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Morris v. Scott

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

February 8, 2016

DAVID BENJAMIN MORRIS and CANDACE APRIL MORRIS, Appellants,
v.
W. STEPHEN SCOTT, Chapter 7 Trustee, Appellee.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

HON. GLEN E. CONRAD CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

In this appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia, appellants David Benjamin Morris and Candace April Morris (the "Debtors"), Chapter 7 debtors, seek review of the bankruptcy court's order granting a motion for turnover and ordering that the entire amount of the Debtors' 2014 federal and state tax refunds be turned over to appellee W. Stephen Scott (the "Trustee"), a Chapter 7 trustee. For the following reasons, the bankruptcy court's decision will be affirmed.

Background

On January 9, 2015, the Debtors filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. They filed a homestead deed with the Circuit Court for Greene County on February 4, 2015 (the "Original Homestead Deed"). In that deed, the Debtors listed their exempt property, specifically "Projected 2015 Federal Tax Refund" in the amount of $328.42 and "Projected 2015 Virginia Tax Refund" in the amount of $48.17, pursuant to Virginia Code § 34-4. Docket No. 2, at 13. In Schedule C of the Original Homestead Deed, the Debtors listed "Other Liquidated Debts Owing Debtor Including Tax Refund" in the amount of $1.00. Id. at 15.

The meeting of creditors, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 341, took place on February 20, 2015 (the "§ 341 meeting"). Ten days later, on March 2, 2015, the Debtors filed a new homestead deed with the Circuit Court for Greene County (the "Amended Homestead Deed"). In the Amended Homestead Deed, the Debtors listed their exempt property as "2014 Federal Tax Refund" in the amount of $6, 905.63 and "2014 Virginia Tax Refund" in the amount of $1, 240.00. Docket No. 2, at 17. In Schedule C of the Amended Homestead Deed, the Debtors listed the value of "Other Liquidated Debts Owing Debtor Including Tax Refund" as $8, 146.63.

On March 17, 2015, the Trustee filed an objection to the exemptions in the Amended Homestead Deed and a motion for turnover of the Debtor's 2014 federal and tax refunds. On April 8, 2015, the Trustee filed an amended objection to the exemptions and a motion for turnover. The bankruptcy court held a hearing on the motion on April 20, 2015. On April 28, 2015, the bankruptcy court entered an order finding that the Amended Homestead Deed was not timely filed and disallowing the 2014 federal and state tax refund exemptions in the Amended Homestead Deed. Accordingly, the bankruptcy court ordered the Debtors to turn over their 2014 federal and state tax refunds to the Trustee. The Debtors appealed this decision on May 12, 2015. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.[1]

Standard of Review

The court has appellate jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). The district court reviews the bankruptcy court's findings of fact for clear error. Fed.R.Bankr.P. 8013; In re Merry-Go-Round Enterprises. 180 F.3d 149, 154 (4th Cir. 1999). "A finding is 'clearly erroneous' when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985). If "there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous." Id. at 574 (citing United States v. Yellow Cab Co.. 338 U.S. 33, 342 (1949)). The party seeking reversal of the bankruptcy court's factual findings bears the burden of proving that those findings are clearly erroneous. In re Rape, 104 B.R. 741, 747 (W.D. N.C. 1989). On the other hand, a bankruptcy court's conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. In re Harford Sands Inc., 372 F.3d 637, 639 (4th Cir. 2004). If an issue presents a mixed question of law and fact, the court applies the clearly erroneous standard to the facts and de novo review to legal conclusions derived from those facts. Gilbane Bids. Co. v. Fed. Reserve Bank. 80 F.3d 895, 905 (4th Cir. 1996).

Discussion

On appeal, the Debtors raise two arguments. First, the Debtors contend that they properly exempted their 2014 federal and state tax refunds in the Original Homestead Deed. Second, they argue that the Amended Homestead Deed was timely filed. The court will address each of these arguments in turn.

I. Tax Returns Exemption in the Original Homestead Deed

The Debtors first argue that they properly exempted their 2014 federal and state tax refunds in the Original Homestead Deed, and that the bankruptcy court erred in finding that the Original Homestead Deed only exempted their projected 2015 federal and state tax refunds. Virginia law allows a householder to exempt certain personal property, including "debts due him." Va. Code Ann. § 34-4. There is no dispute that tax refunds are debts within the meaning of the statute, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has treated tax refunds as such. Shirkey v. Leake, 715 F.2d 859, 861 (4th Cir. 1983). In order to claim an exemption in personal property, the debtor must designate the property in writing, describe it "with reasonable certainty, " and state its value. Id. § 34-14. "Whether a description is reasonably certain involves a judgment that takes into consideration the purpose of the exemption statutes and the characteristics of the object to be described." Shirkey, 715 F.2d at 862. The writing must also be recorded, usually in the form of a homestead deed, in the county or city where the debtor lives. Va. Code Ann. § 34-14. The debtor must set apart his property no later than the fifth day after the § 341 meeting. Id. § 34-17. The Fourth Circuit has held that "when a debtor has filed a homestead deed in proper form with the right clerk, with fees paid, all prior to the deadline established by § 34-17, the debtor has set apart his property for purposes of §§ 34-14 and 34-17." In re Nguyen. 211 F.3d 105, 112 (4th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). While courts are to interpret statutes creating debtor's exemptions liberally in favor of the debtor, Id. at 110, courts may not "reduce or enlarge the exemption, or read into the exemption laws an exception not found there, " Goldburg v. Salver. 50 S.E.2d 272, 277 (Va. 1948).

On appeal, the Debtors argue that the bankruptcy court failed to interpret the exemption statutes liberally in their favor. They also argue that there was no evidence that they were improperly seeking to insulate their property from their creditors. They note that the Trustee's . only complaint about the Original Homestead Deed was that it contained the wrong year.

Reviewing the bankruptcy court's conclusions of law de novo, the court is constrained to disagree with the Debtors' assertion that the bankruptcy court erred by failing to liberally construe the exemption statutes in their favor. At the hearing on the Trustee's objections, the bankruptcy court noted that the exemption statutes must be construed liberally, but that it also believed that it could not characterize the language in the Original Homestead Deed as something other than what the words specifically state. The bankruptcy court also correctly noted that the purpose of the homestead deed is to provide notice to creditors as to the debtor's claimed exemptions. See In re Heidel. No. 98-2146, 1999 WL 511029, at *4 (4th Cir. Jul. 20, 1999) ("There can be no doubt that, in this case, all of the parties were aware, within the time frame set forth by Virginia Code § 34-17, that [the debtor] intended to claim his retirement benefits as exempt.")- To the extent that the Debtors rely on Sharkey v. Leake for their assertion that the bankruptcy court erred in its legal conclusions, such reliance is misplaced. The Fourth Circuit in Sharkey found that the debtor satisfied the requirements of § 34-14 when the debtor claimed an exemption for his tax refunds in the amount of $800.00. 715 F.2d at 862. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit found that the date of the tax refund was immaterial and that it would not "add this requirement to the statute when the date serves no critical purpose." Id. at 863. Most importantly, the Fourth Circuit noted that "[b]ecause only one year's tax refunds are involved, the date of the refunds is ...


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