — and that he did not consent to the disclosure of the information. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the individual defendant's wife could be deposed about her "first-hand knowledge and observations of facts and occurrences." The individual defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order. It started with the general proposition that privileges must be narrowly construed. With this in mind, it turned to the specific elements of the marital privilege: (1) a communication; (2) made in confidence; (3) between spouses. The Appellate Division further noted that the purpose of the privilege is to "encourage[] free and uninhibited communication between spouses, and, consequently, [to] protect[] the sanctity and tranquility of marriage." But, because the "only effect" of the privilege is to "suppress[] [] relevant evidence," it must be "confined as narrowly as is consistent with the reasonable protection of marital communications."

In U.S. Electrical Services, the individual defendant argued that any "personal and business financial records" that he "brought into the martial home where [his wife] may have seen them [were] necessarily [ ] confidential communication[s] between spouses." The Appellate Division disagreed for a number of reasons.

First, it held that documents that were stored in the marital home and were observed by a spouse do not a "confidential communication" make. The privilege protects communications, not conduct or occurrences. Thus, a wife's observations of what her husband did, including bringing documents into the marital home, are not covered by the privilege. The court did hold, however, that communications about the documents could potentially be protected under the marital privilege "provided the right proofs" (which were not present in the instant case).

Second, the Appellate Division held that the contents of the documents were not automatically privileged "just because both parties have seen them." In this regard, the court held that many business and financial records are generated by, or submitted to, third parties outside of the marital home. As a result, they may not be confidential at all. Moreover, the Appellate Division observed that, even if documents were initially confidential, "placement in the home where another member of the household or a guest could discover them does not guarantee continued confidentiality." At a minimum, a party seeking to assert the privilege would have to demonstrate that the underlying documents remained confidential while in the marital home.

Third, the Appellate Division held that the act of leaving document in the marital home does not encourage communications between spouses or protect marriages, the very purpose behind the privilege. Absent convincing evidence that applying the privilege would protect and further the interests it was designed to advance, the Appellate Division saw no reason to recognize the privilege.

Ultimately, the take home message from U.S. Electrical Services is that simply bringing documents into the marital home, and even sharing them (or making them visible or available to  your spouse) does not bring the existence or content of those documents within the marital privilege. But, both the trial court and Appellate Division left open the possibility that communications about such documents, in the right situation, might be privileged.

Appellate Division Holds That Buyer Can Sue Seller’s Broker For Failing To Relay Offer To Seller

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In a decision issued earlier this week, the Appellate Division reinstated a lawsuit against a real estate broker who failed to relay an offer from the buyer to its client, the seller. If you are thinking, as I was, "of course the court would do this, why wouldn't you be able to sue" then read on because the facts of the case make the trial court's decision to dismiss the complaint even more unbelievable. (Of course, at this point in the case, all we have are plaintiff’s allegations, which the court had to assume were true for purposes of evaluating the trial court’s decision on the motion to dismiss.)

In D'Agastino v. Gesher LLC, plaintiff wanted to buy a home in Jackson, New Jersey. The home, which had been foreclosed, was owned by the lender and was being offered for sale at $184,900. Plaintiff instructed his broker to contact the seller's broker and make an offer of $150,000. After receiving no response, plaintiff's broker faxed a written offer to the seller's broker, sent a confirming email to the broker, and eventually tried to contact the seller directly to confirm that the offer was received. None of these efforts were successful.

Seller's broker eventually responded and told plaintiff that the seller had lowered its price to $129,000 and suggested that plaintiff lower its bid. Plaintiff's broker said this "sounded fishy" and advised plaintiff not to lower the bid. Plaintiff took his broker's advice.

 

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Today at SCOTUS – [Insert Bad Fish Pun Here]

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) 

 In an interesting case this morning at the US Supreme Court, the Justices will be asked to determine whether a fish is a “tangible object.” No. Really. That is the issue in Yates v. United States.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, makes it a crime to “destroy, mutilate, conceal, or cover up any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. It is unlikely that Congress had fish in mind when it passed the Act, but this is nonetheless the federal law that was used to convict John Yates — captain of the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat out of Cortex, Florida — for throwing 72 red grouper that were allegedly below the legal limit back into the ocean.  

 

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