Electronic filing and the bankruptcy courts: you better know what you’re doing!

Since 2003, the bankruptcy courts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have required cases to be filed over the internet using the court’s own “Case Management / Electronic Case Filing” system. CM/ECF, as its known, was adopted a little earlier in some other states, and a bit later in others. Nowadays, it is in use coast-to-coast by all the bankruptcy courts in the country.

Both court staff and bankruptcy attorneys, and the attorney’s staff people are trained in the basics of how to get a case or a motion filed.

Or so everyone hopes. But a recent case from the Boston bankruptcy court casts a little doubt on that. The case is In re Stallworth and you can read it here.

The debtor had filed a Chapter 13 case a few years earlier, but it didn’t work out. Now she wanted to file a Chapter 7 to get rid of most of her debts. She hired an attorney. So far, so good. But then it went bad.

Although, the debtor’s lawyer was schooled in how to operate the electronic filing system, all that book learning apparently didn’t take too well.

Last September 29th, the lawyer attempted to file Ms. Stallworth’s bankruptcy case through the CM/ECF system. Somehow, she failed to upload various important bits of information, such as the debtor’s social security number and her list of creditors.

This case was eventually dismissed from the court for these mistakes, but that didn’t end that cascade of snafus. First the lawyer attempted to “vacate” her own filing by using the court’s regular e-mail address; no-go said the court staff, who told her to use ECF. When she did that, for some reason, she only filed a blank document.

Rather than correct these problems, the lawyer than filed another Chapter 7 case for Ms. Stallworth. This time the debtor’s name was not spelled right, there was no address provided except the county, and the schedules were all blank.

In response to these filings, the US Trustee filed a motion for the lawyer to forfeit all the fees she had “earned” on these cases. The attorney responded that she had not collected any fees — certainly an example, from the debtor’s point of view of “you get what you pay for.”

By now, hearings were scheduled before the bankruptcy judge on the situation, and the debtor’s attorney really compounded her own problems by telling some strategic little white lies to the judge about how all the filings got so bungled.

Needless to say, Judge Hillman was not very happy at this, and the debtor even less so. After all, she was just looking for a bankruptcy discharge on what was probably a pretty simple case. Now she is branded as a multiple-bankruptcy filer (which hurts her ability to get an automatic stay, the order that protects her from creditor harassment during the case).

In the end, the judge referred the bumbling lawyer to the federal district court for sanctions, suspended her CM/ECF account, and ordered her to take ECF training again. Hopefully it will take this time. Meanwhile, Ms. Stallworth, the debtor, still hasn’t gotten a bankruptcy discharge.

The moral of this tale is just a word to the wise: every person with a law degree is not necessarily a bankruptcy lawyer. Choose your advisors carefully, and while you don’t really need a computer jock, at least be sure your lawyer can operate the basic of the ECF system, so he can actually get your case in court.

Photo: operation of the UNIVAC I computer on CBS-TV in 1952.


By Doug Beaton

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